I’ll spare you the data about marriage, divorce, and children in the U.S. Chances are, you know, love or are someone whose marriage with children has ended. And the path forward is not an easy one for anyone involved.
Sure, there are lovely stories about couples with children who divorce for all the right reasons and who lovingly and rationally share a lifetime of parenting. I know some of these strange humans, and I am so grateful for their example. People also sometimes win the actual lottery. It’s nice to know that unicorns do exist.
But if you’re anything like I was eight years ago when I began my co-parenting journey, you could use a few pointers. Or a thousand. But I’ll keep it to a digestible eight.
Holding back would be of no use to you. So hate my words all you need to until you make a version of them your own. I’ve been a part of and facilitated groups of divorced parents, and we have our collective work on our shit shows cut out for us.
1. It really is sometimes (ok, usually) ALL about the kids. I know, I know. You’ve heard this before. But let it sink in. Deep. These small people have absolutely no responsibility for having their lives so utterly changed. I don’t care how positive the change is for everyone as a collective: losing the marriage (or other formal commitment) of your parents is a big damn deal, and the adults are responsible for figuring out how to help small people through the fire.
Someone left their backpack at the wrong house? Shoes are at Dad’s? School project got lost somewhere in between? Guess what. Mom and Dad are entirely responsible for helping to figure this out. Suzie wasn’t wired to have two sets of every damn thing in two places. Shit gets lost and it’s hard to be a kid as it is. Parents, get your emotional shit together before blaming the small people for not being able to handle your massive life change. (Yes. Figure out how to lessen these occurrences. Find organization and balance. But don’t come for small people when it’s your problem they’re being forced to work out. It took my responsible and receptive kids years to figure out how to manage “stuff” and two households.)
2. Anger is a useful emotion. Until it is not. I’ve talked with hundreds of really angry divorcees. And some of you all have good reason to be furious. I see your trauma and your asshat of an ex. Damn. Let it out. Work through it. Because emotional bypassing is a thing, and it is not attractive (more on that next.) Find what you like to punch. Sing power ballads for all of your neighbors to hear. But do let that shit go once you’ve worked through it. There is nothing like the desperate, angry fire in your belly to keep you stuck. And stuck parents are not good parents.
2.5 Emotional bypassing is a thing. For the sake of the kids and for your own peace of mind, you may actually want to become a monk. Or a yoga instructor. You are going to want to peace out like a river. I know I did. But please don’t believe that you can hold that shit inside forever. Your kids see you gaining or losing the weight of anguish. They know you’re impatient for some reason. They are counting your glasses of wine, and they deserve to see you process your emotions in healthy ways.
3. Date. Sage advice, right? But really. When you’re ready, date. And do it without falling in love right away. You deserve to explore and to mess up and to enjoy the enjoyable parts of it. Pro tip: it’s ok to tell your kids that you *do* date. It’s not ok to involve them in the details, nor to introduce them to some strange adult you happen to be sleeping with too early on. (Also, you’ve read thousands of articles about dating yourself. Do that, too.)
4. Don’t expect your family to understand. This one nearly killed me. I repeat: do not expect your family to understand. In fact, what happened may not be any of their business. For the sake of your kids, keep your relationships with family as intact as possible while you silently die inside from how little they “get” what’s going on with you. (This is also true for even your closest friendships. Sorry to break the potentially very bad news.) Get therapy if you need it. You probably do. When you’re ready, get and maintain coaching to bolster your path forward.
5. Set technology boundaries quickly and firmly with your ex. If your kids are too little for phones, establish how and when is appropriate to communicate with them on their other parent’s parenting time. I really hated this, but it was essential. Turned out, what I thought was normal checking in was a real nuisance in his life. (Not being with my kids for half of the week still isn’t and never will be “normal”, so I’m still working on the check in “appropriateness”.) If your kids are old enough and do have phones, check-ins will get easier and more on pace with what your child needs from you instead of what you’re wondering about them.
6. While you’re at it, set all of your boundaries quickly and firmly with your ex. This one was forced upon me by my ex who did his boundary work immediately following our split. I took a beating here and am just catching up.
I can’t tell you what your boundaries should be. But find them. There are a million resources out there to help you establish them. Enforce them with dignity and compassion for all involved. Revisit your boundaries as the kids grow to allow for a change in your co-parenting styles and your lives.
Pro-tip: boundaries are not mechanisms for being assholes to one another. Use caution in your creation and enforcement. You know. For the kids’ sake.
7. Figure out quickly how you want to communicate together with teachers and other important adults in your children’s world. This one has been relatively easy for me because my co-parent believes in point number one above as strongly as I do. Keep an open dialogue with school staff about changes in the lives of your kiddo, including any hardships you may be facing during your own rollercoaster of grief. Know how your child feels about having both of you in the room for high-pressure situations like parent-teacher conferences, and follow their wise lead for how to handle. (Also. You are NOT the only divorced family in the class. The teacher knows a thing or two about handling you all –your mess and your child –so ask for help if you need it.)
8. Remember that you have experienced and continue to experience sincere trauma, and your kids know. Even the tiny ones. Care for yourself radically. Your kids are impacted by how you silently react after you read that nasty or tough love email from your ex (maybe save the reading for when you’re alone.) They know you may be alone on holidays when they’re not with you, and they grieve for you. They know why you cry so hard at certain points in episodes of “This is Us”.
Commit radical acts of self-care before you even get out of bed. When you slide into grief, ask for help. Your small people deserve for you to handle your heart like you would a broken arm. If it’s in your wheelhouse, remember that your ex’s heart has been mangled, too.
Visit these ideas. Re-visit them. Make them fit your situation, and do your damn best to do what needs to be done every day to make it work for yourself and your children. You all deserve it.
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