Nobody plans on getting divorced. But sometimes life takes an unpredictable turn. When children are involved, divorce becomes painful and complicated, not only for the heartbroken parents but especially for the children. But kids are resilient. They bounce back, right? It depends on who you talk to. Studies abound about how destructive divorce can be on the healthy development of children. One study by Focus on the Family reveals that divorce does, indeed, have a detrimental effect on a number of children, who later become depressed, drop out of school and are more prone to delinquency. However, a study in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry suggests that some children are born with optimistic natures that prevail over any childhood misfortune, even divorce. In the early 1970’s, psychology professor E. Mavis Hetherington pioneered one of the most comprehensive studies ever on the effects of divorce. Her surprising results have turned conventional wisdom on its head. After tracking the lives of 1,400 families and 2,500 children (who were 4 years old at the study’s inception) for nearly 30 years, Heatherington concluded that divorce is simply another transition in family life rather than a life-altering trauma. She writes in her book, For Better Or For Worse, that the negative effects of divorce have been exaggerated and the positive effects ignored. “The reason our current view of marital failure is so unremittingly negative is that it is based on studies that have only examined people for a year or two after divorce…not enough time to distinguish between short- and long-term effects.” Heatherington argues that if parenting after a divorce is supportive and warm, but firm, children will naturally adjust.
A multiethnic study by Cornell University echoes Heatherington’s findings. It reports that being a single parent doesn’t negatively affect a 12- and 13-year-old’s behavior or performance in school. What’s important is a mother’s education and skills. Studies, schmudies. I don’t know about other divorced moms and dads out there, but I’m sick and tired of hearing about how I’ve screwed up my children’s lives by having the courage to bail out of a bad marriage. How about if these same researchers spend some time studying the effects that STAYING in a volatile, loveless marriage “for the sake of the children” will eventually have on our offspring? In my situation, I divorced because I wanted nothing more than for my two daughters to flourish in a happy childhood. The way things were going with the ex-husband, it certainly wouldn’t have turned out that way. And by all accounts, I made the right decision. My teenaged daughter, who, according to a smattering of researchers, should be cutting school, having sex and doing drugs, was just accepted into a local private high school “with distinction”—which means she scored in the top 10 percent on the entrance exam. My youngest daughter plays the piano beautifully and dreams of being a chef one day. Some nights, I even let her practice her budding culinary talent on me. Surely, this divorced mother must be doing something right. And what about all those other divorced, single parents who are raising, or have raised, successful children? Why don’t we hear more about their amazing achievements? Olympic gold medalist and swimming phenomenon Michael Phelps was raised by a devoted single mother. So was Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, as well as Presidents Obama and Clinton. Single parents will also take comfort in the story of 43-year-old Sherry Wilson, Navajo and Maricopa. When Wilson was 18 months old, she was kidnapped by her father, who moved them all over California to dodge the law. At the age of 10, she was reunited with her mother, who raised her on the Navajo Reservation in St. Michaels, Arizona, among a supportive, extended family. Wilson was also mentored by Futures for Children, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to ensure that Native American children graduate from high school. Wilson, who now mentors other native children, received a graduate degree from Mills College and now owns a Turkish/Mediterranean restaurant called Pera in San Francisco. She has a message for everyone who thinks that children of single parents are doomed: “Those are people who have given up on the idea that love heals all.” You can believe all that silly research you read. Or you can look a little deeper and realize that what’s missing in all these studies is an examination of the human spirit. You see, when our children’s happiness and future are at stake, we single parents are capable of doing almost anything. Even of becoming the best parents we can be. Lynn Armitage is a freelance writer and enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.