Is This Any Way to Run a Divorce?
When Eli and Debbie split up, after 15 years of marriage, they worked really hard to do right by their kids. The result looks a lot different from the stereotypesBy Bob Thompson
Sunday, November 24, 2002; Page W14
"Gabrielle, you up?" he says on his second trip upstairs to her bedroom. It's 6:54. She's not moving. He needs to have her at the bus stop in half an hour.
(Photograph by Lois Raimondo)
Eli is a man who loves routines, and today's has been smooth so far. His alarm went off at 5:03, as it always does on weekday mornings. He showered, ate breakfast and spent a leisurely 30 minutes or so with the paper before leaving his Rockville townhouse at 6:25. Twelve minutes later, he pulled the minivan into the driveway of the two-story colonial where his ex-wife and three daughters live. He got a hug from Alyssa, the 15-year-old, then greeted her mother as the two headed off at 6:45. Tori, the 9-year-old, won't need to be awake for a while.
"Let me see an eyeball," he says.
The 12-year-old is his social child, the one who divided her time last year between two separate groups of friends, but she's sometimes less than excited by the idea of school. She raises a heavy eyelid. He switches on her light and trots downstairs.
Lunch production time.
He makes two turkey sandwiches and lines up the additional elements: barbecue chips, granola bars, apples and Winnie the Pooh fruit snacks. He fills two lunchboxes, stows them in backpacks, then heads to the basement for a jar of Fox's U-Bet Chocolate Syrup, without which Gabrielle won't drink her morning milk. Says "nuts" when he can't find it. Takes the stairs two at a time when he finally does.
"Gabrielle, how you doing?"
The chocolate milk and a bowl of Froot Loops are on the table when she arrives.
It's a little after 7 now, and Tori is downstairs, too; she's gotten up on her own and settled in to watch TV. Over the next hour and 20 minutes, Eli will talk a little football with Gabrielle, drive her to her bus stop, be awarded three sarcastic claps after he executes a U-turn ("You didn't hit the curb this time!"), drive back, toast a waffle for Tori, discuss which instrument she wants to play (she's leaning toward the violin, but wants to try his old clarinet before she decides), load the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher, then hustle his youngest away from "Hey Arnold!" and out the door.
Every day, the routine is much the same. The family calls it Daddy's Morning Thing, and it's written into the separation agreement that Eli and Debra Nadel signed in 1999. The idea, Eli says, was to show Tori, Gabrielle and Alyssa "that even though Mommy and Daddy aren't married, we're still your parents, we're still there for you and we still love you." And indeed, a stranger walking into the middle of a typical Morning Thing might never guess that the girls are part of that at-risk species social commentators like to call "children of divorce."
There'd be nothing to tip him off except the child support check, tucked in among the family photos on the refrigerator door.
'A New Story to Tell About Divorce'
The image most Americans have of divorce is, to put it mildly, different from this.
It's a sharp-edged collage of uncontrolled rage and debilitating pain, vanished fathers and impoverished mothers, and festering psychic wounds that children carry into adulthood. At best, it's a sanity-threatening crisis to be survived in the hope of a better life. At worst, it's a chilling demonstration of how heedlessly selfish grown-ups can be.
"The stereotype of divorcing people is anger and a huge uproar," says Carl Schneider, a veteran divorce mediator based in Bethesda. "It's 'The War of the Roses.' " Schneider and many other professionals in the divorce field argue that this stereotype is a misleading one, reinforced, if not created, by sensationalized media images. The divorcing parents they meet, they say, mostly seek to avoid scorched-earth battles and at least try, despite their hurts and fears, to do the right thing by their children.
But divorce-as-combat is not exactly a figment of the cultural imagination, either. Local mediators, lawyers and academics immersed in the subject offer plenty of real-life horror stories.
There's the mother who encouraged her teenage sons to stalk their father and his lover, producing a violent confrontation. There's the father who fled with his children to Canada, ending up with the Mounties on his trail. There's the mother who dressed her son in girls' clothing every time he was scheduled to visit his dad, seeking to convey what she thought the father's departure was doing to the child. And there's the news photograph that University of Virginia psychologist Robert Emery likes to put up on the screen when he lectures on children and divorce. "Day in Court Leads to Attack on House," the caption reads, and it shows the destruction wrought a few years back by a Virginia man named George Brooks who, ordered to give his wife temporary possession of their modest home, "used a backhoe to knock down the back wall."
"The point isn't tearing down a house," Emery says. "The point is that this is what a lot of parents end up doing to their kids, acting out of this blind rage."
