Do Kids Cause Divorce?

A new generation of Philly parents is doing what used to be unthinkable: divorcing when their kids are barely out of diapers. How rising expectations are killing modern marriage

In June, Melissa* packed the U-Haul with everything that was hers and everything that was theirs — the Disney videos, the Littlest Pet Shop figurines, the ballet tutus, the Dr. Seuss book about the places they’ll go.

And she left.
Left the house in Jenkintown she’d been living in for nine years.

Left the man she’d been married to for eight of them, the father of her five- and two-year-old daughters.
Left the life that was nothing like she’d imagined it would be back when having kids was just a hazy someday-down-the-road plan, all “white picket fence and happy, happy, happy,” she says.
So she took the girls. And left. For good.

“I’m scared,” she says. Will she be able to make it financially on her own? Will the kids hate her for taking them away from their dad? Was this the best decision for them? Or was it simply the best decision for her?
Melissa, 36, was certain of only one thing: She couldn’t stay married to that man.

And she wasn’t the only woman she knew who was feeling that way. Of the 10 friends she’d met at the Moms Club she’d joined just after her five-year-old was born, half were now talking divorce. One had already split; one was about to file papers. Two were in last-resort couples’ counseling. And one had a five-years-until-divorce plan.
“I feel like I’m surrounded by people with little kids who are trying to get divorced,” Melissa says. She wondered if it was just a weird coincidence among her Philadelphia friends, a “divorce cluster.” But the more she opened up about what she was going through, the more stories she heard about similar couples all over the country. The news wasn’t entirely shocking, given the widely quoted 50 percent divorce rate in this country. Except for one tiny detail: The divorce rate isn’t 50 percent. Not for Melissa and her friends.

If they’d gotten married in the ’70s and were now calling it quits after 35 or so years, they’d be part of the only generation ever to hit that 50 percent failure rate — which is where that statistic comes from. But ever since 1979, the divorce rate’s actually been dropping, says Wharton economist Betsey Stevenson, who studies marriage and divorce. These days, according to Stevenson, very few people like Melissa — college-educated moms who were in their late 20s when they got hitched — are filing for divorce before they hit their 10-year anniversaries. Their divorce rate? Just seven percent.
So why, then, are Philadelphia’s marriage therapists seeing more and more new parents on their couches? Why are divorce lawyers hearing more dads and moms debate preschool drop-off in their custody arrangements, rather than college tuition? Why are more kids participating in elementary-school programs implemented to deal with “changing families”? Why are so many parents having affairs, like the one Melissa started when her youngest was only eight months old?

“More of my new parent-clients are saying, ‘This isn’t good, this isn’t for me, I’ve had it,’ and that’s it,” says Center City divorce attorney Dorothy Phillips.
This isn’t good was exactly what Melissa was feeling. For her.