Sociologist finds most children return to normal after divorce


ASK ANDY Cherlin to draw a picture of the American family today, and he would ask for three pieces of paper.

"I could not draw one picture," says the Johns Hopkins University sociologist who began studying families long before they became fashionable.

Cherlin would sketch, first, the family as many people still see it -- a mother, a father and their two or three children. He calls this "the family of the first marriage."

Then he would draw another kind of family -- one parent, probably a mother, and her children.

Finally, the most difficult configuration -- the family born of second marriages with its parents, stepparents, half-siblings, in-laws and multiple grandparents. "Families of remarriage might extend over three households," Cherlin says. Their portraits "might require a huge poster board."

Andy Cherlin is not an artist, but, as a student of families, he interprets clearly the writing on the wall:

"There is no one family anymore, and I doubt there will be."

Cherlin, a professor, a researcher and an author, has been concentrating on families since the 1970s. "The family was not hot when I first got into it," says Cherlin, an engineering major at Yale in the '60s until he discovered he hated engineering.

Today, Harvard University Press is publishing Cherlin's newest book on the family. As a collection of findings on divorce, it addresses the continuing trend that has changed the picture of many American families -- Cherlin's among them -- over the last 30 years.

"Divided Families: What Happens to Children When Parents Part," is the first of what Cherlin and his co-author hope will be a series of little books on recognizing and understanding the changes in the family since World War II.

"We're not going to go back to the '50s," when mom was home and keeping the family together was a bedrock of marriage, says Cherlin. "We have to adjust to the realities of the '90s."

Among those realities:

* Personal satisfaction is now "the overwhelming standard by which to judge a marriage." The pendulum has swung as far as it can from obligation, which characterized many '50s marriages. Now, "People value marriage for the intimacy and emotional support. When that stops, they are expected to leave," says Cherlin.

Although Cherlin sees heightened interest in personal satisfaction as an advance for society -- "Our grandparents were too busy minding the store" -- he says it works against family stability. Many couples divorce because "one person feels bored or unfulfilled."

* Only a minority of fathers remain "very involved with their kids after divorce. A lot of fathers just fade away," Cherlin says.

* A stable, but high, divorce rate touches more than 1 million youngsters a year. More than 40 percent of American children will "witness the breakup of a marriage," he says.

* Women entering the work force in record numbers that, because of economic necessity, increased opportunities and a shrinking supply of workers, are not likely to drop.

While writing "Divided Families" with Frank J. Furstenberg Jr., a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Baltimore native, and pursuing other research on the effects of divorce, Cherlin began to experience them himself.

He and his former wife separated nearly three years ago and divorced last year.

"It is the great irony of my life," he says.

"My interest [in studying divorce] preceded my own divorce." Indeed, Cherlin wrote "Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage" in 1981. He is revising that book now.

Cherlin and his ex-wife have joint custody of their daughter, 11, and their son, 9. The youngsters spend four days a week in their father's home and three days with their mother, who has remarried.

"I was very worried about the kids," concedes Cherlin. The joint custody is, however, a success, he says.

Being familiar with the research on divorce "has made me a better parent," adds Cherlin. "It makes me a bit more sensitive to the problems of the children."

In their book, Cherlin and Furstenberg conclude that most children whose parents divorce adjust well. "Within two or three years, most single parents and their children recover substantially from the trauma of the crisis period. . . . And the majority of children, it seems, return to normal development," they write.

A small percentage of children suffer serious problems. Still, "a minority of a million kids a year is a lot of kids," Cherlin acknowledges.

With boys, problems are usually behavioral, manifesting themselves in especially aggressive acts, he says. Girls tend to internalize their feelings and may suffer depression, anxiety and lower self-esteem.

The long-term effects of divorce are even less clear than the short-term, the authors say. Cherlin is, however, in the midst of a large statistical study of children of divorce over time. Although that study is months away from completion, Cherlin does not feel the effects are devastating to many. "There is a painful memory, but they are going to be able to carry on with their lives," he says.

How well children survive divorce, he says, seems to depend on the health of the family before the divorce, on the dynamics of the separation and divorce and on the ability of the custodial parent to provide stability and nurturing.

"Divorce is not an event; it's a process. People think it happens one day; that's not the case," he says.

And it is in this process that divorce can begin to seriously affect the children of a family. "Some of the problems start when a troubled marriage begins to fall apart . . . when the marriage becomes conflict-ridden. Kids have problems if home is not going well."

Cherlin considers conflict, or the lack of it, a major factor in what happens to children in divorce. "One of the difficulties is being caught in the middle between a still-warring mother and father," he says. "Parents don't need to be friends after a divorce; it's just best if they are not fighting each other."

Cherlin and Furstenberg even go so far as to say that contact with the non-custodial parent may not be as important to a child as peace at home. "How often a father sees a child is not as important as the avoidance of conflict," Cherlin asserts.

And although Cherlin says joint custody "works very well for fTC me," he does not espouse it for many. "We have a long history of being able to separate out the kids and cooperate about them," Cherlin says of his own situation. Joint custody is also expensive and logistically taxing, he adds. "When parents don't cooperate, it's a disaster."

The payoffs are that both parents share the child-rearing, and the children keep up their day-to-day relationships with both parents, he says. "That's important."

In most divorces, one parent is still given custody of the children. And it is how well this parent copes with the divorce and the family that vitally affects the well-being of the children, Cherlin has found.

If the custodial parent can maintain the children's daily routine, give them the love and reassurance they need and not be overwhelmed by the stress of the divorce, the children are likely to do well and adjust, Cherlin says. "The better the custodial parent can function, the better the kids seem to do."

Cherlin speaks

Sociology professor Andrew Cherlin will talk about "American Children: Problems and Possible Solutions" at noon Tuesday in the Garrett Room of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library on the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus.

Cherlin's program is part of the Celebrate the Child series sponsored by the Office of Special Events at Hopkins. The lecture is free.

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