Sounding the alarm about the damage separating parents can do to their offspring has been the life's work of California psychologist Judith Wallerstein. When she began her celebrated 25-year study of children and divorce, in 1971, the American divorce rate had just started to accelerate sharply--rising from 2.6 divorces per 1,000 population in 1967, it would peak at 5.3 divorces per 1,000 population in 1981--and the effects of this revolutionary social change were still unknown.
Wallerstein believes that she has filled the knowledge gap. She claims that The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, the recent bestseller that sums up her findings, "broke through an almost conspiratorial silence about the true nature of our divorce culture and how much growing up in America has changed in recent decades."
The most disturbing change, Wallerstein argues, lies not so much in the immediate turmoil a breakup produces but in the long-term traumas and insecurities of the post-divorce environment. Life in this "separate but parallel universe," as she describes it, condemns children to--among numerous other ills--entering adulthood with crippling doubts about their ability to construct lasting relationships.
Wallerstein's critics argue that her study is heavily biased toward high-conflict divorce. Nevertheless, her pessimistic conclusions have been so widely disseminated that if any "conspiratorial silence" about divorce's hazards ever existed, it has been broken by now. In fact, some correction in the other direction appears necessary.
Earlier this year, U-Va. professor emeritus E. Mavis Hetherington published For Better or for Worse, in which she asserts that nearly three decades of research have given her "a new story to tell about divorce." Never mentioning Wallerstein by name, Hetherington takes direct aim at her work with subject headings like "Myth Two: Children Always Lose Out After a Divorce," noting that the "negative long-term effects have been exaggerated to the point where we now have created a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Hetherington's "new story" is far from a divorce whitewash. She found that a quarter of the kids from divorced families--as opposed to 10 percent from non-divorced families--did have "social, emotional, or psychological problems." But the key question, for her, is: What about the other 75 percent? "Most of the young men and women from my divorced families," she emphasizes, ended up looking "a lot like their contemporaries from non-divorced homes."
Debbie and Eli Nadel had never heard of Mavis Hetherington, but Debbie picked up a copy of Wallerstein's book, which came out not long after they separated. "I bought it out of fear," she says. "I'd heard the statistics of how bad things were, and the outcome . . ."
She didn't finish it. She's a goal-oriented person, and she wanted books more focused on practical advice.
"Everything's a statistic," she says. "You know, you can sort of go, oh my God, what have I done, or you can say, well, how can we be a different statistic?"
'An Incredibly Functional Marriage'
"Do you luvvvvv us?"
The "Fiddler on the Roof" imitation floats into the kitchen from the back yard, where the 15-year-old and the 12-year-old are sharing a hammock. Gabrielle takes the Oscar for loudest vocal and thickest Yiddish accent. The song has been a running joke in the household for days.
Tori darts through the door and hurls herself onto her sisters. "Get her off me! Get off! Get up! Get uuuup! Owwww!" Gabrielle shrieks, before she and Alyssa take up a Motown chorus. "Stop! In the name of love! Before you break our bones!"
"They've got a ticket to de-eath, but they don't care!" Tori shouts in reply. A few minutes later, the three raucous divorce statistics are bounding into the house for dinner.
"Attack of the flying 9-year-old," Alyssa tells her mother by way of explanation for the chaos. Debbie calms them down and gets dinner--a choice of lasagna or salmon--on the table. An efficient organizer who's almost always in motion, she's currently juggling her mother-of-three role with a new job as a regulatory project manager at the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Blood Research and Review, and she says she rarely gets a chance to sit down. Whenever she does, however, one or another of the girls is likely to plop down on her lap, as Gabrielle does after dinner, or lean a head on her shoulder, as Alyssa does a bit later on the family room couch.
She can't imagine life without her girls--which makes it all the more amazing that, if not for a bad blind date and an ice cream run, they might not be here at all.
The phone call came in October 1983. Debbie, who was just about to turn 27, had been working at the George Washington University Hospital transfusion service ever since she'd graduated from GW with a degree in medical technology. A close friend had given Eli her number. "I was one of the last single friends many people had."
Eli, who was three years older, had a programming job at a hospitality industry software company in Rockville, now known as Visual One Systems, where he still works today. A trim man with a neat mustache who can still fit into his high school clothes, he had just indulged his sports-car habit with a new Mazda RX-7 and wanted to take it for a spin. He suggested they drive to Annapolis, but made no other plans.
They had an awkward dinner and headed back to Debbie's apartment in Virginia, by which time she was "counting the minutes till this was over." Problem was, it was still early, and she didn't know how to ask him to leave. So she inquired if he liked ice cream, which he did, and they drove into D.C., to the Bob's Famous on Wisconsin Avenue, where they started to have a better time.
