As modern parents, we've absorbed the basic advice about what to do to help kids through a divorce. Bring them to therapy. Don't badmouth the other parent. Keep your dating life out of their sight until you've become serious, and make sure you don't get involved with anyone dodgy. Of course. Yet that's about as far as it goes.
As the mom of two young children, I did all of the above. But while I was editing Ask Me About My Divorce: Women Open Up About Moving On, essays turned up daily in my in-box that happened to include valuable nuggets of advice that went way beyond the freshman year of parenting advice. These missives served as doses of medicine for my children and myself, and helped us to survive, recover, and thrive. Here are my favorite gems:
A divorcing parent can very easily become mired in shame, or distant as a result of emotional overwhelm. If you surrender to either of these states, you're no longer available to your children. It's best to process these emotions on your own so that your children still feel a strong connection to you during this challenging time. You might say: "I have no free time." Wake up early or stay up late if you have to. Or dedicate a lunch hour to a therapy appointment, or a meal with a supportive friend. Kids know when you're on autopilot. Pain leads us to dissociate. Fight hard to stay present so that your kids' pain isn't deepened by feeling like their mom or dad is lost in another world. Touch comes in here--trace a shape on your child's back with your fingertips and ask her to guess what it is. Read a book to him when you don't have words at hand. Take care of yourself first, so that you are able to meaningfully take care of your children. And the reward? Children live in the moment. When you join them in that moment, you'll notice you're not living in the past (with its recently acquired baggage) or the future (which can feel overwhelmingly unknown). Borrow the trick I learned in a mindfulness workshop: I do a five senses scan. What am I smelling, feeling, seeing, hearing, tasting? Once you do that a couple of times, you can complete the scan in a matter of seconds and emerge from a gloomy fog into crystal-clear now.
It's easy to get lost in the least common denominator take on divorce. "Divorce is bad. Marriage is good. People who get divorced are lazy, selfish quitters who don't put their kids first." You've encountered it, I'm sure. Rebuttal, by Marrit Ingman, author of "Breakup Buddies": "Honey, you did everything you could. And then you did it again. And a third time." Until any one of those folks has walked a mile in your shoes, their opinion has absolutely nothing to do with you or your family. Tune in on your own situation, avail yourself of constructive resources, and ignore the blowhards. In my experience, the people most prone to making severe judgments are the ones closest to getting their own divorce.
As Kat Wiebe's son says goodbye to her on his way to visit his dad, she notes, "He learns, at such an early age, that...life includes these separations, that it's okay to feel sad and express his feelings, that longing is a part of life, that he can feel all of this and still be fine." What a gift! My children discovered the viola and the cello when their dad began dating a music teacher. They make crafts and hike regularly (neither of those things are my strengths). Their lives have expanded with our family's rearrangement. As has mine. My ex and I are both more fully realized as individuals, now that we've shed our restricting former skin. Even if one or both parents remains single, sometimes two people just can't grow together the way they do when they're apart. And as a result, children benefit from having parents who are happier and more fully realized. As Wiebe says, "A child's resilience is built when he has several or many people who love him passionately; his confidence increases as he learns to make his way through the world; he receives a diversity of influences, models and supports within his two homes."
When Kristin Tennant and her husband split up, her church members "were uncomfortable and possibly suspicious. They didn't know what to do with us, or with the D-word. They didn't understand it, nor did they seem to want to." Then one of the church leaders asked her to stop taking communion. She continued to go there each Sunday with her two young daughters for some months. Her knee-jerk reaction: she wanted to give them a sense of continuity. But when she thought about it, she knew each of them deserved more, and swiftly found a church that was more accepting, open-minded, and compassionate. Look around. What's supporting you, and what isn't? It's time to be selfish for the good of yourself and your family. Drop the dead weight. In a period of change, make more changes. Everything's way more wide open than it was in the past. De-clutter your social life and keep only those people who are loyal, kind and fun. Surround yourself with people who are explicitly rooting for you, and stop trying to win over those who aren't. Sue Sanders, in her essay "Lost Mind, Found Self," put a flyer up in her neighborhood co-op: "Newly Single Mom of a Preschooler Would Like to Meet Other Families Like Ours." She heard back from eight women, and initiated regular weekly dinners that yielded friendship, support and connection. And her daughter benefited from being surrounded by other children going through the same process.
Teresa Coates, mother of two, felt ambushed by her divorce. Her husband left her unexpectedly...for a sixteen-year-old. As she slowly emerged from her shock and sadness, she vowed to "travel somewhere." This intention led to a trip to Viet Nam, with her children, to volunteer in an orphanage. This might seem like a posh option, but they actually raised the funds for their plane tickets by having a series of yard sales. Although that's rather ambitious, each of us can embark on a journey with our children that knits us more closely together and strengthens our feelings of competence and mastery. It could be as simple as exploring a new town together on a day trip and making a commemorative scrapbook, or as involved as signing on to help build a house with Habitat for Humanity. Go camping, visit a relative, or learn something new. Encourage your children to learn things on their own, as well. Post-divorce, my daughter's self-possession grew after she took a self-defense class and a series of ice-skating lessons. My son's tendency to see things in a negative light lessened as he mastered the art of hitting a puck while staying upright on his hockey skates. Samantha Ducloux Waltz describes, in her essay, how her children flourished outside the bell jar of her ex-husband's critical and controlling gaze. Her son began to play football, and excelled at it. At home, he took on a leaky sprinkler system, and figured out how to fix it. Her daughter tried out for the high school musical, and lit up the stage. "I doubt she would have had the confidence to audition before the divorce, since her father derided all her extracurricular activities. I loved seeing her onstage."
No matter the situation, getting divorced does not make you a bad parent. As for being a good parent, well, reading this article to the very end gives every indication that you already are. Thoughtful, aware choices on how best to support and heal yourself and your children are tools you can use to make it through this oft-grueling process. There are gifts to divorce, if you don't let its stigma overshadow them. Put them in the sun, water them, and watch them grow.
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