We've said before that a general presumption exists whereby intact families are always better for kids than families of divorce. There are understandable reasons for this widespread view. Divorce often accompanies a range of challenges and problems, including a drop in living standards, the disruption of existing family rhythms and the presence, in all too many cases, of high conflict between the parents, putting a terrible burden on the children.
But as we've already made clear in previous articles, we do not believe that divorce is as uniformly a negative event as it is typically portrayed. In fact, we believe, focusing specifically on the relationship between parents and children, divorce can sometimes yield surprising benefits to parent-child relationships. So that nobody misunderstands us, we're NOT encouraging people to get divorced as a means of strengthening your relationship with your child. But based on our own experiences and those of other people we know, a felicitous if unintended consequence of divorce might be a deeper connection with your children.
Rather than all bad or all good, divorced parenting is a mixed bag in a few ways:
1. You get a break from parenting.
Every divorced parent we know feels pain and sadness about the fact that they no longer see their child every day, and that has certainly been our experience. Having an amicable divorce helps this somewhat, but not completely. Sometimes a friend of our daughter's will have her overnight, and the mother might say something to the effect of, "you'll get a parenting break tonight." As married parents, they don't realize that we never want a "parenting break" on the days we have our children. However, it's a paradox of divorce that you have both more time apart from your child and often, more intense parenting, since when you're on, you're doing all of the parenting. As a result, an unspoken truth for many divorced parents is that when their child is with their ex-spouse they feel some relief from that intensity. If you trust that their other parent is doing a responsible job, if you know that your child is happy in their other space, it is good sometimes to have adult time for yourself, a morning on which you don't have to rush to make her lunch and get her to school, and having that break may make you a better parent when your child is around. We've also both found that while it's sometimes enjoyable to have nights off, there's also a sense of joy when we see our daughter again after we haven't seen her for a day or two.
Most parents of intact marriages know in the abstract that taking breaks from parenting is a good idea, but many struggle to make this part of their lives. For those of you who do struggle thusly, there's good reason to consider working harder to integrate parenting breaks into your family patterns. Taking breaks together (date night) is good, but taking breaks separately can also be valuable.
2. You have to parent more.
If you were the primary care taker before the divorce this may be less relevant to you. But the parent who was not the primary care taker, often the father, is suddenly put in the position of taking all of the responsibilities associated with caring for the kids. Even in couples with a more even break-down of duties, there used to be a back-up person, or the "go-to" person for scraped knees or hurt feelings: now, you're it. And although such responsibility may feel difficult or burdensome, it is actually really good for your relationship with your child. Being the one to cook the meals, prepare the lunches, help with the homework, buy the birthday presents for your children's friends, make play dates, drop them off at school, take them to the doctor -- without an outlet or someone else to fall back on if you're tired -- is part of building a deeper connection with your children. For dads in particular, it might be that doing these things helps you transcend whatever fear you had that you're "just not good" at those sorts of tasks. In turn, a newfound sense of capability might make you less overwhelmed by the challenges of dealing with your kids, thereby freeing you up to enjoy the experience more.
3. You have a chance to compliment your ex-spouse.
For parents in a contentious relationship who stay married, there's a lot of opportunity to fight and bicker and complain about each other in front of your children. A lot of adults whose parents "stayed married for the kids" know what that feels like: you feel scared, lonely, and like a pawn in a particularly unpleasant game of chess (or dodge-ball). Divorce can exacerbate such negative behavior, of course, but it can also give you the distance you need to let it go. More than that, it can even give you the distance and perspective to praise your ex-spouse to your children. Psychologists say that when you vilify you child's other parent, the child feels that vilification personally: their love and loyalty for their other parent are attacked, and they feel you don't love them in some way too, since that other parent is a part of them. Kids are impressionable and you can make your child hate your ex-spouse if you want to, but it won't bring you closer to your child. If, on the other hand, you know your ex-spouse is a good parent (even if a bad spouse) and that your child loves him or her, try praising that parent. Building your child's esteem for her other parent will be one of the best gifts you can give to your child.
4. You have a chance to complement your ex-spouse.
In addition to learning to praise your ex-spouse, to see them through your child's eyes and see what they see, you can also complement your ex-spouse in the sense of appreciating that, if you don't give your child everything she needs, you do have support. Anne and Lillian like to do things like cook, play music or go shopping together. Jonathan is more apt to make sure that they do lots of socializing with friends. Both are great for Lillian. Neither of us could give her all that on our own. Of course, a well-oiled married parenting machine can provide that as well. There is a certain freedom and perspective that comes from knowing that, without dictating to the other parent, your child is having fulfilling and meaningful time with them.
Our point is not that divorce is better than marriage in these ways. Rather, we want to highlight the ways in which parenting after marriage can be just as good, can help you discover parenting skills you never knew you had, and can help each of you clarify your individual strengths as a parent -- something that can be harder to do for married couples, when parenting relationships are more bound up with the marriage itself. Single parenting can be exhausting and lonely, but it can also be incredibly satisfying. Many people we know feel very proud of themselves when they begin to let go of their sadness or anger and notice, suddenly, that they're developing their own parenting style and connecting with their kids in ways they didn't know they could.