Out of the war zone, Pat Gilberd

When Parents Part How Kids Adapt: What Hurts What Heals 
Rhonda Pritchard
Penguin, $24.95,
ISBN 0 14 027790 0

When It’s Over: When a Relationship ends: New Zealanders talk about their experience of separation and divorce
Michaelanne Forster
Penguin, $24.95,
ISBN 0 14 027766 8

In When Parents Part How Kids Adapt Rhonda Pritchard addresses many of the questions that deeply concern parents when they separate. Questions like: How are young people affected by arguing and fighting? Does separation affect their emotional and mental health? Is there a link between divorce and youth suicide? Does a step-parent improve the situation or make it more difficult?

Pritchard goes not only to the research on the topic, but to the children (now young adults) and presents, through a series of interviews, how it was for them. Choosing 17 of these moving stories to illustrate different themes, her book comes up with broad answers to the questions mentioned above. The picture that emerges is not as grim as we have been led to believe and let’s hope her findings will help to break down the myth that divorce causes children to have difficulties in life and that mother/father families are “normal” and “whole” and other kinds of families are “abnormal” and “deficient”.

When Parents Part How Kids Adapt is divided into eight chapters. Chapters 1-6 are based on the interviews, with commentary added. Each chapter has a particular focus: conflict between parents; missing fathers; parents changing partners; parents who are gay; money worries; and the problem of cause and effect. Some present the different perspectives of siblings within the same family, and the stories include the young people’s appreciation of what their parents did. Chapter 7 provides an overview and summary, and chapter 8 offers guidance to parents now on the basis of what has been learnt, both from the research and from these stories. The interviewees were asked what advice they would like to give to parents and made many good suggestions.

A particularly effective feature of the book is the way each chapter concludes with a pertinent summary of “What Hurts” and “What Heals” and a short discussion of the principal theme. This material is also recapitulated in the last chapter in “A Few Words of Advice”. Here are some characteristically helpful examples:

TAKE CHILDREN OUT OF THE WAR ZONE

It is worse to be in the house with two parents fighting than to be with one parent. It’s so much worse. It’s unbelievably worse. It’s not enough to avoid yelling and screaming. To live in constant tension is hell as well.

KEEP YOUR PROMISES AND REDUCE UNCERTAINTY

If you make an arrangement or special time, stick to it, or, if you have to change it, be responsible for it. Seeing your child once a year is better than saying, “I’ll see you every weekend” and being unreliable.

SUPPORT, OR AT LEAST DO NOT HINDER, THE CHILDREN’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE OTHER PARENT

Don’t say hurtful things about the other parent. Everyone knows this but they still do it. It makes me so mad.

Amongst other useful hints, parents are reminded that it is never too late to heal past hurts or damaged relationships. Pritchard urges them to reflect on what happened at the time of the separation and to discuss with their (now adult) children the mistakes they feel they made.

Overall, this book has much to offer separated or divorced parents and useful warnings for those in intact marriages which are full of conflict and tension. (For those unwilling to read the whole book, there may well be a chapter that particularly relates to their situation.) Not least, Pritchard challenges the belief that it is always better to stay together for the sake of the children. It might be better to be apart rather than miserable and together, and, she suggests, children can adjust if there’s good communication and support:

It is high levels of conflict between parents, a number of stressful life changes, poverty and abandonment, abuse or neglect that cause damage to children, whether their parents are together or apart.

When Michaelanne Forster’s own marriage ended after 23 years, she found surprisingly few books about the experience of separation and divorce written by New Zealanders. The idea for this book came from her need to know how other separated people coped with jobs, bills and birthday parties when their lives were collapsing around their ears.

Her interviewees’ stories speak for themselves, offering honest, detailed and intimate accounts about what it’s like to go through a major separation or divorce. From these stories emerge factors in a process which can take years to work through. The central theme is grief and loss and the growth that comes from facing these and learning more about oneself, and the meaning we make of our experience. Forster selects a diverse group of people who offer a broad spectrum of experience. Their many different viewpoints offer reassurance that there is no “right path” or single road to follow when going through a separation, but rather a multitude of emotions and experiences, with some common denominators.

This material and Forster’s own experience lead her to the sensible, and helpful, conclusion that:

the end of a committed relationship forces us to look inside ourselves and re-examine who we are, because we can no longer claim the role  we once played: “wife”, “husband”, ”partner”. In this state of uncertainty and unrest I believe we are open, perhaps more than any other time in our lives, to empathise and learn from those who have been before us.

Pat Gilberd is a family therapist and director of the Home & Family Society Counselling Centre in Auckland.

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Posted in Health, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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