"Will I be able to protect my children? Can I ease their pain?" If you're a divorcing parent, these primal anxieties dominate your daily thoughts and inhabit your dreams. Especially if you're the product of a badly handled divorce or have seen others flounder in the wake of family upheaval, you're desperate to get this right.
But you're only human.
At its best, parenting is a series of educated guesses and course corrections. Parenting during divorce? It's like trying to paint a still life in a sandstorm. Delicate business amidst pain and chaos.
Keeping your children's needs front and center while your own feelings roil is a tough emotional balancing act. Especially early on while you're still shaky, it won't take much to throw you off kilter. One nasty email from your ex can land you on your butt.
It makes sense that the most common post-split parenting errors happen when we're in the most common kinds of post-split distress. I've grouped the list below with that in mind -- some classic "Awful Feelings" along with the "Botch-Ups" they often engender:
Awful Feeling #1: Anxiety About Separation From Your Kids
- The clingy goodbye: Your kids need to feel they have your blessing to go, and your confidence that they (and their other parent) can manage the time away. Lingering hugs, plaintive "I'll miss you's," hyperbolic expressions of affection ("I love you to the moon and back again!") and excessive reassurance ("Call me whenever you want, even in the middle of the night!") can turn an otherwise steady child into a nail-biting mess.
- Too many phone calls/texts/emails: Especially if your kids are still little or you've never spent much time apart, you'll want to be in touch. And maybe you should be; for some children regular check-ins create a helpful emotional bridge. But when your dialing finger tingles, ask yourself: "Who needs this call, me or them?" Lots of kids deal with separations by temporarily putting thoughts of the "away" parent on the back burner and focusing on their here-and-now. Consider whether frequent communication will disrupt a helpful coping strategy.
Awful Feeling #2: Loneliness
- Leaning on older kids: You lost your go-to companion and confidant when your marriage ended. A concerned teenager is a tempting substitute, and may want to shore you up ("I was gonna go to a party, but it'll be lame. I'll hang here.") or be excited to play what feels like a grown-up role. But a teen's focus should be outward (school, activities, friends), and they'll suffer if the parent/child boundary is blurred. Find adult sources of comfort, and encourage your kids to choose the lame party over the lamer evening at home with you.
- Babying the little ones: I'm all for physical affection; your kids need reassurance now more than ever. But post-separation (while you're craving contact and painfully nostalgic), "just right" can easily slide into "over-the-top."
Excessive hugs and kisses, lap-sitting when a child is ready for their own chair, bed-sharing at any age (I get it, they're really cuddly)... These behaviors are driven by and infused with your emotional needs. Unlike run-of-the-mill expressions of parental love, they have a confusing intensity that can make your kids anxious and regressed.
Awful Feeling #3: Anger at Your Ex
- Subtle disparagement in front of the kids: I don't know one separated parent who hasn't, say, muttered "Since when are chicken nuggets a food group?" upon hearing a recitation of the dinner specials at Bistro d'Ex. Try to check yourself. Kids have emotional satellite dishes on their heads--no eyeball roll or disdainful groan escapes detection.
- Trash talking your ex: From time to time, you'll need to vent. But when shopping for sympathetic ears, don't buy in bulk. Rushing to ensure that everyone in your social circle knows your side of things generates nasty gossip that reflects badly on you and finds its way back to your kids. Regardless of their merit, divorce stories always sound like the ravings of a bitter lunatic when delivered on the sidelines of a little league game.
Awful Feeling #4: You're Losing Control Over Your Kids' Lives
- The interrogation: You gave up knowledge of the totality of our kids' life experiences the first time you dropped them at day care. It felt weird then, and it feels weirder now. But I don't need to explain the difference between asking your son or daughter if they had a nice weekend and asking if they watched "crappy television" the whole time.
- The post drop-off freak out: From time to time your kids will return with upsetting news. Even if it sends your blood pressure sky-high ("Guess what! Mom let us ride in the convertible without car seats or seat belts... again!"), don't have a conniption and run to the phone. Manage things later, when you're calmer (and alone).
As a therapist, I'm not big on self-disclosure -- and this is about as public as it gets. But it's important, so here goes: It's been awhile, but there is no blooper, blunder, or boo-boo described above that I haven't committed. Not one. And it's not even a comprehensive list; it's really more of a sampling.
Any newly-divorced parent who won't admit to screwing up on a regular basis is either ashamed or out to lunch.
Here's the good news:
- If you want to improve your post-split parenting skills, you will, and...
- The fact that you want to improve means you're already doing a lot right. The ongoing act of trying to separate your own emotional needs from those of your children (so you can stay kid-focused) earns more parenting points than hitting the perfect note in any given moment.
In the meantime, the occasional "I'm sorry I behaved that way, I'll work on doing better" goes a long way. Take it from me.