When a child feels that he does not know what has actually happened to break up his parents' marriage, he is apt to be more disturbed than he would be if he were taken into their confidence. He feels isolated and fills the gaps with what he imagines. And many times what he imagines has to do with himself.
Sally, fifteen, a swift whirlwind of a girl, full of energy and leadership suddenly did a rightabout-face. "All the sparkle went out of her," her sensitive home-room teacher explained. "She resigned the vice-presidency of her class and she's moody and morose. Doesn't get her work in. Won't participate. Something's gone wrong. . ."
"My father left my mother last week!"
Sally brushed a hurried hand across her eyes and flung back her hair. "I hate to say it but I know it was my fault. I've known from 'way, 'way back it would happen sooner or later. And it did."
A few days before her father's departure there had been a big scene. "My mother'd been out shopping and she got home just as my father got home from work and the first thing they both asked me was, had I practiced. I said 'Yes.' Only that brat of a brother of mine told them I hadn't.
"That was the beginning of the end. My father called me a 'liar' and my mother called me a 'fabricator," which was at least a little more civilized. Only then my father got mad and said she should say what she meant and call a spade a spade and not a spaddle. And then he turned on me and he said what he's said so often, that I'd be the death of him and I'd be the cause of him and mother divorcing . . . And now I am.
"I've tried to blame my brother. If he hadn't snitched, things wouldn't have exploded. But if I stop being a liar to myself, I know it's me . . ."
As Sally went on talking, her thinking hitched up with thoughts she'd had much further back. "Now they're separated I'd like to go live with my father. If I weren't scared my mother would just about kill me, I'd say so. I've always wanted to. Like when I was a little girl I'd make up stories. See, I brought a picture book I drew when I was small."
Sally paged the leaves and pointed. "This picture's when I was about six. I'm cooking dinner and Daddy's bringing me a bunch of flowers and my mother and brother aren't there . . . And here in this picture Daddy and I are going to the store to buy ice cream . . . and here in this one Daddy's taking me to the beach! I pretended that Mother'd moved away. I'm not sure, but I think I made up that she'd be gone for always. Only I knew I was bad to dream up that one. So I told myself it was for the summer in summerime and for Christmas at Christmastime and for Easter in the spring. What it came to as a result was practically all year 'round.
"And now Daddy's left me!"
Her imagination took over. "Do you suppose mother found my picture book and showed it to him? And that made them both angry? And that's why he left?"
In Sally's search for an explanation of her father's leaving she had dipped into the past. Dreams of wanting to separate her mother and father were trickling up from the loverivalry period to join with her present-tense thoughts. She didn't know it was quite natural and normal for every small girl to wish that Mother were out of the picture so that she might have Father all to herself. And so the earlier wishes which had made her feel "bad" then were making her feel "bad" now. In consequence, she was all ready and set to believe what her father had flung out repeatedly in his own confusion and anger, "You'll be the cause of our divorce."
Sally was like many other children. When left to their own devices to explain to themselves what has happened, they grow confused. Even very young children then muster fantasies to explain what they otherwise cannot fathom.
Small Howard, four, sits like a wise old man and wheezes. "He's never naughty," his mother comments. "But his asthma started soon after his father left--he was two then."
In his play with a doll family representing Mother and himself, with Father added in order to take him back to the days before his wheezing started, he tells his story. He plays out his scenes with surprising alertness.
The father doll gets mad and scolds the mother. "I don't want eggs for dinner"--he enacts the father's role. "Give me meat," says the father angrily. "Give me meat. Give me meat. Give me meat!"
"No," says the mammy. And she kicks the daddy. She kicks the daddy right out of the door.
In his play, however, he could not let the boy get angry. The very idea made the worry lines and the anxious look reappear.
And then, out came the source of his fear.
"If you get mad you get kicked out. That's what mammies do."
It had happened to Daddy when Daddy got mad. So if he got mad it might happen to him.
In similar manner, small Rory showed that he was anxious that his mother would not want him because of another kind of "badness" that he carried on by touching himself after he was in bed at night. His mother might send him away for being "bad" in this fashion just as his mother had sent his father away for whatever kind of "badness" he had carried on.
Child after child shows similar feelings when the parents separate. Something is wrong, very wrong. Was something wrong with Daddy? With Mother? Is something wrong with me? Why did Daddy, or Mother, go away and leave me? Didn't they love me anymore? Did it happen because I was "bad"? . . . This is the worst fear of all.
One thing that can help prevent such fear from piling up is to tell our children about the divorce or separation as simply and clearly as we possibly can. Even if it happened much earlier and you failed to tell him, you can let him in on it now.