Commonwealth of Massachusetts Trial Court
Probate and Family Court Department
Standing Order 4-08
This court finds that the interests of the minor children of parties appearing before it would be well served by educating their parents about children’s emotional needs and the effects of divorce on child behavior and development. It is hereby ordered that all parries to a divorce action in which there are minor children are ordered to attend and participate in an approved Parent Education Program. No (divorce hearing) will be held until the court receives a certificate of attendance from each party.
I needed a piece of paper. One last piece of paper. A piece of paper that showed that I, a divorcing parent, had attended a class mandated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts instructing me in “Understanding the Effect of Divorce on Children.” My lawyer warned me: do not show up in court without this piece of paper.
You do not need to take a class to get married. There’s no required reading to become a parent. But the great Commonwealth requires divorcing parents to complete coursework. The need for this escapes me. I suppose the reason at heart is solid: you should know how to be a responsible single parent, even if you can’t stand your ex-spouse. And listening to my fellow classmates, that certainly seemed to be the mood. The 15 attendees were much more interested in talking about the bastard/bitch they were divorcing than listening to anything the state had to say.
And I was much more interested in listening to them. And, occasionally, debating them. Because, you know– me.
As if “Divorce Class” could do anything else, it is designed to make you feel absolutely awful about your impending split. The only practical advice given about co-parenting is “communicate with your ex-spouse,” but of course if we could do that, we probably wouldn’t have been in the room. Take that, Standing Order 4-08.
And although the State insists on shaping the quality of Divorcing Parents, it does so by providing material that is 30 years old. The extremely bored class leader outlined the syllabus for single parenthood using an overhead projector and transparencies. He screened two, ten-minute “films” off a VHS. (“What? No Beta?” I asked. Nobody laughed.) Bored Teacher showed us examples of children’s crayon drawings that are so on the nose, I cringed at what the state must think of me.
We see a crayon drawing of a happy family.
“What can we say about the family in this drawing?” asks Bored Teacher.
“That they’re happy?” I half-ask, half answer.
“Good!” he tells me in the way you might praise your schnauzer for finally pooping outside. Then he shows a crayon drawing of a sad family. Frowns. Tears. Bad stick-body language. He asks what we can say about the mood of this family. Again, silence. Really? I’m going to be the only one in this class who answers stuff? I’m the only one who wants this to end?
“They’re sad,” I say, and I get the same verbal pat on the head. I get an unwarranted sense of pride. I have skillfully read the mood of a 6 year-old with a box of Crayolas.
Several drawings later, and it occurs to me that I’m not looking at a random selection. The state has picked the saddest drawings from the saddest children in the saddest homes. I begin to wonder if the state didn’t just draw these itself, using its left hand, and thinking about being picked last for sports. Another shows a plane labeled “747” with a crack right down the middle and a family falling out of it. Heavy. But I spot the glaring error: the plane has only one level, and 747s have two. Sloppy work, Standing Order 4-08.
The program is supposed to consist of two classes of about two and a half hours each. But I find a “condensed” class that is four hours on one night. I can get my piece of paper– in one hour less! Take that, system! Even though we’re supposed to be listening and asking about the information in the program, people can’t help but make it about themselves. So when the topic of safety comes up, one parent asks:
“What if my ex- decides it’s OK to go skydiving with my child, but I don’t think it’s OK?”
Bored Teacher agrees that could be (could be?) dangerous and that a conversation should be had and that there should be communication. Most of the night is like that– in the passive voice. Discussions should be had. Timetables should be set. Ideas should be shared. A ten minute smoke break should ensue.
Outside, I talk with a guy who has the thousand-mile stare. I make small talk. He lights up and goes right into his divorce history with me. He did nothing. She took his daughter. He will never marry again. He’s not mad, just disappointed. I nod a lot. I didn’t ask, so I’m not really going to follow up. But I’m all for venting, especially while smoking, so I let my companion ramble on.
Side note: I would never recommend smoking. However, if you ever find yourself bitterly complaining to a stranger in the dark, light up a cigarette. It really adds to the noir effect and lets you punctuate points with that small, glowing ember. And your deep sighs of pain and regret have a nice smoky air swirling about them.
Back into class. There are lots of discussions about me Me ME. It feels like a state-mandated self-help book club. I start to sort out the likely dumpers from the dump-ees. I know– there were plenty of mutual divorces going on, just like mine. But what fun is that to imagine? Plus, people were dishing. Some stories were unintentionally funny. Some, like the brave and wrenching confession of an abused woman, were decidedly not.
Bored Teacher finally got back to the materials. He talked a lot about our failed marriages. How we will cope after the failed marriage. What the children of a failed marriage can expect. How a failed…
And suddenly I turned off my humor meter.
It’s that word: fail. All of us in that room– the skydiving worrier, the smoking sigher, the woman brave enough to leave the abusive husband–we’ve failed. The state is telling us we are failures. As in getting an F. That there is exactly one guideline for a passing grade in marriage: being married until you die. Anything else is a failure. The couple that stays together 30 years after they’ve lost all interest in each other is a success, but the couple that decides to split and find new happiness is not? The woman who escaped abuse? She was supposed to stay in that situation to “succeed?”
I had plenty of failures in my marriage. And plenty of achievements–three teenage successes, for starters. So maybe I give myself about a C. But an F? We need to start grading marriage on a curve.
(Oh, and I still have that piece of paper. The state never collected it, yet I successfully divorced. Take that, Standing Order 4-08.)