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Parents suffer when children divorce

Researching the effects of divorce, author Marsha Temlock talked to many baby boomers about betrayal, financial turmoil and the sting of gossip. She heard tales of hostility, resentment -- even guilt. Before long, the writer knew she had the foundation of a self-help book for an overlooked audience: The parents of divorcing couples.

If roughly a million people get divorced each year in the United States, as many as four million parents may also feel pain, anger and bewilderment when their cherished family vision explodes.

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"Even those parents who were pleased their child had escaped a bad situation felt their lives had been changed by their divorce," Temlock says. "Often, they were suddenly struggling to support two families, or their children were returning to their home, or they were reassuming the caretaking role. If they were divorced themselves, they might be thinking, 'If I had stuck it out, maybe my kids would have been better off.'"

Your Child's Divorce: What to Expect --What You Can Do (Impact Publishers, $17.95) walks parents through five stages of divorce: Accepting the news; rescuing your child; responding to change; stabilizing the family, and finally, refocusing and rebuilding the family, often with a new in-law.

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"I know many parents think of their child's divorce in terms of loss. Others ... call it a new beginning," Temlock writes. "I see it as a continuum, another one of life's challenges with new parental tasks, new obstacles and new rewards. It's playing different roles at different stages in their child's divorce journey, knowing when to move to the foreground and when to step back."

You might consider this book another course in the lifelong curriculum of parenting.

Should you let your son or daughter move back home? For how long? How do you construct boundaries to keep from being consumed by your child's problems? How do you keep in touch with your ex-in-law without being disloyal to your child? How do you adjust to the role of stepgrandparent when your son or daughter remarries? How do you change and broaden your view of your family?

A vocational counselor and freelance writer in Westport, Conn., Temlock grappled with some of these questions after her own two children got a divorce.

"I felt as if our family had fallen off a cliff," Temlock, 62, says. "My husband and I have been married for 42 years. We both come from a long line of solid marriages."

When she couldn't find a book to help, she decided to write one -- but not about her own experience. Instead, she interviewed dozens of other parents who also felt they were trailblazing new emotional ground.

"If my book were available for my parents' generation, I don't think they would have consulted it," she says. "They'd have been too engaged in denial. If divorce wasn't quite swept under the carpet, it wasn't something that parents wanted to get involved in. Having gone through the whole marital revolution of the '50s and '60s, today's parents are more understanding of the fact their children are more likely to get divorced."

Different expectations

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Although national divorce statistics are difficult to come by -- such large states as California and Georgia have not supplied divorce figures in recent years -- Maryland had 17,111 divorces in 2005, according to the state's vital statistics. (There were 37,572 marriages.)

A little more than half of the state's divorces consisted of marriages of fewer than nine years.

Attorney Sally B. Gold, who practices family law in Baltimore, says some clients in their 20s and 30s view divorce through the filter of their own parents' broken marriages.

"Some may be determined to stay married. But others may not have the same degree of angst," she says. "They may think 'It's OK. We've tried this and we're moving on.' Letting go may be a little bit easier."

Over the past 40 years, she notes, the women's movement has brought women closer to equality in the workplace, giving them more courage, and ability, to end bad marriages.

It has also made parents more tolerant of such decisions.

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Gold recalls a conversation she had with her then 13-year-old daughter when O.J. Simpson's murder trial dominated the news.

"She said, 'Mom, what happens if my husband isn't nice to me?'

"My answer was 'If he's not good to you, you don't stay with him. You don't need to stay with someone who doesn't treat you well.' And my answer would be the same today," says Gold, 57. "I think, however, she would have gotten a very, very different answer from someone in my mother's generation. The expectation was when you're married, you stay married and put up with things."

Keep kids in mind

Baltimorean Helaine Rombro, 59, is grateful she has been able to help her 27-year-old daughter get back on her feet after her divorce.

Married to an Israeli citizen she met while he was visiting Baltimore, Lisa Rombro Dayan spent several years living in Israel with her husband and their two children before their marriage ended and she returned to the States.

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Because she also divorced when she had two young children, Rombro could identify with her daughter's struggles. She urged her to keep a positive attitude and to communicate well with her former husband to make things easier for their children.

Beth Friner Rubin, 50, of Owings Mills says her daughter was probably less fearful of her own decision to divorce because she watched Rubin cope with single parenthood and achieve a rewarding second marriage.

"I think she learned not to get into issues about what one parent says about another," Rubin says. "I think she learned to be more compassionate and to maintain a good relationship with her former husband. She knows what it feels like to be in the middle and I think she wants it to be much easier for her son."

Temlock cautions boomer parents against entering the "blame game."

"It's not productive," she says. "In order to help the family heal, you have to dispense with it. You need to show tremendous support for your child -- even when there are uncomfortable disclosures about them -- but that does not mean you also have to say 'I agree with your decision.' Showing support and saying 'I agree with what you did' are not the same."

Watch boundaries

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Many people also tackle sharp feelings of betrayal, Temlock says.

"Some parents feel 'I did everything to help you through this marriage. I gave you money for a down payment on your house. I was there to babysit. I sent you to counseling. And the marriage still exploded."

Another blow comes if grandchildren side with the ex in-law.

"Because children have loyalties, some of that emotional spillover is going to land in the grandparents' lap. Let's say they're living with Mom and Mom is very angry at Dad. That's going to spill over to Dad's parents."

When it comes to ex in-laws, Temlock advises parents to keep communication open but not to overwhelm them with lots of attention and visits.

"I think the boomer generation can learn how to keep boundaries because they're more psychologically intuitive," she says. "They are also more sensitized to the struggle of making the decision to stay in a marriage or to leave it. They know how difficult it is to be a single mom and have two fulltime jobs. They know that today's fathers are much more active at parenting and are really bereft when they can't see their children."

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They're also eager to help out. Because Beth Friner Rubin works at home, she takes care of her grandson three days a week.

"Be supportive," she advises other parents of divorced children. "Communicate. When your children were little, you may have wanted to be their friend -- now you can. My daughter can talk to me about things she never could before. Remember that they're going through a tough, confusing situation, and be there for them."

linell.smith@baltsun.com


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