Monday, June 22, 2009

Going Seperate Ways

In the past two days I have come across two stories of family breakdown and separation that have managed to seep past the granite shield I affectionately refer to as my skull, and affected me. The first is by the writer Sandra Tsing Loh, who often writes features for The Atlantic. In Let's Call the Whole Thing Off, Sandra outlines why she is ending her marriage, her actions, thoughts, and feelings behind embarking on her path. The second is the news that Jon and Kate Gosselin have filed for divorce.

Families fall apart all the time, for various reasons, an occurrence so frequent and common as to pass without comment. But when comment is made, and a lens is turned on to the reasons for a divorce, that's a different story.

In the case of Jon and Kate, assuming this is not some long term ratings gimmick, I can see how the pressures of celebrity, and conflicting personalities can conflict and lead to a less than perfect union. I can understand how two people can become disenchanted with each other, but what I have trouble comprehending is how any of that would matter when children are brought into the picture.

I am a child of divorce, and while the normal thought is that children who have lived through divorces will often find divorce to be socially acceptable, my experiences had just the opposite effect. Going through one divorce was bad enough, but witnessing my mother marry, and divorce twice only imbued a hard eyed view of divorce as a concept, and the behavior and attitudes that people will point to as reasons, or excuses, for their actions.

In the case of Sandra Tsing Loh, her reasons for divorce, which perhaps make sense to women like her, of her age and with the same outlook on life, don't appear similar for someone like myself. They appear frivolous and unforgivable. In her article, Sandra discusses her situation, and the situation of others she knows, others who all seems to have the same complaint - they want more excitement. Their husbands are to nice, too much "like women" for their tastes. And stable life, wonderful children, excellent living standard, nice house, beautiful things, and safety and security notwithstanding, they claim to be miserable. Even though for at least 99% of humanity the life they lead could only be the culmination of the wildest, most hopeless dream for the rest of humanity. Sandra and the women she describes are so blessed, so very lucky, that their complaints seem utterly incomprehensible.

In both cases, with the Gosselins and the Tsing Loh family, there are children in the picture. And like any children, they will accept what comes and adapt to their new life. But the reasons they had been put in that position are anything but legitimate. To escape violence, or an abusive situation, is one thing. But petty selfishness is another.

In Jon & Kate's case, we have a woman who has an obsessive need for control, and a man who resents being emasculated, but is too much of a coward to grow a pair and assert his prerogatives appropriately. They may be parents, and they may be adults, in a legal sense, but mentally and emotionally they come across as adolescents. Something which I think may be quite commonplace in North American society today.

In Sandra's case, there is a women, and men have often been guilty of the same thing, whose thoughts turn so inward, and become so self-centered that they espouse their selfishness as a virtue, by cloaking the baseness of their actions with lofty words and ideals. It's not selfishness, no, it's expressing a desire to "grow and change" and to "discover themselves."

On the NPR a few months ago, there was a story about Debra Gwartney, who decided to leave her husband, and take her two daughters with her, from Tuscon, Arizona, to Eugene, Oregon. While the plight of the father was mentioned briefly, how he became depressed, and desolate, the focus of the story was on how this woman was striking out on her own, discovering herself, pursuing her desire to change and grow, entirely oblivious to the fact that there were two other human beings for whom those motives were not theirs. She simply assumed that as she found her bliss, her children would follow her lead, grow up according to her plan, and act, think, and be as she intended.

But it didn't work. The daughters bitterly resented her, resented being torn away from their father, being cast into a new life, and for what? To the mother, it was the sensible quest to explore their personhood. To the children, it was an inexplicable act of selfishness. The rest of the story chronicled the dissolution of that family, of how the daughters grew ever more alienated, and how the mother, entirely unable to discipline or even influence her daughters, lost them entirely, to drugs, and to the world, for a good long time.

In the case of Debra Gwartney, the inability see past herself, to truly try to see the situation as her daughters might see it, led to this tragedy. As the story of the Gosselins and the Tsing Lohs progresses, the question will be whether their narratives will follow a similar track.

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