It's odd what children presume to be normal. The dad who for years spends nights on the living room floor in a sleeping bag. The mother who regularly disappears into the back of a dark closet to cry.
For children whose parents are headed to divorce court, what once appeared ordinary can be suddenly exposed as evidence of serious trouble--trouble that the children, upon reflection, wish they had noticed before.
In "Voices of Children of Divorce" (Golden Books, 1999), author David Royko gives the youngest victims of marital angst a forum to describe what for many is the most disturbing experience of their lives. Because the author steps back and lets the children do the talking, this anecdotal collection has a poignancy and innocence rarely found in the crowded library of divorce advice books.
Carie, 15: "I didn't know it was coming. When they told us, I ran upstairs to see if it wasn't just a dream and I was still asleep."
As a clinical psychologist and divorce mediator in the largest court system in the nation--Chicago's Cook County Circuit Court--Royko has interviewed more than 1,000 children over the last decade. Ranging in age from 4 to 18, the children have been pulled into the often bitter marital court disputes by parents who are so busy fighting each other that they forget the impact on their kids.
Jewel, 18: "Once I woke up in the night [and heard] my dad say to my mom, 'I have not loved you in 20 years.' I was 12, and so I was just like, 'So my dad didn't love my mom when I was created.' That alone repeats over and over in my head every time I see him. Every time I see him."
Royko's primer on how parents can minimize their children's pain is a welcome addition to the body of how-to-get-through-a-divorce literature. As in the case of any major loss, children of divorce must be allowed to grieve in stages, just as survivors do after the death of a loved one.
One of the book's most jolting reminders of the pain children suffer came from Natalie, now 19, who told Royko that she sometimes wished her father had died instead of getting a divorce.
"[Then] people would have sympathy for us. People would have understood," she said.
But the fantasy of an ending with all the family reunited and living in harmony under one roof is one that also repeats throughout the book.
"While not all children wish their parents were still married, it is a common fantasy, especially at the time of the divorce," Royko says, "and parents should be prepared to deal with it."
Parents should also be aware that their children may feel responsible for the breakup. But Royko says parents can minimize such self-blame by avoiding fights or even quiet disagreements about anything having to do with the child when the child is around.
"Hearing his parents argue about him is one of the surest ways to get a child's mind to generalize that all the trouble is because of him," Royko says.
Fred, 9: "I think they would have gotten a divorce even if I hadn't bitten his finger that one time. But I still feel sometimes that the divorce is my fault."