We were listening to a tape of the most recent Harry Potter volume, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, on the way back from the beach, my three children and I. It was late, and everyone was sunburned and sandy, stunned into peaceful silence. The car was warm and rapt, and no one said a word as we hurtled down the highway, over the Golden Gate Bridge and across the city to our house.
The house was a new home for us, just five minutes away from our old one. We had only just moved in: boxes were everywhere, and a painter was scheduled to come in the morning. This new house was smaller, with no parking and one bathroom instead of two. But the biggest difference, the one that none of us had yet gotten used to, was that David, my husband, was living in an apartment in another part of the city.
By then Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix had been out for several months and we’d heard rumors that someone close to Harry dies in the book. My nine-year-old, Aidan, had even discovered who the victim was, having wheedled the name out of his cousin. I wouldn’t let him tell, but he had been dropping heavy, persistent hints to his younger brother and me.
But none of us, not even Aidan, was prepared for the shock of Sirius Black’s death, and it hit hard that night in our dark little car. We reached home soon after Bellatrix Lestrange knocked Sirius down with a wand blow to the chest, and I couldn’t find a parking place near the house. I finally found a spot a few blocks away, but couldn’t face the walk up the hill, or the prospect of lugging the wet towels and swimming suits, the cooler with its grim picnic leftovers and sandy drinks.
So we all just sat there and listened as Jim Dale continued to spin out the story of Sirius’s death and its aftermath. Harry Potter had trusted and adored Sirius: since his mother and father were both dead, Sirius was a substitute parent. And Harry’s grief was compounded by guilt because, through a complicated series of circumstances, Sirius died trying to save Harry’s life.
At that moment, I felt keenly the weight of my new single parenthood. Both boys were fighting sleep, and getting anyone to help me carry the bags was going to be a struggle. Julia, my four-year-old, appeared to be asleep, and would either wake up and wail when I picked her up, or remain in a dead-weighted slumber. Either way, she would have to be carried. The walk to the house would likely rouse them and then I’d have to coax three grumpy children into bed. I was the only grown-up, I was exhausted, and I was in charge.
David and I had decided to separate the previous fall and over the last six months I’d marched us through the house sale (which took a tortuously long time), found us a new home, orchestrated the move, and packed up everything we owned. Finally we were settled — David and I in different houses at last — yet I’d never felt so unsettled in my life. Some days were wonderful: to be living in a house with no undertones of anger was an enormous relief. On those days, I was optimistic that David and I could be good co-parents — better, in fact, apart than we had been when we were together. I envisioned our becoming friends in the months and years to come, as we both went on to happier lives.
At other times, I looked at our little family and the kids seemed ragged, the grown-ups flailing, and this new life appeared lonely and sad. Huddled in the car on that chilly autumn night — miles, it seemed, from home — our little family seemed simply broken.
The tape was finally over, and the tape machine clicked off. “Why did Sirius have to die?” Dylan wailed out of the silence.
“Now Harry has nobody,” Julia said drowsily, not asleep after all. “Lord Voldemort killed his parents when he was just a little baby.”
“We know that, Julia,” Aidan said scornfully. He was sarcastic to all of us these days. “Mom? Hello? Are we going to sit here in the car all night?”
After we reached the house Aidan told me he wasn’t tired, that he needed to do something before going to bed. Later, when the other two were asleep, I went to look for him. I found him at my desk, hunched over a piece of paper. He’d been doing a lot of drawing lately: mostly strange, freakish figures on skateboards, or elaborate underground tunnels filled with the same freakish figures, or freakish figures caught in battle. Aidan has red hair and freckles and the rakish good looks of a boy in a Norman Rockwell painting, but he suffers from monumental feelings and a passionate heart.
“How are you doing, Aidee?” I asked him now. I knew he was missing his dad. He shrugged.
“I hate her,” he said fiercely, drawing thick black lines on the piece of paper, scratching out his drawing. “Why did she make Sirius die?”
“No, the author, J.K. Rowling. She’s an idiot.”
I ruffled his hair, feeling futile. At that moment I kind of hated J.K. Rowling myself. Couldn’t she have left Harry his beloved godfather, since he’d lost everyone else? Didn’t she realize that this year had been hard enough already?
He looked so sad, my little nine-year-old, so fierce and knobby-kneed and heartbroken, that I ventured a foolish, hopeful thought. “Maybe he isn’t really dead. Maybe he’ll come back in one of the next books.”
Aidan snorted in disgust.
“He’s dead, Mom, totally dead. He’s never coming back.”
