When I was newly graduated from high school, I eagerly anticipated my future adulthood with marriage a high priority. My life was all mapped out and proceeding according to my carefully-laid plans. Already looking for Prince Charming after having gone through a few prospects, I thought I knew all I needed to know about finding Mister Right and having an awesome marriage. Having all this wisdom, of course, I harshly judged those whose marriages fell apart as selfish, weak, uncommitted, or lacking character.
I read books about marriage and made a list of what I needed in a husband. I only dated Christian men (or who at least went along with my beliefs to keep me happy). A few years after my high school graduation, I married my prince: a handsome, church-going, highly ambitious and intelligent man who spoke highly of “family values.” Although I recognize now that red flags were flapping right in my face, I was too naive to understand what they meant. Those little “issues” that caused me to pause in rare moments of clarity were things I fully believed would change under the influence of my unconditional love. I would comfort and encourage him, bear and raise his children, keep his house clean and organized, and cook him fabulous meals. He loved me, I loved him, and life was going to be perfect. Until it wasn’t.
Just over twenty years ago my glass house crashed down around me, shards flying everywhere. Although the fractures had been evident for years, the final collapse of my marriage came as a shock. Even after therapy and remarriage, the shrapnel scars remain embedded in my psyche. It wasn’t supposed to end like that. It wasn’t supposed to happen to someone like ME.
I’m not going to get into why we divorced seven years after vowing before God to stay together until death. Some people in my world, especially those who don’t know the story, have judged me just as I judged those who divorced before me. I’ve learned to hold my head up in the understanding that I did the best I could with what I knew at the time (and that wasn’t as much as I thought). I refuse to point fingers now. We were young, inexperienced, and unable to see our way out of what had become a nightmare. Marriage-crushing mistakes were made. Mistakes that possibly could have been overcome with outside help, but both of us had to agree to seek that help, and he was too depressed at that point to see the value in counseling. I can’t even blame him for that. Depression is debilitating. It smothers, it causes us to do harmful things to ourselves and others, and it even kills.
The most terrifying thing for me was the effect a divorce would have on our toddler. I’d read statistics about children of divorce–lower school performance, higher rate of drug use, and on and on. I did not want my son to be a statistic, the victim of a “broken home.” I made a conscious decision that our home would be “whole,” even if Daddy lived elsewhere. This was hard work, especially the first few years when I was still reeling from the pain and stigma of my divorce. I made so many mistakes–a lot of things I wish I could do over. But now that toddler is 22, and although he is not completely unscathed by our divorce, as I watch him in his senior year of college, I can breathe a sigh of relief that he has defied the statistics.
Like I said, I made mistakes. With God’s help and healthy support from others, I also did some things right. If I could go back in time and talk to the 27-year-old me, I would give myself a little advice. Since I can’t do that, this is for those who find themselves in the throes of custody arrangements and visitation schedules:
1. Raise your children like you would if you were not divorced. When we feel guilty or sad that our children no longer live with both parents, it’s easy to over-compensate by becoming too permissive. This is a mistake. All kids need limits and responsibility. Say no when you need to. Don’t let your children manipulate you with statements like, “I want to go live with my dad” when you refuse to take them to McDonald’s. I speak from experience. Words like this hurt, but you can’t let them get to you. My answer was “I’m sure your dad would love to have you come live with him, but the judge decided that you’re going to live with me most of the time, and it would make me sad if you didn’t. I love having you live with me, but I’m still not taking you to McDonald’s.” (Side Note: His dad and I didn’t go to court. A judge signed the papers establishing custody after we decided together how it would look, but that was too much information for a four-year-old).
Also don’t feel so sorry for them that you spoil them. Their grandparents will do that for you, anyway. At Christmas and birthdays, they’re going to get presents from your ex, aunts and uncles, and both sets of grandparents. You don’t need to compete or overdo it trying to create a “magical” Christmas for them. I limited gifts to one toy, a book, and stocking stuffers. My son still pulled in a haul.
