Jenny Sanford, Bad Parent

What Women Really Think
Feb. 8 2010 10:49 AM

Jenny Sanford, Bad Parent

Jenny Sanford, the soon-to-be-ex-wife of Mark Sanford, governor of South Carolina, is out with a memoir , which, according to the New York Times , she wrote "in part for their four boys, who remain confused about their parents' pending divorce." Jenny apparently thinks her book will set her sons (and the world) straight-as if this is the very thing her boys and the world most need. While I think Mark Sanford is likely a loon and clearly wasn't a good husband (or governor), and she (and the people of South Carolina) are right to divorce him, this is one case where I think Jenny is the bad parent.

I say this because one of the best books I've ever read on divorce is Anthony E. Wolf’s Why Did You Have to Get A Divorce? And When Can I Get a Hamster ? In fact, I've read all Wolf's books-including his one on teenagers (even though I don't have one yet). Wolf is not of the school that all divorces have to be irreparably damaging to children. But he does powerfully and persuasively argue that one of the worst things divorcing parents can do to their kids is to share with them all of their adult, messy, and self-justifying, or even justified, reasons for getting a divorce. Why? Because it invariably puts kids in the middle and asks them (either explicitly or implicitly) to take sides in what really is and should remain their parents' private dispute. Is Mommy right that Daddy should have worked harder on the marriage? Or is Daddy right that the marriage was passionless and doomed? Or vice versa? No kid can answer such questions, because to do so would be to risk the affection of the other parent-the very thing that most terrifies kids about divorce. Kids don't want to take sides. And frankly, they don't care. It's the adults who care. Kids just want to love and be loved by both parents.

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Thus, when such questions arise, Wolf wisely counsels that, even if one parent is truly a jerk, short of situations of actual abuse, the other parent must respond, challenging as this can sometimes be: "That's between your father [or mother] and me." And leave it at that. Anyway, as Wolf notes, if one parent is truly irresponsible or a monster or simply absentee, the kids will discover this on their own. They don't need the other parent pointing it out. In fact, they probably know it all too well-and it makes them sad. Obviously, Jenny Sanford has not followed this advice but instead has chosen to air her family's dirty laundry in public. When the Times reporter asks her why she's chosen to expose her kids' father "as a laughably cheap, self-absorbed, soulless, cheating first-class jerk," she replies snootily: "It's not the book that put him in a bad light." Maybe so. But this book sure puts her in a bad light. Does she really think this is what her kids need, to be thrust into the spotlight and embarrassed yet again in front of their friends (as if their dad's press conference admitting his extramarital affair wasn't mortifying enough), all supposedly for the kids' own edification, and even as their parents' divorce is still raw? I don't.

Sara Mosle teaches writing at Philip's Academy Charter School in Newark, N.J., and has written about education for Slate, the New York Times, and the Atlantic among other publications.

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