Like Joanna Kramer I was charged in court as unfit to mother.

“Kramer vs. kramer” is one of those romanticized celluloid sagas that transforms the strained relational settings of contemporary culture into a storybook opera and the victims of our self-actualization society into amoral folk heroes. A “sound” father-son relationship grows from the debris of a never-to-mature marriage between Joanna and Ted Kramer.

Maybe it can happen that way. But in real life, such stories are necessarily more cluttered—cluttered with the emotional scars and acted-out trauma that afflicts our complex psyches; cluttered with the dehumanizing warfare between injured egos.

In real life I am a kind of Joanna Kramer. Like Joanna, caught in divorce and a court battle for custody, I was charged with being unfit to mother.

In this Academy Award-winning Columbia Pictures release, Joanna Kramer walks out on her son and husband in an attempt to escape her debilitating subjugation to her husband’s career. After “finding” herself and reviving a sense of self-worth by way of professional career achievements, she returns to reclaim her son. But the husband-father, Ted Kramer, seeks the court’s indulgence to retain custody.

Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep portrayed the roles of husband and wife with Academy Award brilliance. Nevertheless, I was somewhat put off by the smoothness of dialogue that carried them through what I was supposed to believe was an emotion-rending experience. Ted Kramer was appealingly—even heroically—brash, fighting his way through corporate barriers, demanding “now or never” decisions from chief executives so he would have a fitting job as ammunition in the coming custody trial, PTA meetings and other inconveniences of parenthood had cost him the high pressure position Joanna had helped him keep. She, by contrast, is seen as an intense, withdrawn personality who, in a state of depression, fled her family yet sought to maintain emotional contact with her son by sneaking glimpses of him from behind windows in neighborhood shops.

The son, Billy, played by Justin Henry, is too self-assured to be the focus of a brutal custody fight. Scenes like Daddy Kramer’s messy struggle to make French toast for Billy the morning after Mommy leaves, or Billy coaching Dad in the supermarket are cute, romanticized substitutes for the real thing. Lacking was the tedious, tiring drudgery that is part and parcel of housekeeping and child rearing. A scene where Billy challenges his dad’s authority over eating a dish of ice cream is more charming than most real-life confrontations. And Ted Kramer’s professional and personal life at home perhaps are not and could not be interrupted often enough to convey the feelings of frustration and rage generated in analogous real-life situations.

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Nevertheless, the father tells the court he “was there” for his son during the mother’s derelict absence, and therefore deserved custody. The mother testified to the court that she had lost her self-esteem as a housewife. She had come to feel that the need for some creative outlet outside her role as wife and mother was evidence of her flawed character. She had since come to realize that her need for creativity and affirmation of worth were legitimate human needs and did not mean she was incapable to mother. Her former husband, on the other hand, had refused even to discuss her desire to return to her profession and a sense of worth, she told the court

I discussed the film with my own son. Terry, now age 24, in the light of the relational misfortunes of our own family life. He argued that Joanna Kramer should have conducted her personal struggle for self-worth within the structure of family life. He contrasted her flight from responsibility with Ted Kramer’s sacrifice of income and professional prestige to meet the challenge of single parenthood.

But. I countered, these choices were forced upon him by Joanna’s abandonment. He was forced to choose between his son and a career after he found himself a single parent—after his wife walked out. Still, Terry argued, Joanna Kramer should have stayed and fought what had made life dysfunctional within the home.

I have compassion for Joanna: like her, I became unable to function in my home. I kept struggling to pull out of that depressing and exhausting hole into which societal convenience had thrown me. I looked for members of our family to function in roles that evolved out of our relationships. Yet prevailing custom burdened my husband and me, and we began to die emotionally. There was awesome pressure to confine me to a role that a deep South culture had fabricated. That role bore too little resemblance to the person I felt God had created me to be. There was no room in that role to acknowledge my God-given, creative potential (primarily that of writing). My husband and I made some effort to allow me to function in both home and a career (an effort that Ted Kramer would never consider), but it didn’t work. I became depressed, loathed myself for seeming to be the lesser member of the marriage. The crunch of worrying what others thought when I tried to move outside an externally imposed role crushed my spirit.

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The movie Kramers fell into the suffocating pattern of the male’s paid employment dictating a family’s values and personal development. Joanna Kramer walked out.

I, too, used inappropriate methods to achieve the family communication that would allow room for each of us to grow. My husband filed for divorce. After my behavior became even more inappropriate my husband charged that 1, too, was unfit to mother. I did not fight the accusations in court, but took them to God in what has been a long journey. At first I was bitterly angry, feeling betrayed by my Creator. My attitude was similar to Joanna Kramer’s when she said: “I worked very hard to become a whole human being and I don’t think I should be punished for that.”

Certainly the main issue in the Kramer film was what was best for the child Billy. Both Joanna and Ted matured during the story. The father confessed to his son that he realized too late he had tried to make his wife “be a certain kind of person” and he had thought when he (the husband) was happy that meant she (the wife) was happy.

Yes, Terry. I should have faced my problems with marriage long ago. God is good to give me opportunity now to build Christ-like relationships with my children. But I wish I had learned effectively and legitimately to refuse psyche-killing patterns in the structure of family life—before divorce. And I wish Joanna Kramer had discovered the same kinds of positive techniques.

The film has faults, but I recommend it as an incentive for those who would postpone the pain of facing and resolving the adjustments of roles in a marriage relationship.

Ruby Alice Christian works at Chapel of the Air in Wheaton, Illinois.

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