"She was a nice Jewish girl, good sense of humor, pretty, we got along," is how Eli describes the attraction. "I think we were both ready to settle down."
By April 1984, they were engaged.
By December, they were married.
Nineteen months later, Alyssa was on her way.
To watch the home videos Eli and Debbie took of the girls as they grew is to see no hint of any disturbance beneath the surface images of happy family life. Here's 4-year-old Alyssa taking a bow and falling flat on her face, a classically klutzy moment her siblings have never let her forget. Here's 3-year-old Gabrielle at summer camp, rejecting a would-be co-pilot of a tiny plastic car ("I wouldn't let him drive--it was mine, mine, mine!" she explains). Here's baby Tori, red-faced and bawling inconsolably except when her mother blows a little puff of air on her, at which point she reflexively stops crying, sticks out her tongue and sends her camera-wielding father into a fit of hysterical laughter.
"It was, all in all, an incredibly functional marriage," Debbie says, looking back, "and I think we believed ourselves to be happy." Being parents was the thing they did best together, and there was plenty to do. They made it through the usual trials--sleepless nights, diapers, sibling faceoffs--and one unexpected trauma as well. When Alyssa was 6, she developed allergy-related eye problems. Misdiagnosed at first, they became so severe that she could barely see. Until the correct diagnosis was finally made, she would wake up in the morning screaming that she didn't want to go to school; once there, she had to be guided through the day by a devoted friend.
Eli and Debbie shared Alyssa's care, just as they had shared the work of parenting from the beginning. "Eli was more than 50 percent of this marriage, in terms of dealing with the kids," Debbie says, and as a father, "he couldn't have been more wonderful." Yet there were signs of trouble between them that she saw, but didn't know how to read.
Even now, it's hard to describe precisely what was wrong. You could call it a lack of connection, she says, which was a word she used in counseling a few years before the separation, but "what does that mean?" She understood "on a primal level" that there was something missing in her marriage, a kind of emotional understanding and support that she hadn't, at first, even known that she needed. She tried to get the message through to Eli.
But they could never get to the part where change occurred.
"I think when she first brought it up, I had inklings of 'Maybe she's right,' " Eli says. "But I didn't want to admit it. Because I didn't want to be divorced." Since then, he's developed kind of a shorthand for explaining the problem: They never learned how to be best friends. "I can't give Debbie what she's looking for," he says. "She's looking for a connection, a feeling of knowing exactly what the person needs and wants, and I--I don't know if I'll ever have that with anybody. But I don't have it with Debbie."
For years, she wrestled with the idea of leaving. She worried about "the selfishness of it--could I put myself before the girls?"--and after eight or nine months of not very helpful counseling sessions, first on her own and then with Eli, she decided to stick it out. But as the ensuing months went by, she found herself wondering, "Can I do this forever?" And she asked herself what she'd say to a grown-up daughter in a similarly unhappy situation. "I would never want their children to suffer," she says. "But I think people have one shot at life."
If there was a decisive moment, it came in the summer of 1998, when the teenage son of a neighbor unexpectedly died. After the phone call came, Eli says, "I tried to comfort her and hold her, and she didn't want me to." Right then, Debbie says, she finally understood: The emptiness she felt was not going away.
She says she felt "rejected," because he wasn't trying harder. He says he felt "frustrated," because he didn't know how. But neither of them talks about being angry. And whatever their feelings about each other that fall and winter, as they finally decided to separate, they worked together to minimize the impact on their kids.
They quickly came to an understanding on the fundamentals of the arrangement. Debbie and the girls would stay in the house they owned then, which was in the Kemp Mill section of Silver Spring. Eli would get an apartment nearby. Because of Debbie's work schedule--and because Eli is much more of a morning person--he had always been the one to get Alyssa, Gabrielle and Tori off to school, so they decided he would keep doing that while she covered the afternoons. The minivan was getting old, so they planned to buy a new one they could share.
Sometime in early 1999, Eli called a Rockville mediator named Catherine Crockett, who had helped a couple they knew through a divorce. "He said the wife and he were reading books and they were not fighting," Crockett recalls, after consulting the notes she made at the time. "He didn't say they weren't having difficulties, but they weren't fighting."
Their biggest fear when they walked through her door, she says, "was how the kids would react."
'Talk Loud for the Parents in the Back'
Five silent children--two boys and three girls, ranging in age from 10 to 16--file into the guidance room at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia. They arrange themselves in chairs facing an audience of 20 or so soon-to-be divorcing parents. Smiles are scarce as Risa Garon introduces her charges. "We're very honored to have a group of peer counselors, kids who have been through a major family change," she says.
