Globe and Mail

When parents break up

What do you say when your son asks why daddy is moving out? Children are having to cope with divorce at ever earlier ages

The Globe and Mail
Friday, October 1, 1999

Toronto -- Why doesn't daddy want to live with us any more?"

Riley Walker, four years old, insisted on an answer. His parents had just sat him down and broken the news: His father was moving out.

"Daddy loves you very very much," they said. They assured him that he was not to blame. Things were changing, but they were still a family.

Riley sobbed. He would not be consoled. That night, he slept with his mother and cried intermittently.

Canadian children, like Riley, are experiencing the shattering of their parents' marriages at ever earlier ages. By the mid-1990s, one in five children had experienced their parents' separation before they were 5, according to Statistics Canada. As recently as the late 1970s, one in five were buffeted by a separation by the age of 16.

Boys bear the brunt of post-divorce problems, for reasons that have yet to attract in-depth Canadian research. After a separation, they are 40 per cent more likely than girls to suffer emotional or behavioural problems such as aggression or anxiety, according to a study by Tony Haddad for the federal government, based on 1994-95 information the National Longitudinal Study of Children and Youth.

Still, the children of Canadian divorces seem not to be doing as badly as many people had feared. As a group, they are just 13 per cent more likely than the children of intact families to show signs of a disorder, Mr. Haddad found. (He looked only at children aged 2-11, and did not follow them over time.)

Today, 10 months after Riley's parents separated, they are not entirely sure that he understands it all. But they think that Riley, a kind and gentle child, and his sister, Tess, an adaptable little soldier of a two-year-old, will come through it.

Cam Walker and Christine Carson don't have a perfect separation, if such a thing exists, but neither do they have a separation from hell. They occupy the vast middle ground in which the breakup of a family feels like death, but life goes on.

"Emotionally, it is like a death," said Ms. Carson, 42, who lives on a street in the Danforth neighbourhood of downtown Toronto where several families have agreed to let The Globe and Mail track their lives for a year. "I've been extremely angry. I've been extremely upset. I don't want to whitewash that."

But she and Mr. Walker appear to have brought an uncommon level of maturity, restraint and wisdom to the situation.

They are models of co-operation. They have joint custody. He has Riley and Tess on Wednesday and Thursday nights and every other weekend. They share their car: Whoever has the kids gets the Mazda 323. Amazingly, they even have a joint bank account, at least until their separation agreement is completed.

They know that some children are greatly damaged by divorce. The worst harm comes to the children of high-conflict breakups, or about 25 per cent of all divorces, according to U.S. research.

But Mr. Walker and Ms. Carson don't think that will happen to their children. Not if they do things right.

Having money helps. Mr. Walker, who earns a good living as an art director for a multimedia company, is willing to spend his money to ensure the stability of his family.

He now lives in a home converted from stables built 80 years ago for a dairy. Meanwhile, Ms. Carson lives in the cozy two-storey house that once belonged to his great-grandparents and has been in his family since 1918.

His children have the same friends they always had.

Nor has Mr. Walker pushed Ms. Carson to get back into the paid work force. Once she was a computer-aided clothing designer. Then she decided to stay home to raise the children. This month, she began volunteering two days a week at a local art gallery and library.

Mr. Walker, a reserved 38-year-old, says they talked about Ms. Carson's need for time to find her feet in the work force. "I thought it would be fair to help her do that. And at the same time, Tess is 2, so the more parenting the better, until she gets into junior kindergarten."

Ms. Carson, who has a more open, lively manner, says: "He is being very generous."

They do not agree on everything. The children have seen their mother shrieking and distraught. She does not view this as harmful. "Riley would say to me, 'Are you upset because you miss daddy?' I would say, 'Yes, I'm very upset. I do miss daddy.' Riley would get upset and I would say, 'It's okay Riley. It's okay to be sad about daddy.' "

She adds, "I think even children have to deal with reality. They have to realize things aren't always that great and bad things happen to people."

Mr. Walker finds that a bit idealistic. Ms. Carson went through a difficult time for six months or so, which meant an atmosphere of emotional upheaval.

"Some of it was very heavy. Kids don't understand. It's just maybe terrifying to them, and I guess maybe they have to be exposed to things that terrify them to some degree, but we don't let them watch violent TV for a reason."

After Mr. Walker left, Ms. Carson made sure that they could reach him any time by phone. The parents tried to reaffirm that Mr. Walker was still Riley's father. They took him to his father's temporary home with Riley's uncle so he would have a clear picture of his father's whereabouts.

"How he feels about himself has to do with how he perceives his father," Ms. Carson says of Riley, now 5.

Mr. Walker felt himself growing as a father. One night Riley had a high fever; previously, Ms. Carson would have handled it, but he took care of things and felt he had done a good job. "It sort of buoyed me up."

He says, "It's easy to see how the classic divorced-father scenario arises and you're constantly going to the zoo. I don't want to be just a fun guy either: 'Let's go and get ice cream.' I want to have a balance the way I would living there.

"You have to be somewhat the disciplinarian, somewhat the friend -- all the different aspects of being a father. It would be easy for me to just take the kids and do whatever they want. Then I would be their favourite uncle. But I'm a father and I have to take the role seriously."

Although the situation was difficult and traumatic, Ms. Carson says, she did not want it to overwhelm what they had achieved so far with their two children. Both parents tried to continue to be firm and consistent, so that the children would not play one relaxed parent against the other strict one. "The rules hadn't changed. It wasn't like all of a sudden buying him a bunch of new toys and [saying], 'You can watch television all day.' "

Also important was the support of family and friends. Mr. Walker's parents had Ms. Carson and their children to their cottage this summer.

Tess seems to be doing well. "She's rolling with it," Ms. Carson says.

And Riley? There were a lot of tears during the first week. Then for several weeks his emotions seemed to change from moment to moment, Ms. Carson says. "He would be upset and he would turn on a dime and say, 'What's for lunch?' or 'Can Ty come over?' or 'Can I watch The Magic Schoolbus?' "

Both parents feel that Riley is coping well, but they say it is hard to know for sure. "Strangely," Mr. Walker says, "sometimes when I'd be there and Chris would be crying and very upset, the kids would just run around as if it wasn't happening. I don't know whether they're oblivious. I don't think so. I think they just block it out."

Mr. Walker and Ms. Carson went last year to see Riley's kindergarten teacher, Ellen Titus, to tell her about the separation so she could be alert to his feelings.

Ms. Titus said in an interview that nothing in Riley's behaviour suggests that anything happened. "My sense of it is that he's feeling quite secure and stable, and that things in his life are making sense to him."

Still, even months after the separation, he would turn to his father and ask, "When are you coming home?"


The percentage of children, born into a two-parent family, whose parents have separated:

Birth groups By age 6 By age 10 By age 16 By age 20
1961-63 3.9% 9.5% 15.9% 20.3%
1971-73 6.6% 11.9% 20.9%  
1983-84 13.1% 19.4% 23.4%  
1987-88 14.7%      

Source: Statictics Canada

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