CORRECTION: Clarification: In "Happy Divorce" (Dec. 6) the full title of the book by Jann Blackstone-Ford and Sharyl Jupe should be "Ex-Etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After a Divorce or Separation."
Byline: Julie Scelfo
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 …