Garon is the longtime executive director of the Children of Separation and Divorce Center, a Columbia-based nonprofit that offers, among other services, seminars like this one to help divorcing parents understand and focus on their children's needs. The kids are here because, as she has explained earlier, there is nothing she or any other grown-up can say that will capture a parent's attention as quickly as "11-year-old Johnny talking about what it's like for him."
Now, urging the five to "talk loud for the parents in the back," she asks how they felt after the split occurred.
Steve, Amy, Cindy, Carol and Paul take turns describing how they heard the news ("I woke up and my mom said, 'Today your world is going to change' "). They say where they got the comfort their parents didn't always provide ("I just remember that my sister hugged me a lot, and that was what I needed"). They talk about being used as messengers by adults who couldn't stay in the same room together; about being so worried about money that they didn't dare ask for ice cream cones; about being furious when a father's only reaction, after watching his son play football, was to ask, "Who's driving you home, me or Mom?"
The parents listen silently. The unmistakable message is: Don't put your kids in the crossfire from your battles, and do stay involved in their lives.
The availability of parenting seminars like this one, Garon believes, is one of the important things that have changed since the American divorce rate started spiraling, more than 30 years ago, when no one knew what to do to help the children involved. Another crucial change was the introduction of divorce mediation, which became an option for parents who didn't want to slug it out in court. Garon doesn't think mediation alone is enough: Parents require additional input from child development experts, she says, to understand the individual situations of their children and how they are likely to change over time. But any intervention that moves parents out of confrontation mode can certainly help.
Indeed, according to a startling study done by Robert Emery, a few hours of mediation can produce lasting changes in children's post-divorce lives.
Emery's office in the unlovely brick building that houses the University of Virginia psychology department contains a huge bulletin board featuring pictures of his five children, four from his second marriage and one from his first. He has been studying the effects of divorce professionally for two decades and is pulling together what he's learned in a book on children and divorce that is scheduled to be published by Viking Penguin next year.
He got his first exposure to the subject while training as a clinical psychologist in the late 1970s. Families would come to see him in the middle of a divorce, he says, "and the kids were having a hard time." When he looked to the psychological literature for guidance, "it was telling me about Oedipal conflict and father absence and all this stuff, and I thought: 'They're missing what I'm seeing in my office.' " Which was that "parents were going to war over the kids, and this was what was causing the psychological difficulties."
If parental conflict was what was causing problems for kids, as Emery hypothesized, and if mediation, then a new phenomenon, was an opportunity to negotiate divorce with less conflict--well, here was "the perfect study to do." By offering to help set up a mediation service, Emery persuaded a Charlottesville court to give him what he needed: a process by which divorcing couples with unresolved custody disputes were randomly assigned to one of two groups. Heads, they'd go through the ordinary courtroom litigation process and be asked to take part in a follow-up study. Tails, they'd get to try mediation first.
He digs out a folder full of colorful bar graphs to show what happened. In the litigation group, 28 percent ended up settling without actually going to court. In the mediation group, the figure was 89 percent. Yet the content of their settlement agreements didn't differ when it came to the number of days each parent was to spend with the kids, or the amount of money that changed hands. The major difference was that the mediation group parents were more likely to choose what's called "joint legal custody" for their children. This meant that, while not necessarily splitting their children's time equally--that arrangement, known as "joint physical custody," is both more cumbersome and less common--they continued to fully share parental rights and responsibilities.
Far more important than this immediate result, however, was the follow-up study Emery did more than a decade later. After 12 years, an average of just six hours of mediation had produced whopping differences in keeping so-called nonresidential parents involved with their kids.
Of the litigation group, only 9 percent of nonresidential parents were seeing their children once a week or more. For those who mediated, the figure was 30 percent. The data on phone calls was even more dramatic: 54 percent of the nonresidential parents in the mediation group were talking to their kids at least once a week, compared with around 14 percent of those in the litigation group. Meanwhile, the residential parents in the mediation group--those with whom the kids primarily lived--rated their former spouses as much more active presences in their children's lives. They were more involved in discussing problems with their kids, in disciplining them, in participating in their religious and moral training, in celebrating holidays, in attending school and church activities, and so on.
"That's a huge payoff," Emery says. "I mean, six hours of what has an effect 12 years later?"
The divorce rate is down a bit from its 1981 peak, Emery notes, and it is no longer true that half of all children born to married parents will experience their parents' divorce. "The best-guess number is more like 43 percent," he says, though this decline may reflect the fact that fewer parents are getting married in the first place. The point is, divorce is here to stay: "We haven't come to the peak of a mountain and gone down the other side. We really are on a high plateau."
