Friday, June 7, 2013

To a “broken family,” graduations represent more than just a diploma

Caroline and Scott with their dad, Ron Byrd, at Caroline's graduation party
When my first husband and I divorced, the stigma that fell upon our family that bothered me most was this one: that we were a “broken family,” and my kids were part of a “broken home.”

The term may be outdated, but it still was very much a part of the vernacular back in 1998. Nearly overnight, my kids had gone from being smart, high-functioning and whole to being “at risk.” (That wasn't an "official" label as much as one I knew would be placed on them by well-meaning teachers and administrators who, understandably, worried about the impact the divorce was having on the kids.) 

So my ex-husband and I set out to disprove the labelers.  And as the younger of our two children walked across the stage at the Knapp Center May 19 to receive her bachelor’s degree, a not-so-small part of me said, “Ha.”

The at-risk label isn’t without merit; when couples divorce, the sad reality is that children are often the pawns in stressful situations not of their making; arguing, legal wrangling and back-and-forth living arrangements become everyday parts of their lives. My kids were 9 and 6, and at times during the early part of the process, their dad and I fell victim to our anger and our own confusion, and the kids suffered emotionally.

One thing that never fell by the wayside, though, was our commitment to the kids’ academic performance. To his credit, their dad left the lion’s share of the management of that up to me; just as he taught them to bat and pitch, I taught them to read and write, and intellectual curiosity was alive and well in our little home.

In spite of the back-and-forth and the drama and the mom who cried a lot, we somehow managed to get the homework done. We read every night and talked about the world’s events; we watched the news and took our own field trips on weekends. Looking back, academics remained our haven in a swirl of change. Money was tight and stress was very much a part of our new lives, but we still had books, and we still had ideas.

We also were part of a school community that rallied around the kids to keep them anchored. When I received a cancer diagnosis months after the separation, the support was palpable; friends and neighbors joined our extended families in making sure the kids’ lives didn’t change any more than they already had. And school principals and counselors and a very special teacher named Mrs. Lynch kept my kids feeling and talking and processing.

Their dad and I never missed a conference. Even when we couldn’t say two civil words to one another, we somehow managed to sit in those little chairs and be part of our children’s academic worlds. We united in our commitment to not allow anyone – ourselves included – to use the divorce as an excuse to do less well. And as we became more functional as an ex-couple and added a supportive set of stepparents to the mix, our kids were able to relax, and things gradually fell into place.

Being part of a “broken home” made life more difficult for my children in countless ways; it’s hard to focus on multiplication tables when life as you knew it has disappeared, and you’re trying to figure out what you can and can’t hold onto. But if you make a decision to not allow a risk factor to define you, it doesn’t have to.

The practice of labeling is irritating to me in so many ways; I understand why such things as family upheaval need to be identified so children can receive the assistance they need, but at the same time, generalizations are disingenuous. Even when a family changes, elements that gave that family an identity in the first place don’t have to change. We were always an academically focused family, so when everything else blew up, that remained a constant.

My children are made of strong stuff, and they’re the ones who deserve the credit for maintaining the determination that resulted in academic achievement. But it took a village to get our kids through college, and not making it happen wasn’t ever an option. In a way, the degrees they earned represent our family’s collective assistance on fighting back. Bad things happen to all of us, but we can choose not to let them define us.

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