Powerful HBO Film on Divorce, Debuting Tonight, Opens a Window to My Past

The powerful, 30-minute documentary “Don’t Divorce Me!” which debuts on HBO September 20, features more than 20 kids like this boy who poignantly, honestly lay emotions bare—and set ground rules for their separated parents.

Don’t Divorce Me! Kids’ Rules for Parents on Divorce, premiering September 20 exclusively on HBO, is a half-hour of raw emotion and heartfelt honesty that should be watched by all parents, but especially those who have gone through a divorce, are separated, or are considering divorce. Don’t worry—it’s not preachy, it’s not full of angst, it’s not even guilt-inducing.

What it is: full of revealing moments, lots of cute close-ups of kids whose faces cannot hide their feelings, and even touches of humor (oh, and awesome original music by The Roots and Brady Rymer). And most importantly: rules for parents, as “written” by kids in the trenches.

I previewed this documentary, which was executive-produced by Rosie O’Donnell, last week at a screening room in midtown Manhattan. I expected to hear statistics and have my heart strings tugged. I did not expect that the children that filmmaker Amy Schatz interviewed would so remind me of my young self—or that their words would reopen wounds long healed and scarred over.

My father left when I was around 8 years old. I had an incredibly rocky time attempting to maintain a relationship with him, and ultimately came to peace with the fact that he had moved on to a new family and had no desire to even have contact with me.

 

Through the Lens of the Children

What makes this documentary unique is that it does not relegate the thoughts of the children to the background—they are the story, with no context or parental explanations. Ranging in age from 5 to 10, more than two dozen children candidly share their innermost feelings—as the press release says, “displaying surprising maturity.”

Their maturity struck me, too. Their feelings aren’t particularly nuanced, of course, but they show tremendous awareness. And this is what came like a blow to the gut: Yes, as a child of divorce, I really did know and understand so much.

Let me explain: I have vivid memories. Happy ones from before my father left, such as playing Frisbee in our front yard together, or singing Eagles songs in the car;  dramatic ones, including when my mother had to bring police officers to my father’s house to get me out of there, or when he first walked down our driveway and ignored our attempts to say goodbye; and sad ones, like the look on my brother’s face when it set in that his own son would not know his grandfather. The thing is, after all these years, I wondered occasionally how much my memories were colored by time. Do I more fondly recall all my dad’s music because of nostalgic yearning? Probably. And maybe I transpose some of my adult knowledge onto the storytelling when I share with close friends how I felt when my father left—but I’ve always been confident that I am relating exactly how I felt in the moment. And seeing the children in this film communicate their feelings—and their profound yet simple awareness of their situations—cements for me this confidence in my young feelings.

 

The Rules of Divorce

I’ve been told I have “wisdom beyond my years” for as long as I can remember. Family friends marveled at how I “handled” everything throughout the time of my parents’ divorce. And more than one therapist over the years has listened to me talk about how dealing with this at such a young age, in such an adult manner, helped define who I am, how I approach not only problems, but life. As with everything, there’s been good and bad—it’s all yin and yang. I take things in stride, am excellent to have around in the instance of an emergency or high drama, and am generally a nurturing person. But I also, for a long time, had low expectations for my own adult relationships, and really (really) like to be in control.

I was blessed with a mother who took on single parenthood with passion and unwavering commitment. I was aware even then how she simply refused to bad-mouth my father. I knew deep down that this must have been a challenge for her in the midst of her hurt and abandonment, but she felt her kids’ welfare was more important, and always encouraged us to try with my father. When the time came for me to decide that that relationship was no longer healthy enough to continue, she supported me then, as well. She always listened. She always reassured me and my brother, from the time my father left, that not only would we all be okay, but that none of it was our fault.

It was as if she had read the rules somewhere. I think she just just followed her instincts. When my parents got divorced, the “D” word was something to be ashamed of. I was the only student in my classes at elementary school whose parents weren’t together, and even in middle school one friend’s parents wouldn’t let me visit their home because, being from “a broken family,” I was considered a “bad influence” (despite the fact that I got straight A’s, was the captain of my volleyball team, and volunteered on weekends). My mom didn’t have other divorced friends to turn to for advice, and single parenthood was hardly yet the TV sitcom staple it is today. Today, we can see divorced characters as varied as Sara Braverman on Parenthood and Jules on Cougar Town…and let’s not even mention reality TV.

