"I'm on my way, Mom!" hollered 10-year-old Joey as he stuffed the last bite of toast into his mouth, slung his book bag over his shoulder, dashed out the door, jumped on his bike, and headed down the street for school. Joey's 8-year-old sister, Lizzie, followed, quickly kissing her mother good-bye and hurrying to catch up with Joey. Off she raced, pedaling furiously, until soon she was side by side with her older brother. Rena, the children's mother, watched from the front porch as her son and daughter disappeared in the distance. Compared to a year or two earlier, the children's bodies were longer legged—and Lizzie seemed to be catching up with Joey in physical size.
"They're branching out," Rena remarked to a friend over lunch later that day as she described the children's expanding activities and relationships. Homework, household chores, soccer teams, music lessons, scouting, friends at school and in the neighborhood, and Joey's new paper route were all part of the children's routine. "It seems as if the basics are there; I don't have to monitor Joey and Lizzie so constantly. But being a parent is still very challenging. Now it's more a matter of refinements—helping them become independent, competent, and productive individuals."
Rena felt good about Joey and Lizzie's more congenial relationship. Only a few years before, their interaction had been particularly negative. Joey had pushed, hit taunted, and called Lizzie names. Although Lizzie tried to retaliate, she was no match for Joey's larger size. The arguments usually ended with Lizzie running in tears to her mother.
Joey's and Lizzie's fighting coincided with Rena and her husband Drake's growing marital unhappiness. Although Rena and Drake tried to suppress their conflict when the children were around, Joey and Lizzie noticed that their parents rarely spoke to each other at dinnertime. And when Joey and Lizzie went to their rooms to do homework or to play, they began to hear their parents arguing.
One weekend, when Joey was 8 and Lizzie 5, Rena and Drake called them into the living room and told them that their father was moving out. "Mommy and Daddy just aren't happy together any more," Rena attempted to explain. "It's better this way because now we won't be fighting so much."
"Where will we live?" Joey muttered, looking confused.
"You and Lizzie will say here, in your very same rooms, where you've always been." The children looked up and caught their father's scowling glance at Rena.
"For now, that's the way it'll be," Drake reluctantly confirmed. "I'll live in an apartment nearby and visit you. We'll do some fun things," Drake added, trying to be upbeat. Tears rolled down Lizzie's face. Joey looked vacant. He turned his back to his parents.
Drake got up from his chair, kissed the children, and whispered, "See ya soon." Picking up a suitcase of belongings, he left.
Several days later, Lizzie wandered into the kitchen, where she found her mother sitting at the table, sorting through bills and wondering how she could continue to pay them all. "Mommy," Lizzie sobbed, "I'm sorry I made Daddy go away. I didn't pick up my toys. I left my towel on the floor. Daddy didn't like that."
Rena lifted her daughter onto her lap and cuddled her. "You didn't make him go. Daddy left because he was fighting with me, not because he was mad at you."
Lizzie looked at her mother quizzically. She had to think about this.
Joey became increasingly unruly. At home, he kicked and threw things whenever Rena denied his desires or he felt frustrated in other ways. At school, he gazed out the window, didn't listen, and didn't do his work.
Rena had little energy to deal with the children's problems because she had so many of her own. She needed money and had to change from teaching part-time to full-time at the university or start looking for another job. Her loneliness, sense of rejection, and financial worries meant that life became more chaotic at home. Meals and bedtimes—previously predictable routines—were now irregular. Some weeknights, Joey and Lizzie were up until 11 pm watching television. Their fatigue at school the next day contributed to academic difficulties.
Drake spent time with the children on Saturdays. At first, he indulged them, buying treats and toys and taking them anywhere they wanted to go—to the movies, the amusement park, the video arcade, and the miniature golf course. Rena heard about these adventures after the children returned, and when she tried to discipline them for not completing their schoolwork and their chores, Joey and Lizzie would exclaim, "We have fun with Dad. When we're here, all we do is get bossed around." Rena was too anxious and exhausted to follow through with the children, and she worried about losing their affection. As a result, the chores and the homework assignments frequently didn't get done.
