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"It took me almost a year to understand that my husband really wanted to leave me; my oldest child seemed to get it before I did. I had trouble reassuring her when I was so scared myself." -Susan Buckley
You may be sitting on the freeway or wheeling a grocery cart down an aisle when it strikes you: this is not going to work out. Whenever it is, whatever the situation has devolved to, whether you are both still under one roof or not, the moment you fully recognize that you are headed toward divorce is the time to connect with your kids about it.
"My husband had moved out about a month before I realized, hey, this is over." Susan Buckley is a deceptively soft-spoken woman-an officer at a large brokerage house, her job takes up sixty to seventy hours of her week. She has enormous fiduciary responsibility, yet the idea of being without her husband petrified her, and clouded her judgment. "Both of my kids had migrated to my bedroom-I let them sleep with me the very first night he was gone. We needed each other. The four-year-old was in bed with me and the seven-year-old dragged a sleeping bag onto the couch in the bedroom. She asked me once, 'Is Daddy coming back?' and at the time I said 'yes, he is.'"
When Susan was able to focus on what was really happening, she had a talk with her daughter. "I told her that it turned out her father wasn't going to live with us anymore, but she would see him on the weekends. She didn't say anything. I couldn't figure out what to do for the four-year-old. All of it jelled when my husband got an apartment and could take them there. It wasn't anything anybody said, really, but I could see both the kids were relieved, and they were somehow ready to move on with it." She gave the kids a few more months to get back to sleeping in their own beds.
Susan Buckley is in plentiful company. Every day the tabloids report a celebrity divorce, but it is certainly not only the rarified few who decide to break the legal ties that bind them. According to the National Bureau of the Census, there were over one million divorces in the U.S. in 2001. For some people, divorce is a mutual decision arrived at after many long hours of discussion. For others, the idea that a spouse wants out is an utter shock. The separation process can be a relief or a torment. The moment of divorce is hardly one gonged by the town crier-and for some people, marital difficulties can go on for years before finding any resolution, legal or otherwise.
Kids feel it when things aren't working out between their parents. Yet people who are getting separated often don't tell their children about the event at all, even when it occurs. "My kids are not going to be affected by this," one woman said, as if the sudden absence of her husband in their household wasn't going to be noticed by her children. Sure, their father got up early to go to work and wasn't home until late-and with the marriage disintegrating, they had spent less and less time together around the house. But the fact is, a broken-up marriage is a life-changing event for kids and they need to be told about it. Otherwise, they internalize the feelings they are picking up on and often distort them.
What to Do First
OK, you're in new territory now and it can be pretty confusing. Your very life is changing and that can be utterly preoccupying-many people have to find a place to live, get a new job, tell friends what's going on. One thing to do is to focus on your children. The following list of five checkpoints will help you cover the necessary bases for getting off to a healthy start, even if you are coming to this somewhere down the road into your divorce.
Tell your kids about the divorce. If possible, do it with your former or estranged partner. Rehearse what you are going to say beforehand, so that any potential disagreements are worked out before you speak to the kids.
Define an action plan for the immediate future. Include in this where the parent leaving the house plans to live for the short-term. Make a temporary schedule for keeping contact with the kids for each parent. For kids aged three and up, set up a time when they can speak to the parent moving out on the phone, if there's going to be more than a few days between when they can see each other.
Accept the divorce, and don't fight. Research shows that children from divorced families are about two and a half times more likely to have psychological problems than kids from intact families. The good news is that you can help your kids. Two primary factors make the difference, and both are within your control. These are: accept the divorce, and don't fight. Parents who accept the divorce and adjust to a new life have children who are able to do the same. Even if you feel you are being ill-used by your former husband or wife, and even if the divorce was not your idea, since it is actually happening you help your kids by accepting that. Inter-parental hostility is the other factor that influences children for better or worse.
Keep your child's life consistent, as much as you possibly can. If they regularly have play dates with friends, keep that up. If they take ballet lessons or do soccer practice, make sure they get to them. The structure of your child's life will help everyone as you negotiate new emotional terrain.
Tell others about the divorce and don't be afraid to ask for help. Speak to your child's teacher about the separation. It is very likely that the teacher will notice behavior changes in your child and it will help immeasurably if he or she has this frame of reference. Your child's teacher may have some valuable insight into what your child may particularly need through this time.
Tell Your Kids about the Divorce
Ella Stangle was struggling over whether to tell her bright five-year-old girl that her parents were separating. "Mike says she's too young to understand," Ella said. "When we fight, we do it behind closed doors. But Lucy knows something is going on." One day, about to pack up from the playground where Ella and a friend had taken their kids, Lucy suddenly refused to leave. "I kept saying, what's the matter, honey? And Lucy just kept crying, holding on to the gate at the front of the playground. Finally she told me she didn't want her friend to go back to our house with us. When I asked why not, she said, 'she'll know I don't have a daddy anymore.' I was flabbergasted. Mike hadn't moved out yet, but Lucy felt it, felt everything that was going on."
Without reassurance and explanation from her parents, Lucy extrapolated a stressful situation into one of total loss. Children do not have the cognitive ability to process events the same way adults do. While there is no doubt that the experience of having her father move out of the house was not an easy one, it did not mean she was losing him altogether. It's also interesting to notice the sense of shame she expressed-it's almost as if she could bear the loss herself, but couldn't stand her friend knowing about it. And these are five-year-olds!
