I didn’t think I was going to be a mother.
For a long time, I hadn’t wanted to be. I thought I was lacking the gene that made you want to wipe noses, sing lullabies, or run carpool. I loved my nephews, but didn’t connect with the desire to make the bulk of my day about answering a toddler’s incessant, “Why?” or a teenager’s just as incessant, “Why not?”
It wasn’t in my proverbial cards, or so I thought. Then I met and married my now husband of almost thirty years — and everything changed.
I believed we could create a life together, and nurture that life. We were solid enough. We’d work hard enough.
I was lucky in many ways. I had married and divorced two men who already had children, and who didn’t want more. That was a blessing in disguise. When I divorced, I didn’t have to continue to live my immature choice because whatever diseased dynamic that had existed between the two of us could be over.
Divorce with children is something quite different. It takes significant emotional maturity to “get along for the children’s sake.” My hat is off to the people who do it, and do it well. Both have to put their children’s welfare above hurt or resentment or some leftover emotional agenda to control.
Ex’s who amicably divorce may struggle less with this. Their emotional battle with one another is over.
So I’ve watched a lot of people do this well, and some, not so well. Here are nine guidelines.
Tell the children about the divorce together, with responsibility shared.
Realize this is a conversation you’re both going to have many times with your kids. It’s not helpful to them to be told that one of you is “to blame” for the breakup. Their lives are being affected enough and adding the pressure to side with one or the other is too much.
As they get older, they may decide for themselves what happened. But don’t put them in the middle, even then. It won’t help your own grief, even though you might get some temporary support.
Don’t ask for or allow friends or family to disrespect your ex.
There’s a difference between asking for support for anger or frustration you may have about your ex and needing others to continue fueling some kind of battle between you. Your job is to try and remember what you liked about your ex, what you still trust about them, and how you can coparent with them successfully.
Have a weekly conversation (or email exchange) about the kids.
Plan to have a regular discussion about how the kids are doing, what are their plans, are and how those plans can be carried out. Sometimes one parent will see things much more positively and what is troubling. That’s normal. Often kids say what their parents want or need to hear.
Younger kids want to know tangible things — whether or not Santa is going to come to their new house, or if each parent is still going to come their basketball games. Their behavior at school may change, or they may have trouble adjusting to a parent’s absence. Be as flexible as you can be with their need for time to grieve having divorced parents. A judge may have decided a time schedule, or maybe you mediated one, but only a caring parent is aware of what their child needs.
No one wants your children to suffer. Create a balance between helping them feel optimistic about the future, and at the same time, allowing them to be sad about a change they didn’t choose.
If you can’t talk (or listen) to your ex without becoming bitter or angry, then seek help.
You need to work through painful feelings you still have. For your sake, and your children’s, it’s important that you understand and accept what went on during your marriage, what worked about it, and what definitely didn’t. What about your ex might have been evident at the time you chose him or her, that you ignored or looked the other way? How can you begin to build a sense of competence, after going through the ending of a commitment? It takes time to get emotionally divorced. If you get stuck, therapy can be very helpful, in giving you another perspective to consider.
You can also both go to what I term “divorce therapy.” This can be done immediately or even years afterward if the toxicity of the relationship is hurting the children.
Empower your kids to speak up.
If your ex is saying negative things to your children about you, asking too many questions about you, or putting them in the middle in some other way, then empower them to ask that parent to stop. Obviously, a very young child isn’t mature enough to do this. But an older child can. If there’s a question of a parent losing control if a child asks them to stop, then that’s another issue, and may have to be addressed in the courts.
Introduce a new person (or any major change) to your ex with respect.
Both of your lives will go on. You will meet other people. You might begin working, or change jobs. You might start going to church, or make some other spiritual change.
For none of this do you need your ex’s permission, but things will go much more smoothly for your children if you recognize that those changes will impact your kids, and thus, your ex. If the change is big enough, it’s a good idea to give your ex a heads-up about it. This is true especially if you’re introducing someone else that you may love to the children.
Thank one another.
Take a minute to text your ex that you appreciated them picking up the kids on “your” day, or changing weekend plans to accommodate your family coming into town. Thank them for taking time off work to take care of an ill child, or helping with homework you don’t understand.
Yes. It’s your job. And it’s their job — to be good parents. But just because you’re divorced doesn’t mean that gratitude isn’t appreciated. And you’re more likely to receive it yourself.
Be gracious if you have primary custody.
It’s very common for parents who don’t have custody of their children to feel disenfranchised, meaning that they feel as if their influence over the children has been taken away. The custodial parent can talk to the non-custodial parent about important decisions, even though it’s not required by law.
Make going back and forth as easy as possible for the children.
Nobody likes to feel as if they’re living out of their luggage, or a backpack. Have personal things at both houses for the kids, including especially clothes, pajamas and personal things. Obviously, cost is an issue here, and not all things can be replicated.
There’s a transitional movement called “nesting” that’s helpful with couples who are amicable, where parents come and go during or after the divorce, while at least initially, the children stay in the home. It doesn’t work in all cases, but can help children have time to adjust, before they’re leaving the home that they know. You can decide if it’s right for you and your children.
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Originally published on December 17, 2016; updated on May 31, 2020.