Recognizing When Kids Benefit From Their Parents' Divorce

"Would kids really be better off if their parents stayed together, fighting and yelling and tiptoeing around?"
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A boy plays hopscotch in his schoolyard. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

A growing body of literature now suggests that the earlier we turn back the clock in kids’ development, the more profound the impact of their environment. Early childhood is critical—race and class differences in achievement are pretty much evident by the time kids reach kindergarten, for instance. Even what happens before you’re born turns out to have consequences for decades afterward. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster lowered the IQs and graduation rates of kids who were in utero all the way over in Sweden, where some of the radioactive iodine blew. An earthquake in Chile resulted in fewer boys being born (boys are a riskier genetic bet and thus have a higher rate of miscarriage under stress) and lower achievement among those whose mothers were closest to the epicenter. If pregnant women fast during Ramadan, their babies suffer. And so on.

Perhaps the scariest prospect is that women are sort of like Russian nesting dolls. When a baby girl is in her mother’s womb, she is developing all the eggs she will have for her entire lifetime. So not only is a pregnant woman affecting her daughter through the placental connection, she may also be affecting the outcomes of her grandchildren through effects on both the ova and the reproductive system of the developing fetus.

Not even dads get off the hook in this intergenerational drama: Alcohol consumption not only results in more difficulty conceiving, but also in less healthy offspring who, themselves, have lower fertility. Meanwhile, if fathers wait too long to conceive, the risk of autism and schizophrenia in their offspring skyrockets—particularly for their sons. It turns out that in today’s society not just women are saddled with a ticking biological clock.

If I were an expectant father reading this literature, I would be inconsolably panicked. But as a parent of now adolescent offspring, it actually causes me to relax. 'Too late now,' I think, when I read that kids born in the fourth quarter of the year (i.e. October, November, or December) in the Northern Hemisphere live longer than those born in the other three quarters (when my kids were born).

I couldn’t have planned the timing of our pregnancies anyway—they were arranged by that mystical trinity: Coulda, Shoulda, and Woulda. If this emphasis on early-life events was not misplaced, then it was beginning to feel like my work was done. My son and daughter could stay at home by themselves if I wanted to meet a friend for a drink, and I could be reasonably certain that I wouldn’t return to a charred heap of embers where our house once stood.

They would do their homework or they wouldn’t; they would bomb Spanish (like I did) and ace biology; they both liked theater and acting despite my lectures about them not being viable career paths; and most important of all, they asked good questions. I hoped it was early childhood that mattered most, because around the time they were entering puberty, my wife and I divorced.

As two hyperactive, career-oriented parents, we—or at least I—thought our marital problems had revolved around one of the main occupational hazards that plague academia, the military, and several other fields: the two-body problem. It is next to impossible for two professors to find jobs in the same city. We briefly managed to achieve it at Yale, but then, not knowing how precious and rare such an arrangement was, we squandered it.

At first we had commuted from New York City to Connecticut. But eventually, during Natalie’s pregnancy with my son, we moved to New Haven. Not only was our work demanding more of us up there and our health plan based at Yale–New Haven Hospital, but after our experience with our daughter’s premature delivery, we wanted to minimize Natalie’s stress and strain while she carried our second child in utero.

But once he was born at full term, I couldn’t stand living in and out of car seats and felt increasingly isolated with two young babies and a wife who worked late at the lab. So when NYU offered me a big raise and sweetened the pot with tenure, I took the opportunity to return to my hometown, where I had lots of support in the form of family and lifelong friends. Natalie, on the other hand, stayed on at Yale, commuting to Connecticut from New York for chunks of the week.

I suppose the silver lining was my own research that showed that when moms worked outside the home, there was more gender equality among the offspring. That is, in so-called traditional families, daughters lagged behind sons. But in working-mother households, the girls achieved just as much as the boys. As a father of a daughter, this was heartening. Though I cringed when she later asked her mother to be “normal” and stay home to bake cookies.

Our commuting arrangement certainly put a strain on us—and not merely because she often had to be away at Yale for three days a week to teach in addition to whatever travel we both had for conferences, lectures, and other work projects; it also took me a good three years to accept our respective roles in our non- traditional marriage. I was the “mom” who was home with the kids, doing dishes and pediatrician appointments, and she was the 1950s “dad”—the fun one who made them laugh and did entertaining activities with them on weekends. Gender psychology aside, it felt like juggling kitchen knives and diapers.

After Yale, Natalie commuted to the University of California at San Diego for three years. Eventually, we were able to glue back together the broken eggshell of jobs and households when she got tenure at NYU as well. Being a pragmatic-minded fellow, I had figured that this final academic chess move, combined with what would be the kids’ eighth move to a new apartment—one that we all could finally agree on—provided the solution to the unique stresses and strains plaguing our rocky marriage. And I had figured it all wrong.

Actually, it was all the external challenges that had held us together. Like two ions with the same charge, once we were contained in the same little space rather than separated by 3,000 miles, we became unstable. Destructive behavior abounded. And the kids found themselves walking on the broken eggshells that remained from my slapdash effort to glue our lives back together.

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Dalton Conley is a University Professor at New York University and the chair of the Section on Children and Youth at the American Sociological Association.

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