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Parenting after Divorce: What Really Happens and Why

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People who divorce usually know what they are running from. Often they have too little knowledge of what lies ahead.

Truth to tell, most divorcing couples do not fight, at least not with each other, although conflict gets headlines, court time, and a full choir of attorneys, mental health consultants and political savants. Most divorced couples are not friends, though some are. Some divorced couples have sex when loneliness takes over. Some share holidays with new wives, new husbands and new children. One handy husband I knew came over regularly to fix whatever broke in his former wife's home. But most divorced people go their separate ways, communicate when necessary, and show up together for the first time, many years later, at their daughter's wedding.

But make no mistake. They keep their eyes trained on what is happening in the other household and they have a fund of knowledge about who has partnered or married whom and how they are--or are not--getting on. They know her age, her previous marriages, her jean size and hair color and the car he drives, his job, his marital history, and much more. They are bound together by the disappointments that drove them apart, sometimes by one person's longing for the other, by the treachery that aches anew to warn them every time they meet an attractive guy or gal. Few realize how much enduring anger ties them together by keeping passions alive. But above all, their children maintain the tie that binds them forever.
For starters, parenting after divorce, whether in joint or sole custody is different from parenting in the married family. It's harder, more challenging and more demanding. It can be rewarding because children deeply appreciate the devotion and sacrifice that kept the parent involved. They no longer take it for granted. After divorce they worry a lot about losing one or both parents. In response to my earlier post, "How About Divorce: Get It Right From The Start", one commenter posted about his central role in raising his children. I congratulate him but suggest that he did not mention the enormous sacrifice that went into his efforts to be there for children with different school and sports schedules while working full time.

To put it straight, raising children always requires more time than you expected. They have more crises than you ever dreamed of. They demand sacrifice of time, money, hours spent at adult work and play. Parents in a reasonably functioning marriage have a home that provides for both children and adults. Even in troubled marriages, when illness strikes and the thermometer hits 103, or the adolescent is out late with the car and the liquor closet has clearly been raided, both parents pace the floor together. After divorce you walk alone. All you've got is you. And it's scary.

Little children need you more after the breakup. They are jittery and moody, and more clinging. Often they have trouble sleeping, or settling into a new routine at pre-school or elementary school or with new sitters especially, if they have moved to a new neighborhood and new home. Adolescents are often wilder, more vulnerable to peer influences, and more responsive to their own rising sexual and aggressive urges. The family structure that held them has collapsed and they need monitoring like never before.

So there you are, eager to make new friends, to get a better job, to find a new love, a sexual partner to make up for all that you have been missing, and your own energy is at a low ebb after the passions loosed by the divorce. But your children need you after school; on weekends, at night, they need your presence more to reassure them that they are safe and cared for just when you desperately need time for you.

Talk about dilemmas--about balance, about being pulled in two directions. As one young mother told me: "If I had my druthers I would pick up my youngest child and keep on walking." Every parent I know has been there.

Books to Consult
Wallerstein, Judith S, Lewis, Julia, and Blakeslee, Sandra (2000). The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. The 25 Year Landmark Study. NewYork. Hyperion.
Wallerstein,Judith and Blakeslee,Sandra (2003). What About the Kids? Raising Your Children Before, During and After Divorce. New York, Hyperion.