Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: pexels.com
My children spent this past week with their father. It only happens a few times a year that I don’t see them for so long. Usually I try to keep really busy, so I don’t feel the ache so much, but this time I had to start getting ready for the new school year and I could feel my tension rising. I miss them. It’s not easy being a divorced parent, but you already know this. It’s a message we hear often, loud and clear.
The message we don’t hear so often is the perspective of the child after divorce. I was listening to a podcast yesterday (for those who speak Dutch, you can find it here) that tried to express their point of view, and I wanted to elaborate a bit on how we can make the situation a little less unbearable for children who suddenly find their foundation crumbling.
When it looked like our marriage was heading in the direction of divorce, I read book after book describing how best to take care of children after a divorce, and on the effect it had on children to grow up in a broken home. It was so awful that, time and time again, it encouraged me to keep trying in my marriage, to do what I could to save it. We tried, both my ex-husband and myself, to the best of our abilities, but it became clear that we just weren’t able to be the partner for each other that we both deserved.
After the divorce, we tried to be the best parents we could within the situation. I wrote about this in my post on co-parenting after divorce. Here, I want to add a bit of the information I heard yesterday, spoken from the experience of people who grew up in a broken home.
- I mentioned in my previous post on the topic that parents should make sure never to complain about the other parent. Yesterday, a woman testified that even small facial expressions or minor non-verbal reactions such as a lifted eyebrow or a sigh can convey that we might disagree with the other parent. And for a child, this constantly forces them in a loyalty struggle.
- Another person described how it felt to constantly feel like a visitor at your parents’ houses. It’s imporant that children still have a sense of home, even if there happen to be two homes. When you introduce a new partner to your children, who then moves in with you and lives there permanently while the children only stay every other week, it might feel to the kids as if their safe haven is now someone else’s home and not their own.
- Making room for your children’s grief is essential according to the psychologist in the podcast. You are the one they need to lean on when they are missing the other parent terribly, even if you are happy not to be around them anymore, your children ache for a part of them they are missing. And they are constantly missing someone. I can’t imagine what that must be like.
- Even if your children aren’t living in your home for a week, they are still your children. As the psychologist said: ‘You remain a parent every single day. Your role as a partner may have ended, but your role is a parent continues just as strongly (paraphrased)’. That means being there for your child, through telephone, video call or a postcard when you’re on holiday. My son often sends messages to his father when he’s with me, and the other way around. I try to respond as soon as I get his message, even when it is painful to be confronted with his sadness. Especially then.
- The final take-away for me was that children benefit from having some control over the situation, from being part of the negotiations. Of course, there are some decisions that only the parents can take. We decided to go with a 12/2 arangement of time due to the distance between my ex-husband’s home and the children’s school, and due to his work arrangements. I know my children would prefer to see him more, and we try to accomodate, but a week/week schedule just isn’t possible in our current situation.
Yet, they can decide what their room looks like, which toys and clothes they want to keep where and what stuffed animals move back and forth. In that way, we can at least help them feel a little less like life just keeps throwing them curve balls.
I suspect that the major reason we don’t often look at how children experience divorce, is that it makes us feel so incredibly powerless. We already feel terrible about what we are doing to them, and being reminded of it is often just unbearable. But having the courage to really face what’s going on with our child, and with other children growing up in the same situation, might benefit us as well. We can connect to how our children feel on a deeper level, and can help them adjust in the best possible way. They won’t need to act out to be heard, because we’re already listening.
I wish it wasn’t so, yet more and more children grow up in broken or newly formed families. We’ll see the effects of this trend in the decades to come, in how young people look at relationships and how they navigate the world. Let’s just keep in mind that growing up like this is a major challenge, and that they deserve all the support, empathy and love they can get.