When Chanukah begins next week, Randy Fuerst and Susan Arnold will mark the Jewish Festival of Lights with the same beloved traditions they've enjoyed since they married in 1983. They'll gather with their kids around the menorah, and Leah, 17, Rachel, 15, or Jonathan, 13, will light the first candle. The family will pray and sing a few songs. Dad will twirl dreidels and the kids will inspect their gifts. When the celebration is over, Mom will give everyone a hug. Then she'll walk out the door and drive back to her own home.
Randy and Susan, of Lake Charles, La., divorced in 1998, but they are far from sworn enemies. They're among a fast-growing number of divorced moms and dads who spend holidays together so the kids don't have to choose between parents or shuttle back and forth. In a dramatic change from the traditional bitterness of divorce, many parted parents are doing their best to be cordial, even warm, especially on the most important days of the year. "Divorce is part of the lifestyle in 50 percent of families," says Andrew Schepard, director of the Center for Children, Families and the Law at Hofstra Law School and one of the country's leading divorce researchers. "Americans have come to view divorce as a natural experience." With mediation instead of litigation now available or required in 37 states, more couples than ever are splitting up without acrimony. "It's a sea change," says Raoul Felder, a New York divorce attorney who took part in many of the most high-profile and nasty breakups of the '80s and '90s. In the past, says Felder, divorce was about anger and revenge. Now, he says, a divorce is more likely to involve appraisers than private investigators.
Experts say that by coming together, divorced parents provide a more stable and healthy environment for their kids. A decade ago the lingering animosity between Anne Browning and her ex-husband nearly ruined the holidays. The children would spend Christmas morning with Dad in Arizona, then catch a flight to Chicago for dinner with Mom. "It was hard," says Molly Mackin, the middle child, now 29. Times have changed. This year Molly and her husband, John, hosted Thanksgiving at their home near Sacramento, Calif., for everyone: her parents, her dad's wife and her mom's husband. The anger was gone. Browning, 54, says of her ex: "He was a different person then, and so was I."
Such displays of gallantry were far rarer before 1969, when California Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the nation's first law permitting no-fault divorce. No-fault--which allows parents to split up without having to declare war--has become the norm rather than the exception. Mediation has also been on the rise: 13 states require it for divorces involving children, and 24 others allow judges to order it in almost any case they see fit, according to Hofstra's Schepard, who notes that exceptions are made in cases of domestic violence. Divorce lawyers are also encouraging more cooperation, and some specialize in "collaborative divorce," an arrangement where parties agree in advance to treat each other respectfully and resolve disputes without going to court. Jurisdictions in 40 states even require new divorces to undergo a four-hour education course on co-parenting.
Plenty of parents already know firsthand what's at stake for their kids, especially Gen-Xers, who grew up in a society where one out of every two marriages ended in divorce. They remember the restraining orders and midnight screaming matches that marred their own childhoods, and vow to spare their children similar turmoil. "Watching my parents go to war gave me a great model of what not to follow," says Jeff Thomas, 41, an organization consultant in Arizona. "It played out so heavily and bitterly and so publicly in the confines of our home. I just didn't want to repeat that." When Thomas and his wife, Pam, faced their own divorce, they asked a mediator to arrange a parenting schedule for their son, Alek, 10, and they now cohost his birthday parties.
Another big change is the greater role played by today's dads in the raising of their kids. Fathers who share in the parenting during marriage expect nothing less after divorce. "It never would have occurred to me to not parent my daughter," says Guy Regal, 39, an art and antiques dealer in Manhattan who sees his 6-year-old five days a week. Constance Ahrons, professor emerita at the University of Southern California and author of "We're Still Family: What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents' Divorce," says the concept of Dad as simply the moneymaker, not a nurturer, has become largely anachronistic. "Today, it's unacceptable for a father not to be involved," she says. "As we've moved towards more egalitarian marriages, we've also moved towards more egalitarian divorces."
Although researchers like Ahrons have known for years that how parents divorce matters even more than the divorce itself, some parents still have trouble not putting their children in the middle of conflict. Two weeks ago a divorced father in Louisiana asked his 9-year-old daughter, Madelyn, what she wanted for Christmas. She presented him with a handwritten list: "1) camera; 2) cheerleader outfit including shoes; 3) stationary [sic] with my name on it." Number four, marked with three big stars: "My mom and my dad to get along and Smom [stepmom]."
Even when parents set aside their negative emotions to give their children a happy holiday, it isn't always easy. The first time Sharyl Jupe hosted Thanksgiving dinner for (deep breath here) her ex-husband Larry Ford, their two teenage children, Larry's wife Jann Blackstone-Ford, Jann's daughter from a first marriage, Larry and Jann's daughter Harleigh and Sharyl's divorced mother and father, the atmosphere was decidedly awkward. Sharyl spent nearly a week agonizing over whether to serve creamed corn. "It wasn't that anyone really, really liked it, but it was a tradition from Larry's family." At first, Jann had a hard time, feeling awkward and a little left out. "It's not that I thought they were going to run off together," Jann says, "but there's a lot of history there." Within half an hour, however, the kids were so animated and cheerful that all the tension melted away. "They were laughing, they were happy," says Sharyl. "They didn't have to run out the door and worry that another parent would be angry that they were late." Jann and Larry relaxed, too. "Kids don't have the issues parents have," says Larry. "They just know that they love everybody." Eventually, Sharyl and Jann not only learned to get along but became close enough friends to coauthor "Ex-Etiquette: Good Behavior After a Divorce or Separation," which offers techniques for enjoying what they decided to view as a "bonus family."
Although such advice books can reduce the stress of joint holidays, there is still no panacea for the pain of divorce. Randy Fuerst admits that on more than one occasion after he and Susan first split, he slipped away from the table to have a good cry alone in the bedroom, grieving for the irreparable fissure in his family. "You don't long for the other person," he says. "It's about belonging to a whole family... You long for the completeness." Even for amicably divorced people like Fuerst and Susan Arnold, the ghosts of dashed dreams linger.