Divorce and Mrs. Doubtfire - Defying the Broken Family
Dedicated to my former spouse and our four children - all of who survived our divorce and remained a family.
I'm addicted to my children, sir. I love them with all my heart, and the idea of someone telling me I can't be with them, I can't see them every day... it's like someone saying I can't have air. I can't live without air, and I can't live without them. - Daniel Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire
Mrs. Doubtfire Tackles a Tough Issue
Euphegenia Doubtfire had some problems to solve, didn't she dear? The 1993 movie, Mrs. Doubtfire tackled one of the toughest issues of modern times - divorce. Daniel Hillard, played by late GREAT Robin Williams, had lost his job and his marriage and in turn was fighting for quality time with his three children. When Daniel learns that Miranda, his estranged, is looking for a housekeeper, he and his makeup artist brother create an aging British nanny named Euphengenia Doubtfire.
In this manner, Daniel is able to spend days being involved in his children's lives. When Daniel is found out, the judge orders supervised visits. Daniel is distraught saying his children are like "air" to him - he needs them in his life. Miranda finally recounts and Daniel ends up getting regular visitation with his children and his own children's television show hosted by none other than Mrs. Doubtfire. He uses the show to comfort little Katie McCormick (a viewer who has written in) whose parents are going through a divorce saying, "...if there's love, dear... those are the ties that bind, and you'll have a family in your heart..."
It is an heartrending ending, yet it gives hope to those who have experienced divorce and the "broken home".
Divorce and the Life Sentence of The Broken Family
When I was growing up in the 60's and 70's, very few people I knew had parents who were divorced or came from what society called, "broken homes". If they did, I looked at them sadly as if their lives were wrecked forever. Some common sentiments of the time were whispered among the neighbors, "He's like that because there isn't a father in the house" or "She's sexually promiscuous because her parents are split". A split family was like a death sentence on a child's moral integrity and impending outcome.
We felt blessed and even silently smug - the lucky ones whose parental unit was still intact. I did not want to date a boy from a split home - to me, it made him trashy, perhaps even emotionally defunct. I gathered this opinion from somewhere and I'm guessing it was from what appeared to be my idyllic upbringing, which was not too far from the upbringing of several of my closest friends - except for one.
I sadly remember when this childhood acquaintance told me that although her parents stayed together for many years, as a young girl she watched from the hallway as her father threw her mother to the kitchen floor and called her a "whore". She was no more a "whore" than Mother Theresa, but this tenacious, religious woman attempted for decades to keep her family whole while the drunken oaf she married reeked havoc on them all. This woman was not the only one who struggled to keep her family intact for religious and financial reasons and to save face among her peers in adherence with societal norms.
So we all watched the divorce anomalies -that deviation from society's standard -and we all vowed, "we will not be like them". We will not put our precious children at risk and we will stay together no matter what. Was it because the broken home was so terrible or was it because the society deemed those from broken homes as outcasts; a sort of reject who would never amount to anything save maybe a felon or a lowlife parent.
Just because they don't love each other doesn't mean that they don't love you. There are all sorts of different families.... Mrs. Doubtfire to Katie McCormick
Fixing my Broken Family
This was the hopeless and desperate bane of Doubtfire's little Katie McCormick - are we a family anymore? In short, are we broken now for good? I would have thought the same thing in 2004, when after 22 years my marriage dissolved and my former spouse and I along with our four children struggled to make sense of it all.
The APA (American Psychological Association) says the rate of divorce waivers somewhere between 40 - 50% in the US. Other sources say it is at 33% and much lower than the 50% benchmark. Try to find research on divorce trends or how many people intend to stay married when they promise, "I do" and the amount of internet pages are staggering and varied. I think I am safe to say that the majority of people who promise "till death do us part" do not intend to see their marriage dissolve in divorce. There are many factors that play a role in divorce including an interesting one on couples with daughters, but I have always been a "fixer" and so when I couldn't "fix" the marriage, I sought to "fix" the divorce.
"When parents are cooperative though the years, their children's potential for trouble, are reduced substantially." Constance Ahrons, PHD
Some Truth About Children of Divorce
Early on in the process, a friend recommended a book by Constance Ahrons, Ph.d. called, "We're Still Family: What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents Divorce". In the book, Ahrons says, "A good divorce are those in which the divorce does not destroy meaningful family relationships". After reading it, I discussed it with my estranged spouse over dinner. He agreed to do what the book said and to attempt to limit the conflict between us as best as we could for the sake of the girls and we have lived by this credo ever since.
Ahrons', who received a fellowship to Radcliff Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard, conducted a 24 year Binuclear Family Study following children of divorce. She sought to shed some light on problems with children of divorce. Almost all participants in the study, noted Ahrons, showed one difference from children of intact marriages and that was their ability to adapt to complex family situations. We have heard it before, children are resilient, but in Ahrons' study, she found it to be true.
Contrary to what we might believe about these children, Ahrons found that:
- 76 percent do not wish their parents were still together
- 79 percent feel their parents' decision to divorce was a good one
- 79 percent feel that their parents are better off today
- 79 percent that they are either better off or not affected.
Once the initial stress of a divorce wears off, says Ahrons the "deeply entrenched stereotypes that children remain angry and bitter about their parents' divorces" is simply not the case."
One thing that many adult children said made a difference about the new living arrangements following a divorce situation, was how well their parents managed the child's schedule without conflict between the two parents. Again, my ex and I vowed early on to "keep the peace" and maneuver these situations as calmly as possible for the sake of our children which made our custody arrangement very open and flexible.
