An amazing thing happens to most of us when we become parents. We change for the better. The gravity of the responsibility and the intensity of the love that we feel toward our children hits us in the heart, and we do everything we know how to do to nurture them. We become better people, trying to lead by example. Often we start eating healthier, working out more, going to church, wearing seat belts. Many times we quit cursing, smoking or driving fast. We are keenly aware of our behavior and the influence it has over our children because we see ourselves reflected in their cherubic little (or not so little) faces.
And then, sometimes, divorces strikes. Divorce hurts. It angers. It scars. It can consume us to the point that it is difficult to remember that our every move, every word, every action is being recorded by the sponges that are our children's minds, hearts and souls. To be in agony ourselves and to gather the strength to remember that we must put that agony aside for our children takes Herculean effort.
Putting our children first during a divorce means putting aside our own anger, hurt, betrayal and sadness, particularly when directed at our ex-spouse, and putting the emotional needs of our children ahead of our own. Unless there are real and grave safety issues, everything must be done to preserve the relationships the children have with both parents. No matter what your ex did or how you feel about him/her, that person will always be your children's parent. And that is okay. You are responsible for making it okay for your children to love that parent when they are around you.
In eight years of being divorced, I have had a lot of practice in learning how to navigate co-parenting. There is no easy solution, but I have realized that, as bad as it can seem at the time, nothing is really the end of the world. This realization has helped me let go of control and anger and has helped me to make sure my children have a relationship with their father. I have recently remarried, and my husband and I must try to balance our children's relationships with each other and with both of our former spouses. Here are some things we have learned along the way:
- Do not speak badly about your ex to or in front of your children. This is something we all know, but it is easier said than done. This includes looks, gestures and disinterest in things your child wants to tell you about time spent at the other house. Not only should you not speak negatively about your ex, but you should encourage your children to talk to you (without grilling them) about the time they spend with him/her so that it is not something with which they associate negative feelings. This means no limits on what they are allowed to say, and no eye rolls or snide remarks from you.
- Do not make the children responsible for any form of communication between you and your ex. This includes scheduling, school information, transportation changes, etc. Making children communicate for you forces them into a potential situation where they may get a reaction that should be reserved for you. Even if they seem fine with communicating messages, it is not their job. It is yours.
- Never discuss money with your children as it relates to your ex. Do not discuss child support even if it is late or unpaid. Do not discuss who pays for what. It is not the job of children to worry about money, and it always pits one parent against the other as it is such an emotionally charged issue. The court has decided how money is to be paid. If you don't like it or it is not getting paid, go back to court. Just be sure to leave your children out of it.
- Accept the fact that you do not control what goes on at the other parent's house. If you are able to devise a uniform parenting plan with your ex for both homes, great. If not, you must, except in the case of real physical danger, accept the fact that you can only control your home and your ex gets to control his/hers. You cannot make rules for the other house. This puts the children in a terrible position of having to follow rules of which the other parent is unaware and potentially lie about them to the other parent. You cannot expect a full report every time the children return. This puts them in the position of feeling like they are tattling or getting the other parent in trouble. Any time a child feels guilty to you about something that occurred with the other parent, you have put them in the middle of your issues.
- Do not ever make you children feel guilty for being away from you. They do not need to know if you are sad when they leave, if you are lonely, if you are sick or if you are working extra hard while they are gone. Making them feel sorry for you, again, brings them into your issues. Further, it makes the children feel responsible for your feelings.
Going back and forth between homes is not your children's fault and not their choice. Give them the freedom to be happy wherever they are. It is the greatest gift you can give to them after their family has broken. They will love you and respect you for allowing them their own relationships, their own feelings and their own time. So send them off with a smile and an "I can't wait to hear all about it when you come back!"