My earliest childhood memories are not of vacations, splashing in waves as the sun cascades over my family. I can’t see any images of where we spent each holiday or participated in activities we all enjoyed on a Saturday afternoon. Even when I look back at pictures of fishing trips and boating excursions, evidence that these family events did take place, the smile is missing on my dad’s face, his thick mustache covering a stiff upper lip. I look closer and recognize the vacant expressions mirrored on all of our faces.
I remember the fighting, the yelling and the anger. I remember my brother, aged seven – only three and a half years older than me – holding me on the front path outside our house as I sobbed because I was scared. If I allow it, I can still hear their arguing voices in the night behind closed doors; they think we are asleep, but we are not. There is emptiness inside, not a single feeling of familial harmony, love and togetherness. I never developed a sense that my home was a safe place, a comfort zone, a place where nothing could harm me. Until I had children of my own, I had no idea of the profoundness of the effect it had on me.
The unhappiness my parents felt in marriage only fueled the flames of an epically long and painful divorce process. Thankfully they got divorced when I was five and my brother was eight. I say thankfully because I do not believe in staying together just for the children. That’s right; you heard me, if you are not happy and are constantly fighting, or worse just completely ignoring each other, you will not only live a lifetime of unhappiness but you will teach your children that it’s okay to live that way too. No, if you have tried everything (counseling, etc.), it’s better to part ways and attempt to rebuild on your own. Show them strength and resilience, give them a chance to possibly see you truly love again and to understand how wonderful and magical marriage can be.
With that having been said, the actual divorce and the years that follow will, without a doubt, be extremely difficult on the entire family. You will not be able to protect your children from everything, but you can make it easier on them. The unhappiness my parents felt in marriage only fueled the flames of a long and painful divorce process and it took a lifelong toll.
I am not a psychologist or a counselor; I can only speak from personal experience.
Always remember they are still children. It doesn’t matter if they are six or 16; children have not reached a level of emotional development to cope with certain aspects of the divorce. Encourage them to talk to someone that is not you or your ex-partner. It does not have to be a mental health professional; it can be a teacher, a priest/rabbi, a coach, anyone they are willing to open up to. Being able to talk about their feelings with someone who is completely neutral, whose sole purpose is to just listen to them can be very helpful.
Put your feelings aside. There is a time and place to show your rage and dislike of your ex, but that place is not in front of your children. No matter what went down between you, all your kids know is that they still want a mom and a dad. As parents it is your job to make sure that you keep at least an unbiased attitude towards each other as the children develop new and equal relationships with both of you. Remember, at one time you chose this person to be the mother/father of your children, you cannot take that away.
You don’t have to be friends, just friendly. It’s important to see each other briefly every once in a while if only to make sure that major life events, such as bar/bat mitzvah’s, sweet 16’s, or weddings are not the first place you have laid eyes on each other in a decade or two. These are not the types of occasions you want ruined with awkward interactions. It doesn’t have to be dinner and drinks, just a quick hello during pick up/drop off of the kids every now and then.
Don’t bad mouth the other in front of them. The fact that mom and dad no longer love each other or live together is confusing enough. “If they don’t love each other, do they still love me?” is a common thought. Allow children to express feelings and share stories about your ex without any negative commentary; keep the comments to yourself and let them out to a friend later. All children want a healthy relationship with each parent; you should not get in the way of that.
Never put them in the middle. Though this directly involves your children, your divorce is something that is taking place strictly between you and your ex.
Though there are aspects of the divorce that remain difficult even today (think kids’ birthday parties), eventually I made my peace and learned to cope. I found my happiness, as a teen through friendships and through being a band geek, and eventually even with my family. Now as an adult, my husband and my children fill me with more joy then I ever thought possible.
In many ways I thank my parents daily. They were the best parents they could have been given the circumstances. They showed me how to be strong during some very difficult times. I also learned lot about the home that I wanted to create for my children; a home filled with giggles, love, hugs, affection, acceptance, support, honesty and understanding.