Children's struggle for wholeness in the wake of divorce
BY SHARI SCHREIBER, M.A.
At five years old, I was caught in the middle of a divorce and custody battle between my parents. My folks were both good and honest people, but my father was the healthier parent, and had the presence of mind to recognize this at the time, and fight for me. Still, I was 'awarded' to my mother. Two years after my parents split from each other, my mother was hospitalized and absent physically or emotionally for long stretches of time throughout the remainder of my childhood. According to relatives years later, the signs of her disease had been "somewhat apparent" beforehand--but we weren't as savvy about paying attention to anomalies or diagnosing mental illness in those days. Back in the fifties, custody was automatically awarded to mothers; unfortunately this practice still exists, and the consequences to children can be tragic.
My mom's diagnosis was Schizophrenia. Thankfully, she wasn't mean-spirited or cruel--but there was some neglect. Mom wasn't often fully present, and although I have some fond memories, I recall feeling like an invisible child. She'd chain smoke, and immerse herself in reading novels for hours, with the family cat curled up on her lap. During these times, it was tough to get her attention. She wasn't a naturally demonstrative woman, but I relished our time together--even if she just gave in to my naggings to go to my favorite restaurant for dinner. Years later, I realized those early deficits forced me to try and make sense of my experiences and surmount them. I grew up with a fascination about what made people tick--and it obviously shaped the course of my life.
My father was the source of virtually all my affection and attention, and we shared a very close and special bond. When he left, it felt like the bottom of my world dropped out. Being without him trapped me in unimaginable pain and emptiness, as there was no one capable of comforting me, or filling this void in his absence. My mother had (falsely) accused him of 'molestation,' a reliable catchword among vindictive wives and divorce attorneys back then (and now). Visitation with my father was sporadic, in part because of our 'justice system,' but mostly due to instinctual measures to mend his broken heart, and survive what must have felt like an amputation. It certainly did to me.
Dazed, I wandered around for months with what seemed like a huge hole in my middle--like a cannon ball had been shot through me. At the age of five, my capacity to articulate this pain was naturally limited--but in retrospect, I'd managed to envision an extremely accurate picture of my loss. Starting school in the midst of this upheaval made it impossible for me to focus on learning anything, and I'm certain this set me back for a number of years.
Still, divorce may be the healthiest alternative for your children and for you. Leaving a marriage does not mean "abandoning" your children. Any child who grows up with constant tension and/or fighting between his parents, must survive living in a war zone! This is grossly unfair to a child--but it's only the tip of this iceberg. Children learn from example; mean-spirited/disrespectful interplay between spouses becomes a child's definition for what 'marriage' means. As an adult, he or she will unwittingly choose partners with whom to replicate this familiar drama, or may never marry at all. Seeing loving, caring interactions between grown-ups is one of the greatest gifts you can give a child, as he/she will be looking forward to these pleasurable experiences in adulthood--and have a sense of how to create them! This dynamic may be achievable within a marriage, or it may not--but staying for the "children's sake," is often more about the parents' needs (such as fear of being alone), than about the kids.
I've met with and spoken to countless men who've forged stronger and more loving, healthy attachments with their children than their ex-wives have (or could). I'm privy to men's stories that unwittingly reveal their ex-spouses or lovers to be personality disordered. Far too many of these women are poorly equipped to raise children in ways that are consistently loving, nurturing and stable. To make matters worse, these kids are being programmed to hate their fathers, and men in general. This has crucial ramifications for female and male children, in terms of their ability to build healthy self-esteem, and forge sound relationship dynamics in adulthood! These women often carry significant abandonment wounds from their childhood, having (also) been raised by emotionally impaired mothers, and unresolved primal rage from this period is projected onto their ex-husbands and kids. Parental Alienation Syndrome is a direct outcome of this rage, and poses a very real and present danger to the mental health of our society.
Narcissistic and Borderline Personality Disorders stem from deficits in loving attention, positive mirroring and nurturance during infancy and early phases of childhood. Attachment and abandonment issues result from these wounds to an infant's sense of Self, which are prompted/driven by the mother. Until resolved, this wounding is usually re-created and perpetuated within each new generation. Trust (in self and others) should be established between an infant and his/her mother within the first year of life, as this symbiotic attachment is vital to our sense of well being. The issue of solid emotional bonding does not fall within the domain of the father's role, until a few years later (unless the more nourishing, primary attachment is established with him, instead of the mother). Sometimes referred to as core trauma or narcissistic injury, a child's earliest and most critical bonding experience is punctuated by a mother's lack of empathic/nurturing response and emotional attunement to her infant.
There is no doubt I would have greatly benefited from living with my father, who was better equipped to provide a stable and nourishing foundation for me and my growth. But in contrast to a number of friends and colleagues, I was lucky in certain respects; my mother was not mean-spirited, critical and emotionally undermining--she just wasn't well or whole, which derailed her capacity to meet her children's intrinsic needs.
We learn to love ourselves and others, by how we were loved as kids. I've personally done a great deal of self-healing in response to childhood deficits, and I'm grateful that this journey has enhanced my ability to assist others. But in hindsight, so many years were focused on surmounting these traumas and surviving, rather than being able to construct a life more viable, and actually thriving.
Children have important needs that transcend basic physical care. Orphaned infants in the sixties were subjected to 'Failure To Thrive' studies, that unequivocally proved the relationship between nurturant care and physical health and longevity. One of the two test groups was given basic care; food, diapering, bathing, warmth and shelter--but deprived of tender/caring touch and holding, loving glances and verbal expressions of warmth and affection. A considerable number of these babies became ill and died.
Perhaps we should devise measures for assessing the emotional health of parents, before divorce courts award custody. While this seems a daunting task, it might enable more kids to become adults who develop stable, loving and enduring attachments, and significantly reduce divorce statistics! It's my unflinching belief that every person's entitled to this, and every child who's brought into this world deserves the very best opportunity to thrive.
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