Holding Children Together While We Come Apart. Helping Our Kids Through Divorce
“Are you guys getting a divorce?”
My nine-year-old was eavesdropping on a terrible argument through the insulation of running water and a closed bathroom door. Valid question, as I had isolated her from the procrastinating eruption of our marriage since the day she was born.
I looked at her eyes welling up with tears and knew I couldn’t lie to her. I sat her on my lap and said, “well…yes sweetie. It looks like we are.”
“Oh noooo!! Whyyyy??!”
In my head I was suddenly George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life, screaming at Clarence from the bridge, “help me Clarence! Get me back! I don’t care what happens to me!”
I mourned the fact we weren’t the perfect and intact George Bailey family and I wished I could lasso her the moon.
Then her dad burst into tears and chimed in with, “Mommy doesn’t love me anymoooooore!”
Not quite how I pictured it.
In her unfailing encouragement that we unite in our future parenting efforts, our therapist said, “Children are one-half their mother and one-half their father. When one makes disparaging comments about the other, children take those comments as direct hits and their self-esteem is damaged.” She counseled us on the gravity of the initial “divorce” conversation with our children and stressed the importance of consistency in their living environments.
My ex scowled at our therapist and said, “I want them to be happy when they are with me. I want them to be miserable when they are with her.”
At least he was honest. It’s one thing to acknowledge those angry feelings and work through them on our own, but exposing our children to them is inexcusable.
Divorce sucks. Breaking up is terribly painful, whether we are the instigator or the one feeling jettisoned. As difficult as it is for us (and it is extremely difficult), it is much worse for our children. It changes everything in their lives and it scares them. The only way for them to survive it somewhat unscathed is for us to truly focus on what is best for them. That means setting selfishness aside and sending over-inflated egos on extended coffee breaks.
Some marriages can be salvaged. Others should never have existed in the first place. The old idea of “staying together for the children” isn’t always the healthy choice. We may aspire to a marriage like George and Mary from It’s A Wonderful Life, but most of us are not so lucky. Forcing children to endure a loveless marriage is unfair to everyone involved and divorce is often the only option not just for us, but for them as well. They need our loving help and guidance through positive, free-flowing, unclogged arteries to the heart of divorce.
You might be thinking, “I hate you!” or “You’ve ruined my life!” or “I wish I’d never met you!”
If you had never met, you would never have had those amazing kids.
“Daddy cheated! Mommy found someone else!”
Whether or not they are the truth, these little tidbits need to stay between us and our exes. They have absolutely nothing to do with our children. We may want to hurt the way we are hurting. We may want to humiliate the way we feel humiliated, but angry accusations or outbursts in our children’s presence regarding the breakdown of the marriage only inappropriately drags them through private adult matters and puts them in the unfair position of choosing sides. The only meaningful perspective is theirs. My children were 9, 6 and 3 when I left their father and the question they asked me the most was, “Mommy, don’t you love Daddy anymore?” My response was always the same.
“I will always love Daddy. Without him, I would never have had you.”
It was and is the truth. No matter how angry or hurt I felt, I needed to dig into the dusty file cabinet of my memory banks for those qualities I fell in love with, when I still believed the moonbeams would shoot out of my fingers and my toes and the ends of my hair. Those qualities are part of my children.
“Hey, I know it’s Daddy’s time with you, but could you tell him you want to spend the day with me instead? We’ll eat liquid cheese, hot fudge sundaes, glue our intestines together with cotton candy and gummy worms and we’ll install an all-you-can-drink soda fountain in the kitchen, yay! Shhh, don’t say I’m the one who asked!”
Mutual respect between parents is the best-case scenario, but unfortunately not always the reality. It is frustrating when parents pull these stunts. But stunts they are, and they eventually boomerang. This kind of manipulation is unhealthy and as much fun as Amusement Park Mommy is in the moment to a child, it sends inconsistent and confusing messages. They eventually figure out that a parent they can trust is one who steadily provides them with basic, age-appropriate, physical and emotional needs. Not candy, fast food and roller coasters. Manipulating children will backfire, hurt our children and damage our relationships with them. Leave the past where it is. Try starting over and communicating with your ex. Every single dialogue is a new opportunity.
