Don’t assume kids are cool with divorce … it can hurt like hell, for decades

Author and sketch writer James Jeffrey with his father Ian Picture: James Jeffrey
Author and sketch writer James Jeffrey with his father Ian Picture: James Jeffrey

Who remembers all those kids whose parents got divorced in the late 1970s or early 80s? Remember how resilient they were going to be? How divorce wasn’t ideal, but the kids would be OK because surely it was better for them to be raised in homes that weren’t full of rancour?

Kids were resilient! I’m repeating it, because that was the buzz word. They’d adjust to their new reality, and they’d be fine. How true has that proven to be? We can’t know for certain because every case, and indeed every kid, is different, and for sure there were — and are — plenty of miserable marriages that absolutely had to end, but in saying that can’t we also acknowledge the trauma inflicted on the children?

I think we’re going to have to acknowledge it, because those kids are all grown up, and they are starting to tell their side of the story. Not everyone is going to want to hear it.

Most readers will know the name James Jeffrey. He writes the Strewth column for this newspaper. He’s a unique individual, is James: he keeps pet snakes; he plays bagpipes; he speaks a little Hungarian. He’s got a mop of curly blond hair, and he’s got a curious way of walking up on the tips of his toes, flapping his hands a little, which gives him an entirely agreeable air.

James has this week published a memoir, My Family and Other Animus, and while it is in parts extremely funny, it’s the chapters about the divorce he lived through as a child that had me captivated.

This is the gen X experience. Forget what their boomer parents had to say. This is how it was for the kids.

James was eight when the marriage between his English father Ian and his Hungarian mother Eszter came to a dramatic end. He didn’t see it coming, and my best guess is that most kids don’t. James puts it this way: “Despite the impressive and growing body of evidence my parents had been building over the years — the shouting matches, slammed doors — it was something I’d really never thought about. Loveless as it had become, my parents’ marriage was something that was simply there, and probably eternal, like the sky.”

But then a knife was drawn and the police were called, and for some time afterwards James saw his mother only at weekends.

His parents sustained their rage against each other for decades, ­determined, he says, to inflict upon each other as much pain as ­possible.

“To really, really hurt each other. That was the goal,” he recalled this week.

James came to know the inside of the Family Court rather too well as the battle raged around him, and since the supposed resilience of the kids was all the go, nobody even tried to keep them out of it.

James remembers “a friendly man with a moustache, and a brown suit” sitting him down one day to say: “Of course you love your parents equally and they love you, but …”

Well, there’s no but quite like the but that comes in a Family Court matter, is there? “But if you have to choose, who would you prefer to live with?” Brutal.

James’s father won custody, which wouldn’t have been all that common, because in the days before the so-called “shared care amendments” to the Family Law Act of 2006, it was mainly the mum who kept the kids while dad would get them every second weekend and half the school holidays — and maybe for a desultory dinner on Wednesday night at McDonald’s, where there would be a playground and plenty of CCTV.

James recalls in his book the ­instability that became part of his life after the divorce. He tries to find some comfort in the fact that at least both parents wanted him. That wasn’t everyone’s ­exper­ience. But he can still remember everything the day it happened, down to the colour of the linoleum in the room where he was told that the only life he’d ever known was over.

A new, chaotic world rose in its place and, four decades later, he says: “I rarely go a week without thinking about it all.”

Forty years on, he still thinks about it every week? Yes, of course. Because we are all so resilient, aren’t we? We’re actually not. We suffer, and sometimes we take the suffering out on others, in ways both petty, and monstrous.

A year after the divorce of James’s parents went through, the old Family Court building in Sydney got bombed. A judge was murdered. That’s how bad it can get, and of course plenty of wives and children have been killed as they tried to make their way out the door.

Plenty of men have taken their own lives.

James says in his book that he was determined to turn his calamitous upbringing into “lessons that would guide me through life, into marriage, and parenthood”.

He never wanted to “come close to replicating the wasteland my parents called their marriage”.

Their wreckage would become “one of the guiding forces of my life”, he writes. “No part of the carcass has been wasted.”

When time came for James to marry and become a father himself, my God, he was going to do things differently. And that’s where you find joy in his book. On the first page, James says he started writing in part “as an explanation to my children as to why their parents kiss so much”.

Because it’s so gross to see old people — your parents! — kissing.

But, he says, “I can tell that at some level they secretly like that we are this way.” Because marriage is hard and some days — actually for some years, sometimes — it’s only going to be the dog that is happy to see you.

None of which is to say that parents shouldn’t get divorced. It happens, and it’s often necessary. In 25 years of adulthood I’ve never a met a person who was cavalier about their divorce.

A friend told me recently that she had been unhappy in her marriage for a decade.

A decade!

We don’t get that many decades, and by the time you get to your late 40s, you don’t have that many left. And yet she hung in there, and not only to avoid the blasted Family Court, described recently by one of the wise old judges, Robert Benjamin, as a place that thrives on a “culture of bitter, adversarial and highly aggressive litigation”.

He was talking about a case in which the warring parents had been encouraged by rapacious counsel to spend an eye-watering $860,000 on legal fees as they tore each other, and their children, to pieces.

“It must stop,” he said.

Not divorce. You’ll probably never stop that. But the ugliness that comes with it, because it’s really tough on the kids.

Both of James’s parents are now dead, but his mum was still alive when he finished the manuscript. In his hands, their warring comes across a touch comically, which is of course the point. What a waste of energy it was, to spend all that time arguing.

What a sapping of the human spirit. It must have taken some courage for James to write so openly about the collateral damage. However brutal the message, we should all be glad he did.