2. Speaking of Christmas and other holidays, get it out of your head that the holiday has to occur on the date printed on the calendar. My first Christmas Day without my son, my parents took me out for Chinese food and a movie. I expected to be depressed that day, but instead I had fun. I learned it was entirely within my power to be happy on holidays without my son present on the “official” day. December 25 is just a date on a calendar. We’ve had beautiful, meaningful Christmas celebrations on December 20 or December 24. It really doesn’t have to be on December 25. Easter doesn’t have to fall on a Sunday. You’ll save yourself a lot of unnecessary grief if you can get that through your head.
3. Make a list of things you like to do but can’t do as easily when your children are home. My list included things like renting movies, bubble baths, long walks, manicures, taking naps, going out with friends, and reading for hours at a time. I made a point to do those things when my son was gone. It turned what could have been sad, lonely weekends into mini-retreats. If you use this time to treat yourself instead of spending it in resentful moping, you’ll be more energized and more fulfilled in your role as a single parent. You’ll fill yourself up with positive energy which will in turn only benefit them when they come home.
4. Be cautious with dating. Your children come first. I had a rule that I would only go on dates when Mitchell was at his dad’s. For two years, I “dated” to an extent by going out with a few men as friends only (and only men who liked kids). No goodnight kisses, let alone anything else. They may have met Mitchell, but they didn’t spend any significant time with him. The last thing I wanted to do was rush into something only to have it end, causing even more trauma for my little guy. Then I met Alan.
I knew I would marry Alan almost as soon as I met him, but we dated for 2 1/2 years before Alan came to the same conclusion. During that time, after it appeared likely Alan would stick around, I made a new rule to which he readily agreed: Whenever my son was home with me, he was included in our dates. We ate at pizza parlors, rafted down the river, hiked in the woods, swam at the pool, picnicked at the playground, or hung out in one of our homes. One day Mitchell wrapped his little arms around Alan’s neck and in all his four-year-old sincerity said, “I wuv you, Awan.” Alan told him he loved him, too. Alan hadn’t even told me that yet!
5. It’s not your child’s job to meet your emotional needs. It’s easy to fall into this trap as a single parent. You are lonely, grieving, and need to process what has happened by talking about it. Your children are present and care about you so make convenient little therapists just by listening. The problem is that they’re not equipped emotionally to deal with adult issues. The stress this places on them is an unnecessary burden that can damage their peace and sense of security. Find a good friend or pay a therapist to listen to you instead. Let your kids be kids. This doesn’t mean you never express sadness around them; it’s good for kids to learn empathy. Just limit how often and what you say, especially if it is about their other parent.
4. Never ever, ever talk trash about your ex to your children, even if it’s true and justified. Your children are a product of your union with your ex. At some point they’ll be old enough to understand that they possess DNA from both parents. If you label your ex as bad, your children may come to think they are bad, too. I wish I could take back the few times (maybe more than a few) I fell into negative talk about my son’s dad when he was present. I tried really hard not to, but sometimes under stress I became careless. All it accomplished was to hurt my son, not his dad.
5. The truth comes out eventually. Encourage your child to love and forgive your ex, even if he/she has wronged you. If your ex did something that hurt you, your children will likely learn the truth in time. If your ex has a major character flaw, your children will see it for themselves. When kids discover their parents are not perfect after all, they might feel hurt and disillusioned. Trust in their resilience and in their ability to understand. Get counseling for them if they need help processing what they’ve learned. They will be thankful that you didn’t shove your ex’s faults and mistakes in their face just to satisfy your own need for validation or revenge. Of course, if you ex is abusive to your children, you need to protect them and make sure they understand that forgiveness doesn’t mean they are put back into harm’s way.
6. On the flip side, if you find out your ex or his/her new spouse is bad mouthing you in front of your children, resist fighting back. Shrug and let it go as much as you can. Realize that your children know you and know the truth about you. At first when I learned of some things my son’s step-mom said about me, I was upset and felt like defending myself. But then I realized a few things: A) She was only saying what she thought was true without knowing me or having all the facts; B) My son defended me to her and told her when she was wrong; C) Her negative words only served to make him upset with her, not think less of me. Conversely, if I said negative things about her, the same three points were true!