This makes it all the more important for divorcing parents to find ways to collaborate. "It's not the same as not being angry," Emery says. "It's incredibly important to recognize and allow yourself to grieve, to go through this cycle of emotions." But the crucial thing, even while furious or grieving, is "to be able to take your child's perspective."
He mentions the work of Judith Wallerstein, who--in his view--may miss the statistical forest for the trees, but nonetheless performs a valuable service by evoking "the fine leaf of details of the points of pain that kids report." He mentions another recent study of his own, done with well-adjusted college students, about the pain they experienced from their parents' divorce. "Resilience isn't the same as invulnerability," he says of what he learned. "Most kids bounce back, but one way I think about it is: The bounce hurts."
More than 70 percent of his subjects, for example, said they would be a different person if their parents hadn't gotten divorced. Almost half said they worried about events like graduations or weddings when both their parents were going to be there. Nearly 30 percent said they wondered if their dads even loved them.
Emery pauses to let that last statistic sink in. "If your dad loves you, that's not an item on any checklist of mental health," he says. "But I mean, as a father of five kids myself, that's the most important item.
"I better pass that one when my kid is 20 years old."
'Does Alyssa Have to Take Down That Picture?'
Eli parks the van, scoops up Debbie's newspaper from the driveway and heads for the front door. He gets a flying hug from Alyssa as he comes in.
Another day, another Morning Thing. He's arrived at 6:36 this time.
He and Debbie talk briefly about a Rosh Hashanah dinner he's hosting for old friends--she and the girls will be there, and she's volunteered to bring the soup. He hustles downstairs to collect some lunch snacks, then upstairs for Gabrielle's first wake-up call.
The main course tonight will be brisket, and by the time his dinner guests arrive, almost 12 hours later, Eli's townhouse is so smoky that he's had to disable the alarm. But the meat is tender and delicious--"It's an old family recipe from Mommy," he explains with a laugh--and the evening is relaxed and filled with familial banter.
At one point, Eli passes around a photograph of himself from 1975. From the look of it, he was deep in his Che Guevara phase. "Ohhhhhh, God," says Debbie, who first encountered this snapshot during their engagement.
"That's my father," Gabrielle says brightly. "Back when he had hair."
Later, Alyssa brings up the time, a decade ago, when she choked on a piece of meat while getting ready for a kindergarten dance performance. "I saved you and sent you off," Debbie says.
"No, Daddy saved me."
"Daddy slapped my back! I remember!"
"I'm sure I was in the background screaming, 'Slap her back!' "
"You were not." Alyssa is quite firm about this.
"Eli? Do you remember saving Alyssa's life?"
"Yes! I do! I was a hero!" he replies, on cue. Though the truth is, no one but his eldest daughter recalls the incident with any clarity at all.
At 15, Alyssa is taller than Debbie now, and she looks closer to 20 than to 12. She's lost the braces that show up in her bat mitzvah photos. She's also lost the feeling that her family situation is unusual, as she explains one afternoon, back in her mother's house, while recounting all the changes she's been through.
"I can't see my life with my dad living here, and doing everything together," she says. "Because this is my life now."
She's talking in her peach-walled bedroom, which Eli painted for her last summer; it's noticeably neater than Gabrielle's and Tori's down the hall. Tacked to her bulletin board is last year's straight-A report card ("I was sort of proud of that"), along with snapshots of friends and family and "a little art award." On her bookcase are more photos, including "my favorite picture of my dad and me" and another, in an oval frame, that shows both parents with her when she was 2 months old. This one takes her back to the day she first learned they were getting divorced.
"I remember Tori saying, 'Does Alyssa have to take down that picture?' " she says.
There are many things Alyssa does not remember about that unhappy Saturday in July, three years ago, and there are things she remembers a bit differently from the way her parents and sisters do. Gabrielle and Tori, for example, don't recall any hint that bad news was coming (Tori barely remembers the day at all), but Alyssa says she saw her parents whispering suspiciously together after dinner. Pretty soon, "Mommy was, like, 'Let's all play a family game.' And then Tori said something about truth or dare, you know that game? So Mommy and Daddy started: 'Truth--who do Mommy and Daddy love more than anyone in the world?' "
By the time they got to "We have something to tell you," Alyssa was running upstairs, screaming and crying. She didn't want to hear what was coming next.
Her parents stayed with her sisters at first, but before long, everyone came up to try to comfort her. Gabrielle told her, though Alyssa doesn't remember this, that "whatever it was, we were going to get through it together." At one point, Alyssa ran into the bathroom because she thought she was going to be sick, and her mother followed her in. After they'd talked a while, Debbie called a close friend, Sara Tenenbaum, from across the street--one of a pair of college-age sisters who'd more or less adopted the family years before--and Sara ran over to sit with Alyssa, outside on the curb, just holding her.
