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Should You Stay Together for the Kids? Hell No!

Choose the pursuit of happiness instead. For yourself, and for your child.

Editor's note: The following piece was published in Taking Sides: Clashing Views in Family and Personal Relationships.

“Maybe it would’ve been better if I could’ve kept us together?” my mother-in-law blurted after a couple glasses of wine about her ex and father of my husband. “I just can’t help but wonder if I should’ve done more.”

Would’ve, could’ve, should’ve? At some turn we all wonder what might be different if only…. Especially when it comes to our babies, we want to do what’s best. But as Republicans said during the 2008 presidential campaign of their VP pick’s teenaged daughter in the family way, life happens. And it doesn’t always mesh with how we see things ought to be. Despite Bristol Palin’s vow to “do the right thing” by choosing motherhood and marrying the dad, she and Levi Johnston split with their baby just weeks old, becoming another notch in America’s rising rates of teen pregnancy and record 40% births out of wedlock.

Life happens, often contradicting our box of shoulds or the latest stats. Still after doing the whole “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage,” many unhappy couples face a crossroads they never dreamed of traversing. Which is what makes so charged the political—as in today’s flush national marriage movement to get or keep parents hitched—and personal decision for couples to stay together, or not, for the sake of their kids.

It depends. Who are you? Where do you come from? What do you value? What’s unhappy and when does it bleed from disillusionment to hopelessness to your own private hell? How real are your choices?

Trapped in a dead end relationship in today’s turbulent economy, more couples say separation is a non-starter when together means the bare necessities for their family. Or to a maritally denied same sex couple, a breakup could turn shattering, as in the legal case of a soured Vermont civil union where the converted straight Christian ex forbids the lesbian non-biological mom to see their daughter. Or take my gay Mexican cousins who wouldn’t dream any disruption to their delicate charge of providing stability to their two adopted sons so scarred by mom’s abandonment and foster care nightmares, including being locked in a dumpster all day.

Clearly the agonizing conundrum immortalized by the Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go” is a luxury for those of us with children but not in dire straights. Physical, verbal or emotional abuse is when push comes to shove no matter the challenges ahead. But that line is fuzzy for too many, let alone the pundit distinction between unhappiness and high conflict. So digging through the variable muck of couples on the verge wanting what’s best for their kids, I say choose the pursuit of happiness—together or not—for self, for child.

Reality is that my mother-in-law had little choice in preserving her marital status. Her husband left for Afghanistan when my husband was just 6 years old. She concludes he didn’t want to be burdened with family, “We had three young children, and he wanted to ride a horse to China!” Reality is that she alone raised the most beautiful, grounded man in the world, and her ex—largely absent for his own boys beyond financial support—is now a routinely engaged papa to our 6-year-old, hiking together in the Rockies and teaching him to write. And reality is that my conservative parents, married 47 years, badly damaged their children by staying together, and their grandson has asked more than once if they’re alive or dead.

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