Sunday, August 31, 2008


If we didn't have the beach, the last place in America where people do not primarily function as ports for their electronic equipment, the publishing industry might be dead. But here, at Coast Guard Beach at the Cape Cod National Seashore, all around me, people are reading. Maybe they're foreigners? No, they're reading books in English--classics, trade paperbacks, hardcovers, nonfiction and mysteries, YA and magazines. The rest of the people stare off at boats slipping along the horizon, or eat sandwiches, or fly kites, or play Kadima, or sleep. Even more varied than their occupations are their bodies. Infinite are the ways in which we sag, bulge, ripple, mottle, swell, discolor, bend. To the gulls who patrol alertly for those sandwiches, stepping among the beach towels, eyes darting this way and that, or glide sideways through the air to stop, unflapping and unblinking, on a current three feet above your head (watch out), we look all the same. We too don't see their infinite variations, in the size and placement of that red spot on the beak, the width of tail feathers, a million other aspects of differentiation that make one gull go, Ooh-la-la! and other say, Wow--weird!

We are in the human world here, nature but a preserved strand along a central corridor of purveyors of fried fish (that's what we think of nature: Good, but better with tartar sauce), t-shirts and boogie boards, "art" work, and, yes, books. (But more ice cream than books, by a ratio of six to one.) Don't get me wrong--I love it. We're having fun. Yet I wish it weren't quite so relentlessly human--Cape Cod as all the proof you need that overpopulation will kill us. And I wish I didn't have to leave Nelly behind, due to vacationland's human bent, though she is having the equivalent of a resort vacation herself with "Aunt" Janet and her beau Willy. She is also very probably eating more ice cream than I am.

But I am filled with longing. For the depopulated beaches of the past. To re-unite these halves of my life. To not always feel such longing.

At least it reminds me that I am alive, and that I have been. I watch my son in the surf--he declares it the best fun he's ever had, to be smashed face-first down onto the pebbles of the seabed--and know he is laying the groundwork for his own future longing.

But, I hope, no other kinds of irredeemable pain. Yet I fear it is so, especially after reading a book I found in the beach house we rented, which was clearly put there expressly for me. To make me feel almost overwhelming despair. (What bad angel wanted that?) It is about the largest study ever done on post-divorce families. And it is called Second Chances, only because it's clear the publisher told the author, "I know--but no one will buy it if we title it It All Sucks!"

The gist of it is, If you care about your children, move heaven and earth to avoid breaking up their world. (We like to repeat common wisdoms, such as "An unhappy marriage is bad for children," but the psychologists found, except in a few extreme cases, that divorce was always worse.) The news does suck hugely for these poor kids: far higher rates of depression, low self-esteem, suicide, delinquency, alcoholism, and lower educational attainment than their parents. (The psychologists could explain almost everything else, but never understood why almost all of the men in the study, no matter how supportive or involved in their children's lives until then, basically stopped giving a shit when their offspring turned eighteen. College became a daunting and debilitating struggle for a great number of the kids, and not one father cared, even the wealthy. My theory--because you knew I had to have one--is biologically, not behaviorally, based: At eighteen, your child becomes your competition. Overall, this study makes naked so much that is obviously biological, no matter how much we try to retroactively dress it in rationalizing costume.)

The news, according to the study, sucks for me too, but I can assure you I really don't care, not in the face of what my child will be going through. I'm also perverse enough that, when told I now belong to a 98 percent group of anything, to do anything to snub that membership and get myself into the 2 percent camp instead. Conventionality is a bore.

Nonetheless, I wept about what I'd learned from this book, until a friend I was sitting with on the beach told me gently it was not something for me to read now; it was maybe something couples contemplating divorce should read, but not much you could do after.

Ah, yes, so. Regrets. I obviously missed the sign they posted over the Bourne Bridge: Intact Families Only Beyond This Point. From every corner I hear, "Now, wait here for Daddy"; "Mommy's gone to get the towels." This was my past, too. Now I am different. But aren't we all? Just look around you here, on this bright beach.


tina in cleveland said...


Take the studies and statistics with giant grains of salt. What matters is who the people are and how they conduct themselves. If that's true in intact families, why isn't it still the salient thing after divorce? And I don't feel this way in order to rationalize my own divorce--I'm still married to my first husband with whom I have two sons. The children of divorce that I've known who are having problems are ones with parents who are obvious nightmares in one way or another. It's the characters and behavior of the adults involved that matters, not their marital status. People write those books to sell them to anxious parents who feel OBLIGED to read them. Read a nice spy novel instead, some John LeCarre, maybe--what with all those Belarussians manning the cash registers on the Cape nowadays! Pitch the divorce book in the ocean.

Urbanist said...

I second Tina. Your friend was right to tell you this is not the book for you now, unless it helps you to navigate the post-divorce world. Did the book tell you how to work on improving the outcome for your child? I say this as someone whose parents divorced ('child of divorce'? I think not): what mattered most to me was that my parents cooperated, were respectful and flexible and even liked each other, which allowed me to feel good about loving them both so that I never felt I had to split my mind/heart/experience in two or hide things or take sides in an adult grudge (as I see happening way too often).

The horror stories usually involve acrimonious relations between parents. Remember: you are the most important models for your child in his future relationships. You might think that means you've doomed him to failure, but think again. Everyone has relationships that don't work out for one reason or another before they find their true love (if they do). How will he handle that? From you he can learn tolerance of differences, dignity, forgiveness, compromise; in other words, strength of character. And the amazing thing is, he can even learn something about the permanence of affection. (There must have been something you liked about each other once, so unless everyone had personality transplants, you have something to build on.) In other words, if you have the personal resources to heal with disappointment, some of those failed relationships can become the most important friendships you will ever have.

Ultimately, from the standpoint of the individual (as opposed to the social scientist), these studies are bean counting. And we are not beans, okay?

Urbanist said...

That should be "... to deal with disappointment..."

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Thank you both for what you've said. It's apparent that I'm a bit sensitive to anything I can read as criticism, eh? Not to mention disaster. I know in my bones that attitude and behavior of parents will have a major effect on the experience for a child, and I'm trying hard. But, I fear, never hard enough: the mistakes I know I've made all along this process make me squirm--and sometimes make me so angry at myself I don't know what to do. I can't take them back, and there's the sense of children being fast-drying clay: make an impress, it stays. No repair possible.

The thing about this book was not just its emphasis on the negative--only one or two out of nearly 200 parents (and these were "normal" people) did it the way Tina's parents apparently did--but the psychologist's finding that serious damage to children's psyches *is endemic* to the situation of divorce, apart from the behavior of parents.

Indeed, it's heartbreaking to read some of the reviews of the book on Amazon: people writing to say, My parents divorced when I was little, and suddenly I understand what's been driving my behavior for 40 years; I cried on every page.


Yet I have resisted the temptation to buy my own copy, and wallow in it. (Yes, I want a gold star. This is hard!) Instead, I am throwing myself into togetherness with my little family--the start of school--plans for a beautiful child's 9th birthday party--and the bittersweet loveliness of fall. And fantasizing about finding a new house and friends, very soon. I won't even tell you about the Moto Guzzi I've been dreaming of getting. Someone, stop me now!!!