"I don't know if I've ever seen Alyssa cry like that," Sara says. "She couldn't stop sobbing, and her body was just shaking, and it was horrible." Before long Sara's
sister, Cara, was sprinting across the street to be with Gabrielle.
No one remembers exactly how it happened, but gradually things calmed down. Information helped. "I don't think there was any question that didn't have an answer," Alyssa says. The practical stuff was easy: Debbie and the girls were staying where they were, in the only house the girls had ever known. Eli would move out in a couple of weeks. His new apartment would be just a few minutes' walk away. He'd come over in the mornings, every weekday; they'd stay with him every other weekend and see him for dinner one or two nights during the week. When it came time for Alyssa's bat mitzvah, her parents assured her, they would be perfectly comfortable being there together.
The hardest question, of course, was: why? "We don't hate each other, we're just not friends," is how Alyssa remembers the answer coming out. There was more, but she doesn't recall it clearly enough to say.
One more snapshot from the day. This one makes her laugh. It was a summer weekend, so no one had to go to bed right away, and at some point the whole pack of them squeezed together on the couch and ate ice cream straight from the container. "So that was like a real exciting thing."
"It's one of those days I wish I didn't have to think about," Debbie says.
She and Eli had prepared for it for months. They'd completed their separation agreement in March, but didn't want to disrupt the girls' school year, and in the end, they decided to wait until after Gabrielle's birthday, which was July 11. Debbie remembers going on a business trip and "flying out with an armful of books on how to approach telling the children, and the issues." She may have been a bit naive, she thinks--Eli's parents had split up when he was in college, but she had very little experience with divorce--yet "I believed in my heart that Eli and I could do this in a way that the girls would not be destroyed."
The waiting period was harder than she had expected. She found herself impatient with petty things she used to ignore. "All of a sudden, they're strangling," she says, and she thinks her own stress affected Eli. Who says only that it was "a little nerve-racking" as they waited to tell the girls.
Eli finally moved out on August 1. Gabrielle had had a chance to see his apartment before he moved, and she thought it was cool. For one thing, it had cable, which they didn't have at home. The three girls were to share a bedroom, and the first thing their father did was take them out to choose new comforters, which they loved. In their new room, they'd sometimes turn on a black light friends had given them and play "don't drop it" with black-light balls. And while they may have been jammed together--they slept head to toe, with the beds along three walls--that had its advantages as well. "When one of us couldn't fall asleep," says Gabrielle, "the other ones tried to get her to sleep."
Three years later, Alyssa says she doesn't remember that much about getting used to the change. She thinks she cried a couple of times at her father's, early on, and that at first "it was hard to do the dinner thing at Daddy's house." As for the Morning Thing, she was a bigger part of it then, because she didn't yet have to get to school so early--and she liked it just fine.
"The morning just came natural, because there was nothing different," she says.
'There Are More Stories Like This Than You Would Think'
"I couldn't do what they do," Wendy Swallow is saying. "I couldn't!"
Swallow is the author of Breaking Apart: A Memoir of Divorce, and when it comes to shared child-rearing with an ex-husband, as her book makes clear, she has a lot of hard-earned experience. A 48-year-old woman who worked as a Washington Post reporter in the mid-'80s and now teaches journalism at American University, she has plenty of ideas about what makes such parenting arrangements succeed. And having your ex puttering around your kitchen every morning is not a necessary part of the deal.
Yet while the Morning Thing may be exceptional, couples who work hard to meet their children's needs are not. "There are a lot of families going through divorce who do it very quietly and do it very well," Swallow says. "There are more stories like this than you would think."
Why don't we hear them? Swallow once thought of doing a study of where divorce got mentioned in the newspapers. She thinks the context tends to be "99 percent negative." Yet the problem goes beyond media stereotyping. "Divorce is incredibly threatening to society," she says, "and that is why it's hard to talk about 'good' divorces." There's a belief that divorce should be horrible, "or else it shouldn't happen." There's a belief that "people should have to pay for their mistakes."
She is no advocate of casual divorce; she agonized for years before initiating her own, a decade ago. "I'm the good girl," she says. "I don't do things like this." But she is also living proof that, even when a couple starts out with far more conflict than Debbie and Eli had, a divorce built around children's needs is an achievable goal.
To say it's achievable is not to say it's easy, however. Much can go wrong for even the most well-intentioned parents. The most common problem, says U-Va.'s Emery, occurs when "their own powerful and often irrational emotions" end up trumping those good intentions. But even when they don't, "life can get in the way." Parents can get transferred to faraway jobs. New partners, even when supportive, inevitably add complications. As kids get older, it gets harder to find time with them because their own schedules start getting in the way.
