I am not a child of divorce. My birth child is. My three step-kids are, obviously, too.
This has given me a broad, but common, perspective on marriage and parenting. My own mother and father have been wed 51 years and have lived in exactly two houses in the same town for the entirety of their union — the one I lived in until I left for college and the one they moved into after. My daughter has lived in multiple apartments and houses in multiple cities and states in her 24 years, dividing her time — only some of the time — between my home and her father’s since our divorce when she was two. And she and I, along with the man I’ve been with for 15 years (eight as spouses) and the awesome trio I got in the bargain have all learned about the weirdness and wonder of being a stepparent/stepchild/step-sibling together.
We made it through just fine. The children are all happy and doing the things you hope your children will do when they become young adults. Rik and I get along swell with our own ex-spouses — neither of whom remarried, so we’re it for stepparents — and with each other’s. Was it easy? No. Sometimes still isn’t. Was it work? God, yes. Sometimes still is. Was it worth it? And then some.
Still, even after I got my hard-earned happy ending, I sometimes wonder what my kids left unsaid when we adults were caught up in the necessary (and sometimes not-so much) dramas that come with divorce, remarriage and parenting another mother/father’s child. What they wished we would have known while we were making executive decisions about their lives, colored by our own needs.
It’s that premise that drove executive producer Rosie O’Donnell — herself a divorcée — and Emmy-winning director Amy Schatz to create the superbly affecting new documentary Don’t Divorce Me: Kids Rules For Parents On Divorce which premieres tonight at 6:30ET on HBO.
A sort of video primer for parents — believe me, there is plenty here for happily married parents, too — and kids alike, Don’t Divorce Me! gives the spotlight to more than two dozen children, ages 5-10, who share personal stories and photos, songs and hand-crafted flash cards with their rules for grown-ups, in moving and utterly endearing fashion. Their tales are punctuated with inspiring original music from The Roots and Mossi, plus two cathartic tunes written by Bella, 10, and Lili, 8, with the help of award-winning children’s singer-songwriter Brady Rymer and sung in the heartbreakingly tender voices of children.
“When thinking about divorce, a child’s perspective can often be left out of the equation” O’Donnell explained. “This film puts these kids front and center, advocating on their behalf.”
And allowing them to do so all by themselves, as well — with humor, grace and an astonishing amount of wisdom. There are no adult interviews and parents are shown only sporadically.
• At a Chicago elementary school, the Lunch Bunch support group open their lunchboxes and bare their souls. Josie, an 8-year-old with a flair for drama, says that because she’s so frequently shuttled between her parents’ houses, she sometimes feels like her real home is in the car. Ember, an equally expressive 7-year-old pip in a pink dress says she’s most mad at her mom for demanding a divorce and used to worry that it happened because she was naughty. Somber, dark-eyed Aiden, 7, is mad at his mom, too, but clearly feels bad for being angry. And Megan, a laid-back 7-year-old who’s economical with language mainlines peanut butter to Ember’s amusement.
• Erin, 9, and Katie, 6, a couple of verbose, curly-haired corkers display their “before and after” family photos and explain that yelling is normal at their house, so that part of the marital breakdown didn’t seem so obvious. Or traumatic. Still, Erin says, when her parents announced their split, she hoped it was April Fools Day and that was just a terrible joke.
• Nine-year-old Olive says that her parents’ split felt totally random, too, and because of it, she doesn’t like change — as evidenced by the wavy, never-cut hair that hangs past her tailbone, and the shelves-ful of photos and trinkets she accumulates. “I like always having a piece with me from my past,” Olive explains.
• Phoenix, 6, and his doting stepdad go for ice cream and play football and chess, but the boy still looks somber about his redefined family.
• Five-year-old Sophia and her 8-year-old brother Zayn had a mommy and a mama before the women split. They wander the hallways and the backyard of their lovely, about-to-be-empty house — a heartrending reminder that human connections are not the only thing lost to divorce. “I wish for them to get un-divorced and not argue anymore,” says Sophia quietly, wrapping herself in a long blue curtain.
• Onallee an earnest girl with a blond bob says she wishes her father wouldn’t take offense when she asks to check in on her mother when she’s spending time with him. “Sometimes I miss my mom more than I miss my dad,” confesses Onallee. “I miss him in my heart, but I don’t cry when I miss him. Sometimes I cry when I miss my mom.”
Give Us More Love Than We Need, her sign reads.
• Peppermint-Patty-voiced 9-year-old hipster Grace has an edgy asymmetrical hairstyle and her own drum set and expertly plays along to The Knack’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” “I’m totally fine with it,” she grins of her current family situation in a way that makes me believe it. “I mean, I get double Christmas, double Easter and I get to two Wii’s! I actually kinda like it!” Grace’s parents live in the same sprawling apartment building and every Tuesday she and her 6-year-old brother Griffin enjoy “alone time” — an evening with, and the individual attention of, one parent apiece. Griffin especially likes his solo visits to his dad’s because it affords him a shot at the top bunk his sister commandeers when they’re there together.
The half-hour wraps with the story of bashful 5-year-old Amber, who is preparing to graduate kindergarten. She’s excited because her dad is coming from “Massachu-sips” for the occasion. When she sings her “moving up” song about going to first grade, to the tune of “New York, New York,” I am beaming and bawling all at the same time. “A good family treats each other nice,” surmises this tiny sage. “They support each other.”
As a daughter, a divorcée, a mother, a step-mom, Don’t Divorce Me! is the most moving 30 minutes of television I’ve seen in a very long time. Possibly ever.
Don’t Divorce Me! Kids’ Rules For Parents On Divorce premieres tonight at 6:30ET on HBO.