Later that night, after Aidan had fallen asleep, I sat for a while in the boys’ bedroom, listening to their peaceful breathing. I was tired, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. On the nights when I could fall asleep, I would be roused at some point by my worries. Another writer I’d learned to dread during that difficult period — far more than J.K. Rowling — was psychologist Judith Wallerstein, whose warnings about the effects of divorce on children are the stuff of every parent’s nightmares.
Wallerstein has spent years following the children of divorce and reporting on their lives in the years after their parents split up. Her conclusion, reiterated in her recent book on the subject, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, is that these children carry the scars of experience well into adulthood.
Wallerstein’s most wrenching message is that parents should stay together for the sake of the children. It is in fact not true, she insists, that children are happier when their parents are happier. She writes, “Many adults who are trapped in very unhappy marriages would be surprised to learn that their children are relatively content. They don’t care if Mom and Dad sleep in different beds as long as the family is together.”
Julia, my youngest, clearly felt that way. Particularly in the beginning, she had a hard time going back and forth from my house to David’s. One day when we were driving through a particularly dreary San Francisco fog, she said, “Mama? I think you and Daddy are both going to be sad until you get back together.”
“I am sad that we aren’t together,” I said, fumbling for the right thing to say. “I think that Dad is too. But we seem to have trouble getting along when we are together. We make each other really angry. So for now, this seems to be better for everyone.”
Julia thought for a moment, then suggested practically, “I know what to do. If Dad says something you don’t like, just pretend you didn’t hear.”
Most days, I could stand up to Wallerstein, and make the case that I was doing the right thing. At night, however, she prodded me awake and I was defenseless. If she is right, then divorce becomes a Hobbesian choice between one child’s happiness and one’s own. And as a cautionary tale, Wallerstein’s message doesn’t allow for happy endings. She gives parents advice for how to make divorce easier for children, but makes it obvious that she doesn’t think there is any way to split without causing lasting damage.
Many people have challenged Wallerstein’s conclusions, and her methodology continues to come under fire. Still, her message endures, probably because it hits a parental nerve. Divorce is not a fate any parent would chose for his or her child. It is not a future I ever imagined or hoped for — for my children or myself.
So, like every other divorced or divorcing parent I know, I find myself scrutinizing my children all the time, wondering if they are okay — and exactly what is okay? They ought to be sad, right? Their lives are being ripped in two. They have a right to be sad and angry and devastated. But how much is too much? What is normal, and will I recognize irreparable damage if I see it?
A few weeks after we’d told the children we were going to separate, Dylan and I were at a cafe together, while Julia was at dance class. I asked him how he was feeling about the separation.
He was eating a cookie, and playing with two little knight figures. The knights were jousting, periodically knocking each other to the floor. He shrugged, stopping the game for a minute. “Sad. Bad. Really bad.”
I tried to respond as the parenting books advise, and made a noise that I hoped was sympathetic and encouraging.
“Are you and Dad going to get divorced?”
“We don’t know, honey. We are going to try and work things out, but if we can’t, then yes, we’ll get divorced.”
Dylan put his head down on the table. “That is so sad,” he said. He kept his head there for a while as I stroked his hair. After a minute or so, he sat up again and resumed the jousting. I started to say something and he said, “Mom, I don’t want to talk about it anymore right now, if that’s okay with you.”
But after the separation actually happened, Dylan grew increasingly melancholy. He developed some minor physical problems that puzzled the pediatrician, and claimed to be tired all the time. One day, on the way home from school, he said wistfully, “If you were a bus or a car, you wouldn’t have to worry about anything, because you wouldn’t have a brain. Or if you were a rock.”
“Do you have a lot of worries, Dylan?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said simply.
“What do you worry about, honey?”
“I don’t feel like telling you right now, Mom,” he said wearily. “It’s too long a list.”
Of course, this is just the beginning of the rest of my life as a parent. I will wonder forever, I know. In the years to come I will ask myself, is that why she is failing in school? Is that why he is getting a divorce? Dropping out of college? Drinking too much?
For the rest of my life, I will search for the roots of their disappointments and failures in the decision I am acting out now.
Six months have passed since the night we learned about Sirius’s death. The new paint on the walls of our house already bears fingerprints and the familiar clutter is seeping into every corner. The children are getting used to going back and forth between Mom’s House and Dad’s House and even seem to enjoy the transitions. Their comings and goings — so wrenching at first — now have the quality of routine.
The children are settled happily into our new home, but Judith Wallerstein continues to wake me up — not every night, but often enough. In her books, she speaks with approval of couples who remained in unhappy marriages for the sake of their children. These couples, she says, “struggled with all the problems that beset modern marriage — infidelity, depression, sexual boredom, loneliness, rejection. Few problems went away as time wore on, but that’s not what mattered most to these adults. Given their shared affection and concern for their children, they made parenting their number one priority. As one woman explained, ‘There are two relationships in this marriage. He admires me as a wonderful mother. As a wife, I bore him in every possible way. But our children are wonderful and that’s what counts.'”