Another hurdle, Emery says, is simply the constant, unremitting effort it takes to make coparenting work--and Wendy Swallow's story bears this out.
The first thing Swallow had to do, she says, was give up what she calls her "divorce fantasy," the one where she'd live happily ever after with her two boys, then 3 and 5, and their father would disappear except on weekends. He wasn't buying it. "I want to help with homework and pack their lunches," he told her as the custody fight began. "I don't want to be there for just the fun stuff."
They struggled over this for months. She and "Ron," as she calls her ex-husband in her book, each hired lawyers, though neither really wanted to go to court. Meanwhile, he was reading up on joint physical custody, trying to convince her that sharing the boys could work. The studies were inconclusive about the benefits and drawbacks of equal time, she says, but they all agreed on one thing: The less parents fought, the better off their children would be.
"That registered with both of us," Swallow says. "And we just--moved on."
Moving on meant that, once she realized she couldn't get sole custody without a destructive fight, she and Ron started seeing a pair of mediators. The first task, she says, was simply "learning how to talk to each other." One day the mediators pointed out to them that " 'the minute you start talking about your children, all your animosity and bitterness falls away and you just focus.' And they said, 'Let's build on that.' "
Moving on meant figuring out every way possible "to avoid conflict that the kids could see." The point where the boys went from one house to the other was always dangerous--"we had some bad exchanges, and the children were totally creeped out by that"--so they agreed to save even harmless-seeming negotiations, over schedules and so forth, for another time.
Moving on meant "doing everything you can to help the other parent stay connected." It meant giving the kids ready access to their dad by phone. It meant resisting the urge to bad-mouth, not blurting out every negative that came to mind. It meant getting help and advice when necessary, whether from mediators, psychologists or practical-minded books like Isolina Ricci's Mom's House, Dad's House.
The most important thing, Swallow says--"and I don't know quite how we figured this out"--was that "we started to give each other the benefit of the doubt." This came about, at least in part, because they came to understand that, as parents, they were still better off as a team. They needed each other to serve as backups when kids got sick, to exchange information they gleaned about school problems, to be there together at the hospital when one of the boys broke an arm.
All this may sound easier, in summary, than it really is. "It never gets so easy that it's not uncomfortable, to do the things that I need to do with my ex-husband for my kids' benefit," Swallow says. But "being a grown-up means learning how to control how you present to the world. Especially with your kids."
In other words, you need to prove that you can be resilient before you ask them to be.
Not long ago, Swallow married again. "Remarriage is the other shoe dropping on these kids," she says, "and it's one hell of a shoe." The boys were upset, in no small part because they were worried about their dad. But she had already talked to him and they'd arranged that he would drop by about an hour and a half after she broke the news. He took them for a walk and they calmed down--though the younger boy did keep citing chaos theory in an effort to prove that the grown-ups didn't understand what they were getting into.
Like Debbie and Eli, Swallow had worried about Judith Wallerstein's scary scenarios before she decided to end her marriage. She read Wallerstein's 1989 book, Second Chances, sitting cross-legged on the floor at her local bookstore, afraid to buy it and take it home. Yet "over time," as she puts it in her memoir, "I've managed to make peace with the statistics about children and divorce." Her boys seem fine. She knows she was lucky in many ways, especially because she and their father did not struggle as much financially--though money was certainly tight--as divorcing parents often do.
But she also knows that their effort to remain a parenting team has paid big dividends.
"I've learned that the numbers don't have to be a manifest destiny," she explains. "I can make them not be true if I work at it hard enough."
'This Is My Favorite George Harrison'
And so here is Eli, on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-September, working hard.
He's got the three girls in the minivan and they're heading over to his house for dinner, with the van's radio tuned to the oldies station. Here comes a song from 1965, when he was 12 years old--long before his mother told him, one morning when he was a senior at the University of Maryland, that she was moving out; before he and his father started living on steaks and Hamburger Helper; before he called up a total stranger and asked her to drive to Annapolis; before an ice cream run led to a wedding, and to the births of Alyssa, Gabrielle and Tori, and to good times and bad, and, ultimately, to divorce:
To everything, turn, turn, turn,
There is a season, turn, turn, turn . . .
"Who's this, Daddy?" asks Gabrielle.
"The Byrds," say Alyssa and Eli, almost simultaneously.
And a time to every purpose under heaven . . .
"Daddy, my nails are growing!" Tori says.
"Wow," her father says. "You can polish 'em."
"Beatles!" comes a shout from the back of the van a minute later, as the opening line of "Last Train to Clarksville" rings out. Eli explains that no, actually, it's the Monkees, and he follows this up--like any good father concerned about his children's education--by underlining the difference between the originals and a bunch of made-for-TV clones.
