• Author Daisy Goodwin was 5 when her parents split up. After 21 years of marriage she explains why she would never put her daughters through the same heartache
This January I will have been married for 21 years, to the same man. Nothing so very special about that, were it not for the fact that when I got married I never expected it to last. Not that I didn’t love my husband, far from it; but in my family marriage could be seen only as the triumph of hope over experience. My parents divorced when I was 5 and every single member of my mother’s family is on their second or third marriage. My mother and her three siblings came to maturity in the Sixties and Seventies, when for the first time divorce became an easy way out. Their own parents had been married, unhappily, for many years, so it was hardly surprising that when their first marriages began to founder they chose to end their marriages rather than struggle on.
So far my four siblings and I have managed 50-odd years of marriage or stable monogamy between us. That may be luck, or in my case an extremely long-suffering husband, or it may have something to do with the fact that if you have been through one divorce as a child you are very reluctant to go through it again as an adult and even more unwilling to put your children through the same kind of pain. Because however sensitively a divorce is handled there is always pain for the children involved. As the clinical psychologist Cecilia D’Felice points out: “People aren’t very good at divorce – no one comes out of it unscathed. There is always a loss.”
Loss can reverberate into adult life
That loss can reverberate well into adult life. I have written a book, Silver River, which goes back four generations to find a narrative that makes sense of my parents’ divorce. Readers who come from similar backgrounds to mine have told me how they have had the same urge.
Deborah O’Connor, a 30-year-old writer, whose parents divorced when she was 16, says: “My parents’ relationship makes no sense to me, it is full of darkness and pain. I want to hand down a story to my children complete with pictures of first date, flat, wedding – I want the story of their parents’ relationship to make perfect sense to them.” Her long-term boyfriend has parents who are still happily married and Deborah says she feels jealous of their relationship. “They go around holding hands, they are still friendsand my boyfriend just takes that for granted. I can’t think of anything better than being happily married to the same person when I am 80.”
Among my cohort of forty-somethings it is noticeably the ones from broken homes who are most preoccupied with domestic bliss. The most happily married woman I know, who has four impeccable children, had the most fragmented childhood imaginable. Her desire to create a happy family unit is in direct proportion to the miseries of her childhood. She says that she would do anything in her power to avoid getting divorced.
This blend of cynicism and a romantic vision of the perfect marriage is common among the children of divorced parents. My perfectly married friend says “other people lust after fast cars and fancy houses, but for me the ultimate aspiration is a family kitchen with everyone sitting round the table. That seems magical and precious – precisely because that’s what I didn’t have when I was growing up”.
It’s no coincidence that the children of the divorcing baby-boomers of the Sixties and Seventies have become the “helicopter mothers” of today, constantly monitoring every nuance of their children’s development. In my own case I vowed when my oldest daughter was born that nothing would ever come between us; there would be no anxious train journeys from one parent to another or divided holidays in her childhood. I would always be there. I didn’t mind if she thought of me as boring but I needed her to think of me as a place of safety, a part of her life that would always be ordered and loving.
No childhood can be completely happy
A laudable ambition I hope, but I wonder if in my desire to right the wrongs of my childhood I am going too far in the other direction. No childhood can be completely happy and learning to deal with hurt and disappointment is part of growing up. After all, I may come from a broken home but I now have a successful career in TV production, as well as a husband and two children aged 17 and 8. Ironically, it may have been the problems of my childhood that have pushed me to succeed; indeed in the corporate world such trauma can be an advantage. Cindy Irvine, a top City headhunter, says that many successful CEOs come from broken homes. She adds that early setbacks can foster a desire to win that is essential in a business leader.
But while I know intellectually that a little grit in the oyster is no bad thing, emotionally I find it very hard not to take each setback that my children face as a personal failure on my part to protect them. D’Felice says this is a common reaction. “People become ob- sessed with trying to put right the past. But it’s simply not balanced or realistic to expect your children not to be hurt at some point.”
So what effect will the fetishisation of happy families by parents like me have on our children? Will our carefully tended children grow up fantasising about a family kitchen, or will they be as casual in their attitude to marriage as their grandparents? Will we see a surge in the divorce rate in the 2020s? Even the happiest marriage can have an unexpected legacy. My happily married friend says that her eldest son accuses her of being “too perfect”. D’Felice says that children of happy marriages can grow up in the shadow of that perfection wondering if their marriage will ever be as good as their parents. All of us want to get it right but perhaps the only certainty is some degree of failure.