I looked around my book group one night and realized we were almost all children of the 1970s divorce boom. I persuaded a few of my friends to let me interview them. They were hesitant at first and didn't want their last names used.
"Why dredge it up again?" they asked. "It's ancient history." But their childhood memories of their families breaking up are vivid.
"I don't know if you have seen the movie 'The Ice Storm,'" said my friend Elizabeth, "but when I saw that it completely reminded me of my parents."
Elizabeth's parents were "swingers" -- partner-swapping with another couple.
"My mother ended up marrying the man, who became my stepfather. They later divorced. My dad was engaged to the woman he was 'swinging' with, but they never got married," Elizabeth explained.
She learned the story behind her parents' divorce when she was in her 20s. "The divorce just kind of quietly melted our family," she remembered.
Elizabeth and her little sister blamed themselves. Elizabeth was a first-grader.
My friend Amy was 8 when her parents separated. My favorite story she tells is about finding a bunch of photographs she and her little sister took of their Barbie dolls around the time of their parents' divorce. All the Barbies are nicely dressed and lined up in a row. In the bottom of the shot, dangling by one foot, is Ken. Amy's dad had just split.
"I thought it was like teams," said Amy. "And we were part of the losing team. And we got dumped by the captain."
“We had embarked on this major social revolution without any knowledge about how it might affect children.”Judith Wallerstein
The "captain" would return on Sundays to take his daughters for rides on his boat. Amy resented the much lower standard of living she had at her mom's house, where grapes and milk had suddenly become expensive.
Stephanie from book group was 11 when her dad began to be away for long periods of time. Stephanie remembered her mother was often teary, and would rush to answer the phone privately in her bedroom in case Stephanie's father might be calling.
Finally, her mom told Stephanie and her 5-year-old little brother that their dad was coming home to take them to the mall.
"My brother and I were so excited. We thought we were going to go shopping. And she kept telling us over and over, it's not a surprise. It's not a surprise. It's not going to be fun," Stephanie recalled.
When their dad came to pick them up, he didn't get out of the car. He drove the children to McDonalds.
"Our mother gave us -- had given me -- a letter to give to him. He read it in McDonalds before he told us," Stephanie recounted. "And threw it in the garbage."
Stephanie went home and cried with her mother. Then her mother asked if he had kept the letter.
"I somehow knew that was an important thing. And I said, 'Yes he did.' And my brother, who was 5, said 'No, he didn't, no he didn't, he threw it in the garbage.' And I said, 'No, he kept it,' and my brother kept, like a 5-year-old would, just kept pounding away, 'No, he threw it away.'"
Elizabeth, Amy and Stephanie are all married and mothers themselves now. They're successful in their jobs. You could argue they have turned out fine. But the effects of divorce can be hard to see.
For Elizabeth, whose parents were the swingers, it took a long time for her to notice anything was wrong with her.
"I grew up always trying to put a positive spin on the divorce for other people," said Elizabeth. "If people said, 'What's your greatest strength?' I would always say, 'I'm really adaptable' because I moved so much, changed schools so often, and always was able to roll with it. I realized that was fiction I told myself for years."
Elizabeth wanted everything to be fine, and the culture was giving her that message. Divorce was becoming more common, and there wasn't the same stigma as in previous decades. But people really didn't know how divorce would affect kids over the long term.
A SOCIAL REVOLUTION
Judith Wallerstein has sat on many a television studio couch, advising the nation on children and divorce. She's a pioneer in the field. When she started, it was a barren landscape.
Back in the early 1970s, Wallerstein was teaching at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. She taught a class on working with troubled children. She began getting calls from teachers and parents asking for help. Children of divorcing parents were acting out and having behavior problems.
"So I took myself to the Berkeley library, which is one of the greatest libraries in America, and I found that there was no research, there was absolutely no study. We had embarked on this major social revolution without any knowledge about how it might affect children," said Wallerstein.
So she launched her own study, with 131 kids in Marin County whose parents got divorced in 1971. Wallerstein interviewed them about their feelings and experiences. She kept following them for decades and wrote bestselling books about her findings.
The prevailing wisdom at the time was that if the parents were better off getting out of the marriage, the kids would be better off, too.
Wallerstein's young study subjects didn't agree. Eventually, other researchers would confirm what the kids were saying -- they struggled more with mental health problems, trouble in school and relationships.
"It's one of the few issues in a society where what's best for the parents is not necessarily best for the children," said Wallerstein.
After divorce, Wallerstein noticed different trajectories for parents and kids. For grownups, the divorce was the low point. But within three years, they tended to recover and move on with their lives.
For children, it wasn't so linear. They felt the aftershocks during adolescence when they defined who they were, and again in early adulthood as they created their own relationships.
Other researchers contend Wallerstein's findings are too full of doom and gloom. But Wallerstein wanted parents to see divorce from a child's point of view. What the kids told her was tough to hear.
"They said, 'The day they divorced was the day my childhood ended,'" said Wallerstein.