Surviving Divorce with Children's Stories
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You would think the primary reason you read to your children is to enlighten them, teach them right and wrong, and expand their horizons. As I look back on our reading days together, I realize I became a better person from what we read. I’ve kept this from my children, of course, because, God forbid, they should find out I’m not perfect.
In the beginning, there were what I called the “chewy books”, those books we could read and chew on at the same time. Although I was beyond chewing on books (in most cases), my children were not. Lessons my daughters learned came in the form of eye to hand to mouth coordination. I should mention the wonderful sensory experience of chewing a book until it is essentially unreadable. Maybe I should have taken advantage of those sensory experiences as I navigated through a divorce when my girls were three and nine months. Chewing might have been a wonderful stress release and escape from anxiety.
As we three grew, we read books with moral lessons. Moral lessons for them, but indeed, for me as well. The Berenstain Bears books developed my ethical principles which were a bit loose in my early days of motherhood. As my husband had left us with limited means, I was not above sticking a couple of cans of tuna in my purse when we were exceedingly low on cash. And there were times those Bears brought me around to stop spouting expletives at my absent spouse.
I recall I was clearly not very forgiving or tolerant of others’ rights in those days as The Golden Rule and The Forgiving Tree pointed out to me. The desire to cut down my neighbor’s ficus tree because he would not quit playing his f—king trumpet at 4 a.m. was a case in point.
“Mommy, you always tell us ‘sweetness and light’ when we are angry.”
“I know, honey, but Mr. Snyder is not a nice man.”
In addition, the Bears taught me to clean my room as I was worse than my kids during a period of mild depression when I thought, f—k the room. (Messy Room).
As an aside, I got a kick out of my eldest, who just gave birth to her first child, declaring to me recently: “That damn book, Messy Room, haunts me even today when I’m trying to dig out my hoard-fest of a coop.” Ah ha!, I thought. You too? Me too.
In addition, the Bears reminded me to always tell the truth, (The Truth). So, what if I told my kids they couldn’t play alone in the basement because a stinky little man lived in the furnace.
My youngest challenged me. “If there’s a little stinky man in the furnace, Mommy, why do you go down there alone sometimes?”
I hadn’t the heart to tell her that Mommy was so mean and nasty herself then that the little man was afraid of her.
“I have magical power against the little man, darlin’. It’s called a big stick.”
I often found I could not comfortably tell my young children I was in need of change because I was still faking a parent-as-role-model image. So, what’s a little white lie?
One children’s book I keep on my shelf even today is PJ the Spoiled Bunny by Marilyn Sadler. Back in the day, I was embarrassed to realize that I was in fact, a spoiled adult. My children thought P.J. was hilarious, but I, like P.J., liked to do my own thing, and I didn’t really like cooperating with others. I had told myself of late I didn’t need friends, and who needs a husband if he didn’t want to play my way. As my daughters chortled and poked fun at P.J., I made a mental note to check myself into the Spoiled Bunny Clinic.
A friend gave us Catherine Marshall's Story Bible. Not only was it beautifully illustrated by young children but it obviously gave illustrated hints on conduct. My three-year old appeared from her bedroom one morning and announced that she had read it from cover to cover, including the pictures and would, therefore, never, ever, have to read it again. Although I wanted to encourage her to believe in her excellent reading skills, I sneaked the Catherine Marshall Bible into our reading times, just to be sure we all picked up the full impact of godly principles illustrated by the ten commandments. Another pierce to mommy’s heart. How many of the ten commandments had I broken in one week? Several.
God love Laura Ingalls Wilder. On the positive side of my moral upbringing, rereading the Wilder books with my kids taught me perseverance. If Laura could live in a dugout house, bear dangerous storms across the prairie, and trudge miles and miles to reach a new frontier home, by God, I could get off my rear, stop whining, get a job, and stop stealing cans of tuna. The pioneer spirit in those books helped pick up my sorry ass and get me on with living at a difficult time in my life.
Remember school book contests? Battle of the Books? As the girls got older, library book competitions lassoed me into new and old tales of courage and survival. I learned about people groups across the world who lived in severe poverty or had to run for their very lives. I needed to see that. My life had never been threatened by war, famine, poverty, or hatred. Well, until divorce, that is. In fact, being a P.J. Bunny type, I often lived a life of indifference to people who suffered.
As a parent mentor for the book contest, I had to read all 10-12 selected middle grade books. Two books in the Battle series expanded my horizons and created a compassion for those who have struggled. The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig is a memoir of Esther as a young girl and her family captured and sent to Siberia by the Russians to spend five years at hard labor. That it's a true story added to the emotional impact. In discovering historical true stories with my children, I was reminded that many had suffered terrible times in history. And I discovered a new emotion – gratitude for my own life.
Gary Paulson’s Hatchet blew me away in another sense. Talk about survival. My troubles looked trivial as I trudged through the woods with Brian, as he lived through a plane crash and had to challenge the wilderness. I would get up from a chapter of Hatchet thankful to look out on a green lawn and see squirrels in my habitat. No moose. No bears. Just me and the chipmunks. I know, what a wuss, you may be thinking. Remember, I was a single mother with two children under the age of 12. I lived a different kind of survival. Again, Brian’s story reminded me the human spirit has sometimes unlimited will to survive. I was helped to believe in my own survival as Brian refused to give up.
Today, my daughters and I have survived. They have children of their own now. One is a chewer. The other is just beginning to explore the Berenstain Bear’s ethical horizons. My children have more ethics in their little toes than I ever had. But I’ve tried to show here that parents can be converted to moral beings and learn empathy for others by reading good literature with their children. And they can survive a divorce.