“Mommy and I discussed it, and we agreed to trade days so I can take you to the One Direction concert! We are both so excited that you get to go!”
We must always, always discuss scheduling with our ex before discussing it with our child. If our ex refuses to cooperate, we might swallow our pride and take the concert ticket scenario a step further by giving those tickets to the other parent. Gestures like these go a long way and children take notice. We must never underestimate their powers of observation. When they see their parents cooperating with one another, it enhances their self-esteem and sense of safety and they don’t miss a thing. A great side effect is that we also end up feeling pretty good at our job, even if we don’t get to be the one attending the concert with our child. We can’t force our ex to respect our custodial rights, but we can be consistent with respecting theirs.
We also need to remember the important distinction that this is not OUR time with our children, but THEIR time with us.
“I will never get hurt like that again and I hate your dad’s girlfriend.”
Here’s a way to get our child to never trust the idea of marriage or any committed relationship, stripping them of hope for their own life partner. It also makes an attempt at defining our child’s relationship FOR THEM with their possible step-parent rather than helping them develop that relationship on their own. There is no such thing as too many loving people in the life of our child.
When introducing a new partner to our child, we should first have a reasonable expectation of that relationship’s longevity. Exposing them to multiple partners is confusing and unhealthy. The process of incorporating a new partner should also be a gradual one with constant monitoring of our child’s feelings.
Again, every opportunity is a new shot at making a positive choice.
“Just because mommy and daddy were not meant to be together forever does not mean there isn’t a lifetime of happiness still ahead. And how lucky that you get to have even more people in your life who love you!”
Let’s be optimistic and find a way to keep our children from being broken-hearted on our behalf. It is never their job to take care of us. One positive side effect of divorce is the chance for children to witness a parent’s personal growth. There are valuable lessons in new beginnings and the understanding that failure at marriage is not failure at life.
And if we are doing our best as consistent, respectful and loving parents, there is no reason to ever feel threatened by the significant other of our ex-spouse.
“The divorce is what’s causing this outburst isn’t it?”
To use the divorce as the “cause” of all subsequent catastrophes is damaging and disrespectful to our child’s emotional process. If we properly and positively help them through the transition, they will go through all the normal adolescent phases that will have nothing to do with the divorce. Blaming the divorce is to not acknowledge our children’s feelings about other issues. It maintains finger-pointing and keeps us stuck in anger and pain. We must never use it as the catalyst or excuse for every future problem. Children are resilient and extremely capable of adapting to changes when handled properly. Moving forward is the only healthy option.
“I’m going to be broke for the REST OF MY LIFE.”
“Wish I had a million dollars. Hot dog!” I was 38, career-less, job-less, automobile-less, penniless and a soon-to-be-homeless single mother of three. There were moments of complete panic and sheer terror over how I was going to manage this and I continued slipping into my George Bailey alter-ego. “Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal and prison! That’s what it means! One of us is going to jail… well, it’s not gonna be me!”
Divorce is financially devastating, but many of us don’t realize our own strengths. We need to stop complaining about the house we lost and celebrate the fact that we have another chance at happiness. We must find those strengths and give them to our kids. Having children involves making sacrifices. Becoming single parents increases those sacrifices.
As they get older, our kids figure it all out…the good and the bad. With all of my financial constraints, I couldn’t give them all they wanted. I still can’t. But somehow I have managed to give them everything they needed. In a conversation with my sixteen year old son yesterday, he asked if we could buy him a ticket to Universal Studios for a day with his friend. We just came back from vacation and extra spending and I hesitated for a millisecond. He touched my arm, looked me in the eye and said, “Mommy. You know you can say ‘no’ to me, right?”
“What do I want? Why, I’m just here to get warm, that’s all!”
We love our children more than anything in this world. If we can remember what a miracle it was that the union that produced them existed, if only for the purpose of their presence, maybe we can remember that it is not a competition. The only real winners and losers are our kids.
And I would go through it all over again to be where I am now and to have and to know these incredible people I’ve raised. It’s okay that our family doesn’t look like the Bailey family. Because each and every one of those little people we created just might be someone else’s George Bailey. And it’s still a wonderful life.