"When we did get home I sat down with Lucy and told her Mike and I still loved her, but couldn't live together anymore. I told her it wasn't her fault. I told her she'll always have two parents who love her, even if we don't live together. She was so relieved, I could tell by the look on her face. We had thought that telling her would burden her beyond her years, but the concrete information seemed to relieve her of the burden she was already carrying."
It's interesting that so many adults assume their children don't need to be "in on" the fact of the separation. In a sense this attitude is a throwback to the days (and many of us grew up in households like this) when kids weren't really considered full human beings. They were valued, yes, but in the sense that they would become people in the future, when they became adults. The fact is, your kids are full-fledged people. Your family, whatever its shape, is their whole world. And they are paying attention to it, whether they seem to or not.
Define an Action Plan for the Immediate Future
Don't those words, "define," "action" and "plan" sound good, like you could really get things under some good control just by having the right intentions? Ha, ha, ha.
Here's an outline of a best-case scenario:
1. You and your parenting partner make the decision that it is best you don't live together anymore. Having worked on the issues between you with a counselor, you give yourselves time to reconsider the decision. Finally, there is an agreement between you that you should separate.
2. Both of you are able to sit down and rehearse how you're going to tell the kids. In order to make the transition as seamless as possible for them, when alternate living arrangements are made for the parent who will move out you also make arrangements for how the kids will visit that parent. Both of you acknowledge together that your kids are going to be disappointed, angry, confused. It bears mentioning that acknowledging this is pretty hard and can activate the desire to blame one another for the divorce. At this point you may just want to notice that and put the feeling aside to look at later. It is absolutely optimal during this time to not get stuck in your own feelings, but to remember together that your kids need space to have their feelings. Separately and together you will want to give them plenty of reassurance that although you don't know the future, you are both completely committed to their well-being.
3. In order to tell the kids formally, it would be a good idea to set up a family meeting, say on a Saturday evening, when everyone's likely to be home. Even if there's been stress and upset in the house, even if you believe your decision to separate will come as a relief to your kids, they will be disappointed or scared at the actual event. Dinner will likely be ruined by the announcement-and you want to make sure your kids aren't too tired, like after school, when you sit them down. So, be sensitive to the fact that this is a major big deal for your kids and decide that the event of telling them about it will be about them, and not about you.
4. It will help your children if you are able to present a united front. It will implicitly demonstrate to the kids that this is an adult decision. You are showing them that the mature, responsible part of you that takes care of them and upon which they depend, is still intact. It shows them that although this will change their lives, the decision to separate is something you both are behind and can handle. By telling them outright, you help dispel the fantasy almost all kids have about their parents getting back together.
Accept the Divorce and Don't Fight
Although deliberately planned and carried-out divorces do exist, divorce is often a messy business. Many couples are splitting up because of another person, which complicates matters for everyone. Many splitting couples are not in agreement that this is what should happen. Suddenly, it seems, someone moves out. "I couldn't point to the moment we decided to call it quits," said one man. "It had been over for some time, but then it was really over."
The breakup of such a major relationship is a trauma, and when you're living it, it's hard to remember that your kids are living it too. It's common to feel horribly guilty about what's going on, to want to deny that your children could be interested, because deep down you know how disappointed they will be and possibly already are. Maybe you have a strongly held belief that children shouldn't have to grow up in a divorced household. Maybe your co-parent is having an affair, and you think the situation will blow over.
SOME PEOPLE MANAGE to get divorced from each other without the aid of any professionals-they consult a how-to book and they get it done. Not too many separating spouses are in enough accord with each other to avoid the system around divorce altogether. It is likely that at some point you will at least consult a family law attorney. However, when it comes to resolving the disputes that almost invariably arise during a split, you will do your kids an enormous favor if you keep the conflict out of the courts. Mediators are equipped to handle not only the nuts and bolts of financial arrangements and custody but are also geared toward the peaceable resolution of emotional strife-something your average litigator is not professionally interested in.
You may be very angry with your co-parent and feel you are getting a dangerously short end of the proverbial stick. You may feel like firing back at this person with all the might you can muster, but do your kids a favor, and call a mediator to the table. You can locate a mediator by asking your attorney or by calling your family-court office.
There are reasons beyond the large expense to avoid litigation. In a custody battle, the court will evaluate the children-the evaluators are looking to assign assets and deficits to each parent. Evaluations can polarize a family, and put everyone on the defensive. Communication is shut down as a result, and so is growth. When you litigate over custody, fear is ruling the day. Fear that you will lose out on your children in terms of time and influence. That fear will be expressed as anger. You will not be able to contain your fear and anger and your children will feel its reverberations. This is simply one of the worst types of conflict to subject your children to.
At some point of course, you will have to go through the legal system on the way to a divorce. While the system doesn't fit everyone and deals with a very broad spectrum of situation, if you work with the system, most family judges will work with you. A spirit of cooperation and flexibility will do wonders. Keep in mind that in all but cases of neglect and abuse, your children need exposure to both you and your co-parent. If you spend months vilifying this other person in the court system, you will make your own road much harder to travel as you chart the future.
Facts about Private Mediation (courtesy of Jeanne Ames)
1. It is confidential.
Excerpted from Good Parenting through Your Divorce by Mary Ellen Hannibal Copyright © 2002 by Mary Ellen Hannibal. Excerpted by permission.
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