I try to imagine what life must be like for these people. I envision hushed rooms, heavy drapes, the quiet shutting of doors. The rooms are dark, the colors muted. Only when the children come home do the curtains fly open, and light and color and noise flood the rooms. How do they trudge through every day, not to mention holidays and family vacations? And it may be true that very small children don’t notice if their parents are unhappy, but those small children are going to become preteens, teens and young adults.
In the end, Judith Wallerstein and J.K. Rowling, these two women who loomed so large in my life during my separation, have completely opposing ideas about what children understand, and how much they can bear.
Many parents I know criticize Rowling for allowing evil and death to play such a major role in books intended for children. Harry Potter’s world is not a safe one, and the adults in that world, when they are not evil, are often powerless to protect him. Rowling, once a single mother herself, does not shield her readers from the dark side of life. And I think this is why children love her books so much.
Children sense at a very early age that dark forces exist, that bad things happen, and people often do not live happily every after. They know these things without fully understanding them, and efforts by adults to keep such knowledge secret only give their fears more power. Like other great children’s authors, from C.S. Lewis to Roald Dahl to Philip Pullman, Rowling deals directly with these fears, and allows children to wrestle with them on the pages of her books.
Judith Wallerstein, on the other hand, encourages parents to create a fairy tale for children; to keep the nuclear family together, no matter how much duct tape and crazy glue it takes to do so. But anyone who has experienced the exquisite misery of a failed relationship could never recommend it as an environment for children.
It has been a hard year for my children, and they show scars. But are they worse off than they would have been had we stayed together?
I’ll never know for sure.
Aidan is right of course: Sirius probably won’t ever come back to life. But recently the children were listening to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the second time, and we all noticed something we hadn’t heard before. On the first reading, the shock and sadness of Sirius’s death obscured the fact that the book has a rather happy ending. It is not a fairytale ending: Harry Potter is never going to live happily ever after. But at the end of volume five, J.K. Rowling gives Harry something very precious nonetheless.
In the final scene, Harry is heading home for summer vacation on the Hogwarts train. Since his parents’ death, “home” for Harry is with his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon and their son Dudley, a family of muggles (non-wizards) who have always treated Harry atrociously. He dreads the summer ahead and the prospect of his Aunt and Uncle’s small-minded cruelty, his cousin’s cloddish bullying.
As the Hogwarts train pulls into the station, the Dursley family is there to meet Harry, but another group is present to greet him as well. It is a motley assemblage that waits for him there on the platform: his friend Ron Weasley’s parents; a wise and kindly werewolf named Remus Lupin; Mad-Eye Moody, a veteran wizard; and Tonks, a flamboyant young witch. It turns out that they have come to help Harry. They confront the Dursley family right there at the train station, warning them that if Harry is mistreated in any way, the family will have to answer to them.
This warning infuriates Uncle Vernon, but the strange and powerful group frightens him, so after some spluttering, he falls silent. Harry is overcome with gratitude for the support of these friends, and so the book ends: “He somehow could not find words to tell them what it meant to him, to see them all ranged there, on his side. Instead he smiled, raised a hand in farewell, turned around, and led the way out of the station toward the sunlit street, with Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and Dudley hurrying in his wake.”
Harry may have lost his godfather as well as his parents, but it is clear that he still has a refuge in this world — and that refuge is not with his blood relations, the Dursleys. Harry has a different configuration of family, but it is a family nevertheless.
This is what I wish for my children: a sense of belonging in the world, whether their parents are together or not. David and I are trying to build a friendly relationship. Beyond us, the children have a broad constellation of family and friends who care about them, too. It’s not perfect, not the nuclear family they were born into, or the happy ending they might have asked for. But maybe it is enough.
When David and I first separated, Dylan would often cry after David dropped him off. When I asked him what was wrong, he always said the same thing: “I miss Dad when I’m with you, and I miss you when I am with Dad.” This became his mantra for the separation, a simple, eloquent expression of all that he’d lost, all that he would never have again.
The other day, I asked Dylan how he feels about having two houses.
“I like having two houses,” he responded, pondering. “I like your house best when I’m with you, and Dad’s house best when I’m with him. But I still miss you both.”
Wallerstein, Judith, and Blakelee, Sandra. What About the Kids? Raising your Children Before, During, and After Divorce. Hyperion, 2003.
Wallerstein, Judith, et al. The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study. Hyperion, 2000.
Wallerstein, Judith S., and Kelly, Joan Berlin. Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce. Basic Books, 1996.