Custody should not become a power struggle as the Hillards tragically found out in Doubtfire. Involving the courts and supervised visits with court liaisons only fueled the tension between Daniel and Miranda and this produced rising unhappiness with their children. Custody determinations says Ahrons,"Have been based more on societal values than on the specific needs of individual children." Each situation is different and specific should be treated as such. "When parents are cooperative though the years, their children's potential for trouble," say Ahrons, "are reduced substantially."
This book is full of so much good information on how to manage the transition of divorce, that it should be a "must read" for every divorcing couple with children, because as we all know - for as much hopeful research as we find, there is still research that is disheartening.
Divorce: Navigating all the Research
"We now have an enormous amount of research on divorce and children, all pointing to the same stubborn truth," says Amy Desai, J.D., "Kids suffer when moms and dads split up." Desai writes for Focus on the Family selecting credible research that supports a "passion" statement which reads in part, "We believe that marriage is the foundation of family life."
What divorced couple didn't at one time? Obviously, divorce is not the ultimate outcome for a marriage union and the children who are part of such, but that does not mean there cannot be hope for children of divorce.
Desai's compiled research compares children of divorced parents to children with married parents and shows:
- Children from divorced homes suffer academically. They experience high levels of behavioral problems. Their grades suffer, and they are less likely to graduate from high school.
- Kids whose parents divorce are substantially more likely to be incarcerated for committing a crime as a juvenile.
- Because the custodial parent's income drops substantially after a divorce, children in divorced homes are almost five times more likely to live in poverty than are children with married parents.
- Teens from divorced homes are much more likely to engage in drug and alcohol use, as well as sexual intercourse than are those from intact families.
Pretty disheartening stuff when you are staring at divorce papers and your children are trying to adjust to going in between Daddy's house and Mommy's.
But if you tune into Scientific America online you'll find Hal Arkowitz and Scott O.Lillienfeld who say, "Divorce affects most children in the short run, but research suggests that kids recover rapidly after the initial blow. In a 2002 study, psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington of the University of Virginia and her then graduate student Anne Mitchell Elmore found that many children experience short-term negative effects from divorce, especially anxiety, anger, shock and disbelief. These reactions typically diminish or disappear by the end of the second year. Only a minority of kids suffer longer."
And the American Psychological Association advises that, "Key factors that contribute to healthy adjustment post-divorce include appropriate parenting, access to the non-residential parent, custody arrangements and low parental conflict."
A blogger on ourfamilywizard.com brings the arguments between the two camps together and beautifully warns, "It’s also important to dispel the demoralizing and shaming myth of the 'broken family.'" Although, I have a tendency to be a fence sitter, I read about the jockeying between the different conclusions of research and the article is worth the time.
Miranda: "Daniel, the kids need you."
Daniel: "I need them."
We can argue the research all we want, but it doesn't help those struggling with the pain of divorce and custody battles that have already happened. We can use some research to frighten a couple away from divorce and we can use some research to help a drowning single parent make sense of their child's destiny.
The movie Mrs. Doubtfire sums it up this way: Miranda visits Daniel at his studio, telling him that she and the kids were happier with him involved, and she realizes that the children's happiness is what matters most. She forgives him and successfully appeals the custody ruling, allowing them to share custody and reconcile their differences.
There is a message divorced families need to hear and keep hearing and Euphegenia says it best: "All my love to you, poppet, you're going to be all right... bye-bye."
"Dear Mrs. Doubtfire, two months ago, my mom and dad decided to separate. Now they live in different houses. My brother Andrew says that we aren't to be a family anymore. Is this true? Did I lose my family? Is there anything I can do to get my parents back together? Sincerely, Katie McCormick."
"Oh, my dear Katie. You know, some parents, when they're angry, they get along much better when they don't live together. They don't fight all the time, and they can become better people, and much better mummies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don't, dear. And if they don't, don't blame yourself. Just because they don't love each other anymore, doesn't mean that they don't love you. There are all sorts of different families, Katie. Some families have one mommy, some families have one daddy, or two families. And some children live with their uncle or aunt. Some live with their grandparents, and some children live with foster parents. And some live in separate homes, in separate neighborhoods, in different areas of the country - and they may not see each other for days, or weeks, months... even years at a time. But if there's love, dear... those are the ties that bind, and you'll have a family in your heart, forever. All my love to you, poppet, you're going to be all right... bye-bye."
Anonymous Poll - Did You Mean it When You Said "I do"?
When researching for this hub, I was curious how many couples got married intending to be divorced and I couldn't locate any data. If you're divorced, did you mean it when you said, "I do"?
Ahrons, C. (1994). We're Still Family What Grown Children Have to Say About their Parents' Divorce (p. 281). Harper Collins Publisher.
An Overview of the Psychological Literature on the Effects of Divorce on Children. (2004, May 1). Retrieved November 6, 2014, from http://www.apa.org/about/gr/issues/cyf/divorce.aspx
Arkowtiz, H., & Lillienfeld, S. (2013, February 14). Is Divorce Bad for Children? Retrieved November 6, 2014, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-divorce-bad-for-children/
Briley, S. (n.d.). Our Family Wizard - child custody, parenting time. Retrieved November 6, 2014, from http://www.ourfamilywizard.com/ofw/index.cfm/blog/todaye28099s-families-are-resilient-not-e2809cbrokene2809d/
Desai, A. (n.d.). Marriage & Relationships. Retrieved November 6, 2014, from http://www.focusonthefamily.com/marriage/divorce_and_infidelity/should_i_get_a_divorce/how_could_divorce_affect_my_kids.aspx
APA formatting by BibMe.org.