It's one of the things they do together, this informal music appreciation seminar, just as they play poker, gin rummy and the Game of Life. The girls like the oldies Eli favors, though they listen to newer stuff as well. Gabrielle, in particular, has definite musical opinions. She'll ask for an Avril Lavigne song to be turned up, request that the station be changed if she's bored, and bark derisively at the mere mention of Britney Spears.
"I haven't liked her for two years," she snorts.
In those two years, much else has changed as well. In the summer of 2001, concerned that the high school Alyssa was scheduled to attend wouldn't be right for her, Debbie and Eli sold the Kemp Mill house. Debbie, Alyssa, Gabrielle and Tori moved into another school district and Eli bought his new townhouse in order to stay nearby. Debbie took the lead on the school research, as she usually does when she and Eli face parenting choices, and while the final decision was a mutual one, he says, it might not have happened if it had been left to him. He was concerned that the move could "cause problems for the kids."
Sure enough, they were unhappy about leaving their home and their friends behind--so much so, Debbie says, that for a while it seemed to upset them almost as much as the divorce--but they've settled in well by now. She and Eli have negotiated lesser changes, too. Upset when Eli brought the girls back later than expected one Sunday night, Debbie said, "Okay, let's set a time," though she hated doing that. But both parents are flexible when they need to be, and overall, as the initial schedule has been adjusted, Eli has been the one who's picked up extra time: an additional dinner every two weeks during the school year; more over-nights during the summer months.
Meanwhile, much has also remained the same.
You would need a trained eye to tell, as you flipped through Alyssa's bat mitzvah album, that her parents had separated. The five of them still get together for most holidays, and they even drove to Tennessee together, last summer, to see old family friends. The Morning Thing, of course, goes on like clockwork, as it always has.
Eli and Debbie will never know how different their daughters' lives would have been if they had stayed married. There's no way to tell what the girls might confide to an inquiring psychologist when they're 20 years old. Yet it seems unlikely--to say the least--that they will ever wonder if their father loved them.
They do wonder, however, what it will be like when the other shoe drops, and one or both parents come home with someone new.
Tori admits to hoping that Debbie and Eli might get back together instead ("but they're probably not going to," she says). Gabrielle says that their getting married would be "kind of weird," but she wouldn't mind. ("It might be cool to have some new step-siblings.") Alyssa seems less keen on this scenario, but she doesn't let herself imagine her parents reuniting, either. ("If I thought about it, I might think about it too much.") Their father has been going out a bit, but he's told them he doesn't want to blend any families before they're in college. About their mother's dating, in Gabrielle's words, they have "no clue."
Debbie has been looking some, she says. She's in search of a partner who will be a good fit not just for her, but for her daughters, and she believes that she can find one. But she knows that if she does, it will cause more disruption for them--and likely spell the end of Eli's morning routine. "I know very clearly that the success with the girls is very much driven by his presence," she says, eyes moistening a bit at the thought, and she's not yet ready "to diminish that again."
"I hope Debbie finds someone that makes her happy," Eli says. "But I'm hoping it's not--" He laughs, and leaves the words "anytime soon" unspoken.
"I like what I have."
There's no time to worry about this tonight, though. He's got tacos to make, computer glitches to help with, a dance performance--with choreography by Tori and Gabrielle--to applaud. He needs to wash the dishes and conduct a clarinet demonstration, which will end with Tori announcing, "I like that better than violin." He has to maintain his undefeated record in what the girls call "our tackle game," in which he stands in the living room doorway and fends off first Gabrielle, who tries to dive between his legs, and then Alyssa, who lowers her shoulder into him like a fullback. And by 8:30 or so, he's got to hustle them out the door.
They're on their way back to Debbie's now, by a route so well-traveled that Tori can tell him when and where to turn. From the radio comes another familiar burst of lead guitar. "This is it!" he says. "This is my favorite George Harrison!"
"You can turn it up as loud as you want, Daddy," Gabrielle tells him.
He does, and Harrison begins to sing:
What I feel,
I can't say
But my love is there for you any time of day.
Eli sings along as he waits at a stoplight, pounding out the rhythm on the steering wheel. In the back seats, the three girls are quiet.
And tell me, what is my life
Without your love?
And tell me, who-oo am I
By my side?
He keeps the volume high until the song is over. Then he steers his daughters safely down the back roads to their mother's house, steps inside to tuck the younger ones into bed, says good night, drives home, sets his alarm for 5:03--and gets up to do it all over again.
Bob Thompson is a Magazine staff writer. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.
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