Divorce is traumatic. Next to death and illness, divorce is probably one of the the worst things anyone can experience. This is not because it is something rare, far from it. I is because it is something that, despite the almost 50/50 odds, none of us think it will happen to us. No one goes into a marriage thinking that it won’t last a lifetime. Even more so, most children don’t grown up thinking that their parents will ever not be together.
This advice was originally published in a Dear Abby column where she quotes the words of Judge Haas of Walker, MN:
“Your children have come into this world because of the two of you. Perhaps you two made lousy choices as to whom you decided to be the other parent. If so, that is your problem and your fault.
No matter what you think of the other party—or what your family thinks of the other party—these children are one-half of each of your. Remember that, because every time you tell your child what an “idiot” his father is, or what a “fool” his mother is, or how bad the absent parent is, or what terrible things that person has done, you are telling the child half of him is bad.
That is an unforgivable thing to do to a child. That is not love. That is possession. If you do that to your children, you will destroy them as surely as if you had cut them into pieces, because that is what you are doing to their emotions.
I sincerely hope that you do not do that to your children. Think more about your children and less about yourselves, and make yours a selfless kind of love, not foolish or selfish, or your children will suffer.”
When my kids’ mom and I divorced, it was not particularly friendly. After 18 years of marriage, I was faced with deceit and betrayal. I was also faced with a profound loss. It was more traumatic than anything I’d ever experienced, including the deaths of my parents and sister. I was overwhelmed with pain and guilt and more anger than I ever thought possible.
Even in my anger and pain, and my self-center, wallowing grief, I realized that my children were traumatized too. They were dealing with confusion and fear. Kids need love and stability. I could see that they were scared, unsure what the future would bring. Despite my anger at my soon-to-be ex-wife, I knew that I had to, first and foremost, reassure my children.
It wasn’t easy. We’d been in Nebraska for barely a year, having moved from Massachusetts where they been a part of their mother’s large, extended family. She’d become estranged from them and we ended up moving to the Midwest and the kids loved and missed their grandmother, uncles, aunts, and cousins.
Fortunately, their mother and I were able to agree that whatever was going on between us, it would stay between us, and that we wouldn’t expose the kids to it. We told the children that from now on they would have two families; one with their mother and her soon-to-be husband, and one with me.
Since their mother didn’t talk to her family at that time, and I had custody of the kids, I made a real effort to keep the kids in touch with their mother’s relatives back home in Massachusetts. I’d make sure that the children talked to them at least once a week, or more. I also kept the in-laws (ex-in-laws?) up to date on how the kids were doing and how the divorce was proceeding, always reassuring them that the kids were doing well.
It worked, as best as these things can. My children had love and support from me, their relatives, and their mom. I even welcomed the positive attention they got from their soon-to-be step-father (galling though it was), because it made them happy and helped them feel loved and safe.
Sadly, there are far too many parents who let their anger with the other parent consume them. They bad mouth the other parent to their kids, forgetting, as the Judge said, that the other parent is half of each of their children.
It is so easy to let your anger and hatred consume you and to forget that you are a parent and have a responsibility to your children that is greater than your thirst for revenge or your fear of being alone and a single parent.
We have all heard stories, and probably know of personally, parents who have not only disparaged the other parent to their kids, but actually used the children to try to influence or hurt the other parent. This is probably one of the worst thing a parent can do to their children. It fills them with anxiety and fear. It most likely also makes them feel guilty that the divorce is somehow their fault. I can also lead to the children being angry at one, or both parents.
All this can lead to the children having strained, or even no, relationship with one of their parents. This is something that will affect them for the rest of their lives. They will end up dealing with the real loss of a parent, and they will grieve that lose as much, or even more, than if that parent had died.
It has been almost 9 years since the divorce (or at least since we split). In the intervening years there have been very few times where either I or their mom lashed out at the other in front of the kids. We have always been civil and respectful to each other in front of them. Consequently, today they are as happy as any other kids out there. That they have adjusted well is a testimony to the efforts that both I and their mother have made to reassure them that they are loved, that they are the center of both of our worlds, that just because mom and dad can’t be together anymore doesn’t mean that they aren’t part of a family.
I believe that Judge Haas’ advice to newly divorced parents should be given to all parents who get divorced. Parents need to realize from the outset that they have a duty and a responsibility to their children that trumps all of their own anger and grief. They must think more about their children and less about themselves, and make their love for their children a selfless kind of love.
Featured image by: DrJohnBullas