7. Speaking of step-parents, it’s natural to feel some jealousy and resentment that this person has come into your child’s life and now presumes to be some sort of parent. This was hard for me. I wanted to be Mitchell’s ONLY mom. I did not want to share my little darling with another woman, and a stranger at that. The realization that she loved him–truly loved him–snapped me out of it. His step-mom was one more person on his team, one more person to love him throughout his life. Why wouldn’t I want MORE love in his life? As time went on, I learned that she had gifts in areas I lacked. For example, she is artistic and crafty and liked to do those messy, time-consuming projects with him that I tend to avoid. Carving pumpkins? Yuck. What a gross, slimy mess. My method of making jack-o-lanterns consisted of handing my kids a magic marker and telling them to draw a face on it. I handled Easter eggs the same way (FYI–markers don’t really work on Easter eggs). Building a gingerbread house? What a waste of time, graham crackers, and candy. I’d rather just eat it without wasting frosting to glue it all together into a little house that will only attract ants before turning stale and moldy. I came to appreciate that she provided these experiences for him so I didn’t have to.
8. Accept that your ex might have (will likely have) different parenting methods and values, and it’s not your place to control what he/she does, as long as your kids aren’t in any REAL danger. I tried to control what movies my ex took our son to. It didn’t work. He just thought I was being overprotective and resisted even more. I finally had to step back and realize that he loved our son as much as I did and wasn’t trying to harm him. It was hard to let go of that battle, but I did. As it turned out, they had to leave a movie early because it was too intense for Mitchell. My ex figured out on his own what was appropriate for Mitchell and what wasn’t. As for rules differing between the homes, kids are able to make the switch. They do it all the time. School has different rules. Their friends’ homes have different rules. Stick to the rules that are important in your home. They might whine if yours are more strict, but as long as you’ve established fair rules for good reasons, they’ll come around.
9. Don’t use kids as pawns to hurt your ex. Both my ex and I fell into this stupid game when we were first separated and divorced through trying to manipulate our custody and visitation terms when upset with each other. One day a student of mine, a teenage boy, mentioned in conversation that he rarely saw his dad. As he struggled to hold back his tears, I realized my son was lucky to have a dad who wanted to spend time with him. I needed to support that, not fight it. Around the same time, my ex, an attorney, represented a woman going through a nasty divorce in which both parties used their son to hurt the other, and he saw the devastating effects on the boy. He decided he wasn’t going to keep playing that game, either. That doesn’t mean our visitation disagreements ended, but we no longer tried to find reasons to intentionally thwart the other’s involvement. He no longer threatened to sue for sole custody, and I no longer tried to find reasons to limit my ex’s time with our son.
10. If your child tells you something that happened at the other house that upset him or her, don’t overreact. Because I had a tendency to get too upset with my ex and his wife when they did minor things I didn’t like, my son quit telling me what was going on at his other house. As a result, when a few things happened that were more serious and actually worth getting upset about, I didn’t find out until years later when it was too late to help him through it or confront my ex about it. Even then, I rarely found anything out from my son. I learned most things from his friends’ moms. Once his Boy Scout leader’s wife filled me in on something I didn’t know until years later. Another time I recognized my son’s handwriting on an index card placed on a bulletin board at school in which he described something difficult he had experienced years before while in their care. He only began to open up about his life in the other home when I quit overreacting by threatening to end his dad’s visitation rights. His home life wasn’t always ideal there (is it anywhere?), but he loved his other family and especially didn’t want to be kept from seeing his younger siblings.
Divorce is hard on kids. There is no way around it. I’ve come to believe a marriage filled with anger and fighting can be even harder on them. When we are hurting, it’s in our human nature to make rash decisions, to be reactive rather than proactive, to try to hurt back the one causing us pain. Emotions run high. Defenses are up. Kids are in the crossfire. For their sake, we grown-ups have to step back and be willing to sacrifice our sense of entitlement, our pride, our control of the situation and do what is best for the children we love so much. It might be the most difficult thing we’ve ever had to do, but it’s worth the effort. We won’t get it right all the time. When we mess up, we need to apologize, renew our commitment to our kids, and try again to get it right. Eventually, they’ll grow up and leave us as they establish their own identities. The goal is to raise them in such a way that they’ll want to come back and visit.
If you are newly divorced with kids, what has been hardest for you to deal with? If you divorced a long time ago as I have, what advice would you give?