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Divorce, Family Style
For the sake of the kids, separated parents can bridge their differences, therapists say. Two local women even started a company to encourage it.
By Donna Gehrke-White
(The Herald News, August 19, 2002)

So the ex was going to get married. To some out-of-towner.

Dr. Irene Schatz, an Aventura psychotherapist, digested all this maturely. Even called the woman.

And got the surprise of her life: The new wife to be, a Canadian lawyer named Debra Baer, turned out to be nice. Really nice.

And they had so much in common. (They even wear the same dress size.)

Now that Baer has settled in South Florida, they’ve become best friends and partners in Collaborative Divorce Consultants, a business they started in Aventura and Plantation to help divorced couples bridge their differences to ensure that their kids flourish despite the split.

It can be done, both women maintain.

After all, they’re an example.

Schatz, who just turned 53, is friends with ex-husband Joel Benson, a Fort Lauderdale advertising executive – as well as current husband Arthur’s ex-wife, Dr. Ellie Pacin. And she’s a doting mom to two stepdaughters and her own daughter Jennifer.

"We have a great family," she says.

Baer, 52, stays in touch with her ex in Canada. She even danced with him at son Harley’s wedding.

"I always thought the more people my son had to love him, the better," Baer says.

Not that there wasn’t anger and sadness over their divorces.

But the women say the secret is separating the bad emotions of a marital breakup from the happiness of sharing children. Couples breaking up, in fact, can’t expect their kids to comfort them during the bad times – but rather the adults must reach out to their kids and allow them to grieve, says M. Gary Neuman of Miami Beach, author of Helping Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way (Random, $16.95). "They have to talk about being sad," he says. "A lot of kids feel emotionally alone during this time."

When interviewing for her dissertation, Schatz saw many divorced couples who were able to successfully make the transition to even better parenting together while living apart.

To do that, she says, divorced parents have to refrain from using the kids as messengers, spies and go-betweens.

"Divorce ends a marriage, not a family," Schatz says.

"We really mean that," Baer adds.

Sometimes, to get angry couples to talk to one another, the two point to pictures of the couple’s children (they require their clients to bring in family snapshots).

What was it like to hold them at birth? To see them take their first steps? To say their first words?

LOOKING BACK

The joy of such remembrances invariably causes couples to soften – and to proceed with finding a common ground to help their kids, the women say.

Such caring and sharing has never been more important, with the 2000 U.S. Census showing a record number of children living with one parent. Some 2.2 million households had only a dad, or about 2 percent of U.S. homes. Single-mother homes made up 7 percent of households in 2000, up from 5 percent 30 years ago.

And many children have to adapt to their parents marrying new spouses – and even a second round of divorce.

While the experts disagree how divorce affects children, they all agree with Schatz and Baer that ongoing anger can hurt the kids more than the actual split.

"How parents handle their divorce determines a lot about how their children will fare, both today and tomorrow," Miami Beach counselor Newman says. Even those who maturely their divorce, such as keeping fights away from the kids and never bad-mouthing the former spouse in front of the child – should not expect children to take the family breakup easily, at least at first, he warns.

SADNESS, COMFUSION

"The overwhelming majority of children of divorce feel sad, confused, angry, guilty and conflicted," Neuman writes in his book. Most view it as the "most devastating event of their childhoods, if not their lives."

He adds that it is impossible for a parent to know how a child will react to divorce: Sometimes children who give an appearance of handling it the best are not, while the child throwing tantrums and crying every night is at least showing emotions and "sending his parents the message that he needs help with his pain."

South Florida public relations executive Phyllis Apple, who represents the women, knows that all too well.

Decades ago, when she and her first husband divorced, she thought her three children handled it well.

"They all made good grades in school," she says, "I thought that if you make good grades in school you were fine. Little did I know the suffering they went through."

Like when Apple would order her kids to call their dad collect – and he would refuse to accept the charges.

Her children, now long grown, still remember the pain – and the hurt they felt when their father didn’t show up for school plays or other important events in their lives.

"We never got together, we never got to share," Apple now says sadly.

The result: Her kids ended up in therapy as adults.

Schatz and Baer say divorcing couples with kids have to get used to the fact that they still must put up with characteristics of their ex that may have driven them to separate.

BEING TOGETHER

And they have to get used to being together for their kids.

Baer, for example, attended her son’s football games with her ex.

Schatz and her gynecologist husband, Arthur, went to his daughters’ dance recitals – although they didn’t sit with his former wife, Pacin. At least not at first.

Attending daughter Laura Lapin’s college graduation together was the icebreaker. But it was the arrival of granddaughter Rebecca Lapin, now 3, that clinched the blossoming relationship.

"Now we’ve become such good friends and companions," says Pacin, a Coral Cables educational diagnostician who even refers clients to Schatz.

The clincher: Everyone had a great time at the February wedding of younger daughter Erin Goldstein, Pacin says.

Now there are lots of big family celebrations – including one for the arrival of Lapin’s second child, Zachary, 6 months.

"Everyone is so much closer and more mature," Laura Lapin says. "It warms my heart that my parents are all fond of each other, all three of them."

So much so that Lapin hugged Schatz and her mom when she found herself walking between them on a recent trip to New York. "I can’t believe I’m walking on Fifth Avenue with my two moms," she blurted out.

Says Schatz: "We share a bond of kinship – and the children are benefiting from it."

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