Reprinted from Redefining Relationships.
I’ve often wondered if my life would really be different if someone had answered my mother’s phone call in the early sixties when she reached out for a therapist to help save her marriage to my father. The story I’ve heard recounted many times since is that it was the end of summer, a last desperate attempt to rescue a 17-year marriage, but since no one was available to help, the chance for reconciliation passed. Their union, and the last hope for our intact family, dissolved forever.
By four, Maybelle, a young widow who had arrived in the Washington, D.C. area from South Carolina seeking respite from the poverty and discrimination of the time that faced many African Americans in the south, became my primary caretaker. Her devotion, love and joyful spirit remains my fondest childhood memory.
The youngest of four, by my twelfth birthday, I became the only child regularly living in our comfortable suburban home. For the most part, it was Maybelle and me, as my mother’s constant routine included busying herself to emotional and physical exhaustion week after week, year after year, serving her therapy patients and a father lawyering himself tirelessly for elite corporate clients and the new family he quickly created, with little time, patience or apparent desire to stay engaged in the life of a son he barely knew.
Throughout it all, Maybelle and I always found reason to laugh.
I don’t remember anyone ever asking if I’d done my homework, how I’d done on a test, what was happening at school, with friends, or talks about drugs, alcohol, sex or much of anything else important. I do remember my father’s rage when he had to take time from his busy law practice to go to court with me as a young teenager after I got in trouble for being delinquent. I can still see his angry face and feel his words as he told me how ashamed he was and that he’d never forgive me for embarrassing him.
The lessons I learned came mostly from friends I found whose parents were nearly entirely absent from their lives too. Many others emerged from the promises I vowed to myself during those years to one day give my own children a different childhood. When I found myself in a painful, destructive marriage with their mother, it took years to finally surrender to the realization that I could not save them from the legacy of divorce. Although I knew that what was in my hands was the ability to stay actively involved in their lives through shared custody, coaching their sports teams, volunteering in their schools, and choosing career and life decisions that allowed me to make being their father my top priority throughout their childhood years. Together, we could learn as much as possible about breaking the cycle of divorce to help our family and others.
Nearly half a century after the phone call that wasn’t answered for my parents and the marriage that wasn’t saved, I regularly find myself seeking out the young children of couples who attend marriage education classes I now help organize and teach to thousands of couples in South Florida and elsewhere, silently pledging to each of them that I will always do my best to competently answer their parents’ calls.
Last week, I had a chance to review and report on research looking at the impact our brief workshops are having on their parents. The results brought statistical, scientific evidence to support the testimonials and grateful appreciations that have become almost commonplace at the conclusion of our 12-hour classes. I was particularly eager to see the results from the fathers of these children, hoping to finally find an answer to the question I’d asked myself about my own parents’ relationship for much of my life.
In our six-month follow-up with nearly 500 men, we found:
- 95% reported improvement in communication with their partner;
- 93% reported improvement in regularly sharing appreciations;
- 92% reported improvement in their ability to resolve conflicts constructively;
- 84% reported improvement in their physical intimacy;
- 89% reported improvement in their ability to confide emotions;
- 94% reported improvement in their overall relationship.
[For a copy of the full report, see fatherhood.pairs.com.]
Would that have been enough to save my parents’ marriage, I wondered? Had my parents attended our class, would it have changed the course of my own life? While I’ll never really know the answer to that question, I do know that for these children, they’ll have a better shot at keeping the childhood, support, encouragement, and resources that are lost by millions of youngsters when their parents breakup, the childhood I lost too.
From her home in heaven, I hear Maybelle’s laughter, feel her warm embrace, and find comfort in the idea that perhaps that’s the grand scheme of it all.