As Drake filed for divorce, arguments with Rena intensified. The couple fought over everything—from the living room furniture to custody of the children. Joey and Lizzie suffered, and they felt a sense of divided allegiance to their parents. Spending most of the week with Rena, they often spoke about their father. "What do you think Daddy's doing tonight? Do you think he's by himself. Let's call him!" Lizzie would exclaim.
As Rena listened, she'd have to stop herself from expressing her own thoughts. "What about me? I have to handle all your needs and problems. For your father, it's all fun and games!"
The court required Rena and Drake to go through divorce mediation before granting the divorce decree. The mediator worked hard at helping them see that continuing to battle would intensify the children's problems. Drake realized that catering to Joey and Lizzie's every wish was harmful. He cut back on the gifts and outings, scheduled conferences with the children's teachers], and asked about the status of Joey and Lizzie's homework when he came to pick them up. Rena and Drake started to work together as parents, even though they were no longer husband and wife.
The judge approved a joint custody arrangement in which Joey and Lizzie would live with Rena during the week but see Drake often. Frequent contact meant that Drake made child support payments regularly. When Rena found a better paying job, the family's financial difficulties eased. Gradually, Joey's school performance improved, his behavior problems subsided, and both children seemed calmer and happier. Rena and Drake also noticed a change in Joey and Lizzie's relationship: The warmth and rapport they had had with each other during the years preceding their parents' conflict appeared to have returned.
A positive force in Joey and Lizzie's adjustment was a support group for children of divorce at their school. It met twice a month at lunchtime. Mr. Pace, who led the group, asked the children how they felt when they learned of their parents' divorce.
"I was so mad," Joey said. "I had fits every day because my dad left us. I thought, 'Why is he doing this? We need him to take us to soccer, help us with our homework, and other things.' I couldn't figure out why Mom and Dad didn't like each other any more because they never fought in front of us until just before Dad moved out."
"I was mad, too," Lizzie added. "But I was also sad. I'm still sad that they don't live together, but I'm glad they're not fighting anymore."
"It's been 3 years since your parents' divorce. How do you feel now?" Mr. Pace queried.
"I have a picture of them hugging in my special drawer of things," Lizzie answered. "Mommy put it in a bag to throw away, but I picked it out and took it to my room. I still wish they could get back together like in that picture. . . .""But you know they never will," said Joey, completing Lizzie's sentence with emphasis. She nodded with a disappointed expression.
Mr. Pace wondered how the joint custody arrangement was working out. "We're with Mom all week, then we go to Dad's three weekends a month. And summers and holidays we split. Last December, we were with Dad's relatives on Christmas Eve and Mom's relatives on Christmas Day. We're gonna travel with Dad to Colorado in July for a vacation in the mountains," Joey said excitedly. "Mom's taking us to the city to see the zoo and the science museum."
Lizzie chimed in. "The good part is we get more presents and more holidays! The bad part is when we're with our mom, we miss our dad. And when we're with our dad, we miss our mom."
"Another thing," offered 10-year-old Joey, from the vantage point of greater maturity. "I learned some things about my dad I never knew when my parents were together. For example, he likes to cook, and also he likes music. He's taking guitar lessons."
"Our dad has a friend named Carol, and she's got one kid—a boy, he's 3," Joey continued. "And our mom likes Wendell. He's got two girls. They're both older than me." Lizzie listened as Joey described their parents' new relationships.
That evening, Lizzie wondered aloud to Rena, "If you get married to Wendell and Daddy gets married to Carol, then I'll have two sisters and one more brother. And let's see, how many grandmothers and grandfathers? Gosh a lot!" exclaimed Lizzie, answering her own question. "But what will I call them all?" she asked, looking worried.
Lizzie and Joey had weathered divorce successfully, largely due to Rena and Drake's realization that parental cooperation was vital for helping their son and daughter cope with this drastic life change. Yet Lizzie's remarks disclosed her considerable foresight. Additional family transitions were under way. Both parents would remarry the following year.