From my perspective, my mother did a lot right. Some of the “rules” shared by the children in this documentary that resonated with me as a child of divorce, and that my mother certainly adhered to:

Don’t make me the messenger;

Listen to me;

Don’t ask me to spy;

Don’t bribe me;

Don’t put me in the middle; and my favorite,

• Give us more love than we need.

 

Is Honesty Really the Best Policy?

Today, it is estimated that between 40-50 percent of first marriages end in divorce. We’ve heard that number so often perhaps it’s lost impact, but geez—almost half. And approximately 40% of divorcing couples have children. That’s a lot of kids whose lives are turned upside down.

One of the rules presented in the documentary is: “Be honest with me.” But as one audience member asked the expert panel after the screening, is that really advisable? A divorced woman herself, she wondered if was even possible to “really be honest when you’re having so many struggles with the other parent, if you’re filled with all these negative feelings—because you can’t say  ‘I can’t stand your father!’”

After some understanding laughs and shifting in the audience, who clearly recognized that people unfortunately do say such things to their kids, Ron Taffel, Ph.D., agreed that this was one rule he would have difficulty advising. “Some of the rules we have about what we’re supposed to do as parents are paradoxical,” said Dr. Taffel, a prominent psychologist in private practice in NYC and author of eight authoritative books on child-rearing. “Different kinds of children demand different kinds of honesty,” he said, noting that we should be cognizant of our children’s particular temperaments and what they can handle. And go slowly, so you can gauge how a child is responding—it will be clear if you have gone too far in what you have shared. “If we parent with our eyes wide shut and we don’t see their reactions, then we get into trouble,” Dr. Taffel said.

The most important thing is to consider a child’s developmental context, advised Tovah Klein, Ph.D., the director of Barnard College Center for Toddler Development. So a parent should say something very different to a 3-, 4-, or 5-year-old than to an older child. The truth will vary “by temperament and then by age context,” she said.

“Say, ‘It’s not your fault.’ If nothing is said after a kid sees a fight, the kids come to their own conclusions and think there is a big secret,” Dr. Klein offered. She suggested that a parent acknowledge what the child witnessed, such as an overheard argument, saying something to this effect: “Sometimes your daddy and I fight. It’s not your fault. We have to work out some things.” This acknowledgment and reassurance “says to the children, ‘I’m there for you,’” Dr. Klein said.

“It’s very hard for young children to understand that even  if they have the worst tantrum, and completely fall apart, that their world actually is still solid,” said Dr. Klein. Imagine how they feel after divorce. Everything they know is crumbling.

 

The Experience of a Child

“The children in this film repeatedly said what children know: ‘We know what’s going on,’ ” said Dr. Klein. And because of their developmental stage, they think everything revolves around them—in order for them to process, every experience they have must inevitably come back to how it effects them or how they have impacted the situation. It is therefore critical for parents to reiterate to a child that divorce is not their fault. “Because the whole world revolves around them, [the rule] ‘Tell me it’s not my fault’ is really potent,” said Dr. Klein.

To this I can speak personally. While my mother did just that, reminding me in the beginning and often over the years to come that my parents’ divorce was not my fault, my father’s new wife did the opposite. She repeatedly told me how awful my mother was—and how awful I was to have expectations of my father, even the simplest ones (like a good night kiss or a weekly phone call). She spelled out myriad ways my father’s disinterest in me was indeed my fault. The power of this negativity was enormous, and it took me years to come to terms with it fully—even despite my mother’s love and protection and my own intellectual awareness that I had done nothing wrong.

“Be careful when choosing my stepparent.” This is one of the rules that shows up on screen in this documentary. And this is one, unlike “be honest,” that is, in my opinion, not negotiable or variable.

 

Watch Don’t Divorce Me! Kids’ Rules for Parents on Divorce:

“My feeling is that this film can save lives,” said Dr. Taffel, “by keeping the connections in families going.” Watch it, communicate, and respect your children’s feelings. Please.

Don’t Divorce Me! Kids’ Rules for Parents on Divorce debuts tonight (Thursday, September 20) on HBO at 6:30pm. For other play dates and times, check here.

 

Further Reading:

Secrets to Successful Co-Parenting

Weekend Visitation: A Local Mom Shares Her Story

Divorced Parents: Avoid Kids’ Birthday Party Conflicts

 

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