On a tour of my daughter’s preschool, during the question-and-answer period, one of the fathers raises his hand. He noticed a basket of pale-yellow biscuits being passed around to the fours during snack time. “What was in those cookies? Are they organic? Do they have sugar? And are the children just, um, allowed to eat as many as they want?” The headmistress of the school looks amused. No, they are not organic. Yes, they are allowed to take as many as they want. She smiles benevolently at this father. She is used to our generation’s interest in controlling our children’s lives. I remember the parties my parents threw in Nantucket, the grown-ups eating and drinking wine in the house, sometimes spilling out into the garden to smoke, the children running around outside, in bathing suits and sweatshirts, hunting frogs, picking the petals off the yellow roses to make beds for the frogs, and no one worrying about exactly when we went to bed or what we were eating. Was that environment a little more forgiving of the alternative, of the house, the family that didn’t look quite the same? I imagine it was.
We seem to be laboring under the illusion that we can make our children’s lives perfect. And those of us who have divorced have rather spectacularly failed to create that perfect environment.
In any event, the largely unspoken taboo against divorce involves the largely unspoken accusation that you are somehow behaving recklessly toward your children. But every now and then, and in different ways, someone just says it. Which is how I find myself with my most committedly bohemian, childless friend, sitting on my sofa quoting me statistics of studies that he can’t quite name or define about how terrible divorce is for children. I look at him: a week of stubble, longish hair, corduroys. He has been working on a novel for the fifteen years since college; he still sleeps until four in afternoon; it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that his entire life is a monument to the refusal of adult responsibility, and yet even he is issuing grave warnings on parenting. (He is himself a child of divorce, which may account for his near religious zeal on the subject.) I cautiously mention that in certain instances it might be better for a child if their parents don’t stay in an unhappy situation. He quickly tells me that I am deluding myself, that this is a selfish platitude that parents always use to reassure themselves. He refers back to the sinister and shadowy studies. I would, again very cautiously, mention that my own child seems just for the moment to be thriving. But the evidence of the senses is not what is required here.
I have no doubt that in an ideal world, a child grows up with two happy parents under one roof. But by the time you are even contemplating divorce, you are no longer living in that ideal world and probably haven’t been for a very long time. There are no true studies, of course, on the children of parents who have stayed together when they shouldn’t have, no control group to tell us about the secret damage of that situation. And then, of course, there are times when the dissolution of marriage is simply unstoppable. As the novelist Theodore Dreiser put it in a 1930 essay, “God certainly has joined some peculiar creatures.”
The reason this particular form of moralism is so pernicious, of course, is that it plays to your own deepest fears: You are failing at the one thing in the world that matters. To the outside eye, my daughter seemed to adapt fairly quickly to the new situation. She likes when her father takes her to look at the boats on the way to school; she likes when he plays cards with her for hours at a time. But it’s hard to know. She is only 3. She still believes that if you drink out of someone’s straw, you will become them. I can tell her elaborate bedtime stories about living on the moon. I can give her a big, warm, chaotic extended family. I can find her a tiny replica of a doctor’s examination table for her eleven babies. And yet I can’t give her an intact, ordinary home. Will her unorthodox childhood offer up its own consolations? I hope so.
Last New Year’s eve, even the happiest couples around me, who’ve been married for three, four, five years, seemed to be suffering a certain angst. Should they go out to a restaurant alone? Should they go to a couples’ dinner party? Should they just go to a movie and pretend that it wasn’t New Year’s Eve? There is, of course, built into New Year’s Eve, at midnight, a moment when you confront the issue of romantic intensity, the passage of time as it works on a marriage. But this year, I find myself in a slightly different world. I am walking down the street to meet a British man whom I have been seeing for about a month. He is also, by some accidental twist, the person on earth I most want to talk to. And while my life resembles in no outward form the way I would like it to look, the night is cold, the scraggly trees are glittering in the street lamps, the lights are on in the brownstones, and this is exactly the night I want to have.