It has been said that we are only as happy as our least happy child, and there is some truth to that. Nothing prepares us for the love and devotion most of us feel when we become parents. As years go by, we have hopes and dreams for them, hopefully we learn to manage that process in a healthy way, and eventually we learn that the desire to control outcomes for them and protect them from distress and harms way is, in large part, an illusion. As a friend of mine said in his daughters bat mitzvah toast,
“I just want you to breathe.”
I found that to be such a beautiful and freeing sentiment, letting his daughter know that she could become whoever she wanted to be, that the dreams were hers, not his. He would play the supporting cast to her stardom, however that took shape. His words make me refocus often and realize that we have far less control over our children’s happiness and even, as they get older, their safety in this world than we would like. It makes me realize that as devastating as divorce is for children, life deals us blows at some point that the human spirit is capable of not just surviving but thriving beyond. This concept has been an evolution of my own mindset that continues each day because the memory of telling my four kids that their dad moved out is etched on my heart forever. It’s possibly the most painful thing I have experienced through this entire process. As I said last week, time moves on, and the task at hand of raising four strong, well adjusted kids who know they can withstand difficulty, learn from it, and become contributing members of society is, without a doubt, my greatest motivation in life. Being that my youngest is 12, we aren’t even close to done in the pursuit of that goal. Here are some principles that I have learned firsthand that are guiding me today:
You can’t physically do enough to make the heartache ok, so let yourself off the hook, and guide them through the emotional journey. Just after that fateful conversation about our split, I went into overproduction. They probably don’t even remember, because it didn’t last long, but for about six weeks, I was bound and determined to deliver them the best life experience they could get. We would road trip, I would have every last thing packed for them in their bags, make amazing meals when we were home, and basically try to anticipate their next need before they had even thought of it. My exhausted self quickly realized, probably out of necessity at that point, that it was not the way to go. I was working from a place of guilt, which, whatever the parenting circumstance, is never the place to make decisions. Not to mention, I was dead tired, and, although maybe a distraction for my own feelings, overproduction mode wasn’t helping anyone. One of the silver linings of split households, because yes, I make myself look for them, is that it gives kids the opportunity to learn to manage their own stuff, with real consequences. They are hugely capable if we teach, instead of do, and since I abandoned overproduction mode, I have watched little by little as they pick up the slack and learn to plan ahead, do pick ups and drop offs for me, use an alarm clock instead of me waking them up, manage their own bags and schedules, and I have time to go to yoga and make dinner.
Teach them to focus on who they want to become. We all have strengths and weaknesses that we can both capitalize on and work to improve. In split households, most likely there are different ways of doing things, mindsets, and habits that define each dwelling. I’ve seen it first hand, manipulation can come out quickly when discomfort rears its head.
“Dad wouldn’t make me do that.” or “Mom let’s me play that game.”
Anytime I have heard that terrible comeback in response to me laying down my law, I shoot back:
“When you play me against him, you are only cheating yourself.”
Example, “Do you think playing Call of Duty for six hours makes you a better human?” Usually I get an honest response.
“You have to decide who you want to be, and then work at that.”
Then I push the conversation to how he thinks he’s going to get there.
Let the other parent work from his or her strengths. This one has more to do with our own self esteem, but can end up doing harm to the relationship between parent and child. Don’t be territorial with things. If he wants to do something for your child, unless you see it as overtly harmful, be gracious and let it happen. Don’t let your ego get involved with ideas like, I wish I would have thought of that, or worry that there is going to be a favorite parent. Most likely that is going to ebb and flow based on experience and personality so don’t get hung up on winning the popularity contest on any given day. If it helps the bond between parent and child, just go with it. Always remember that their emotional needs are entirely different than yours and that other parent is a place for them to feel safe and loved, as long and there is not a reason to think those two things can’t be achieved, stay out of the way. In some situations, I have even found that whatever was being offered crossed something off my already long to do list, while giving one of the kids a positive experience, and I’ve learned to look at those as a win/win.
Be Strong, Be Vulnerable. Safety is a real need, no matter what age we are. Kids want to know that you have things from the top handled so that they can work on the building blocks of making it to adulthood. This doesn’t mean though that they should not see your feelings. I think one way we can help change the cycle of generational pain is to let our kids know that things are hard or less than ideal, and then let them be part of the process of conquering that obstacle. Let them know that, even when you are sad, you can still find laughter. Let them see you seek your outlets that give you joy, it will help them find theirs. Yoga, piano, sports, music playing in the kitchen, reading, outings and trips together, little inside jokes…there are all kids of things that we can find for ourselves that will turn the tables. Being both strong and vulnerable at the same time helps us get to the root of our issues, not just the symptom and I believe learning to do this is the real key to long term emotional well being.
Let Your Voice be so strong that they hear it even when you aren’t with them.
This is something I am always working on, speaking up isn’t something that has come naturally to me over this lifetime. This also isn’t an invitation to butt in, believe me, I’ve learned from experience that is bad form. It’s hard when we see our kids in some kind of emotional distress, because we want to solve the problem yesterday. The trick is figuring out if there is a way to help them process through what they are feeling versus trying to solve it for them (and most likely, you can’t anyway). Depending on the age of the child, the skills are different. Nonetheless, unless we are dealing with toddlers or younger, they have them, and honing them gives them an edge on self realization at a younger age. The message to them is that they know they can count on you in happiness and in distress 100% of the time, but then teach them that they have the power within them, despite their surroundings, to be present and happy wherever they are. In this day and age, we are a phone call or FaceTime away, we can even play video games with them when they aren’t with us. Let them know that you can meet them where they are, even if that’s not in person. I have found that just the idea of this can calm anxious feelings, especially my youngest.
In the end, parenting is an art, not a science. Despite some real hardship and heartbreak, I feel so much pride and joy when I watch my kids work as a team, to belong to each other and be a unit no matter where they are sleeping at night. The goal is always to give them access to emotional support, but let it look different depending on who lends it and give them the experience to see what works best for them. Raising kids in split households isn’t a competition, and, as long as it’s a safe environment, it’s their foundation and reality. I have found that even with it’s challenges, when we parent from our most authentic place, we get into a flow that helps us not to overthink. We just have to be brave enough to say what we know in our hearts to be true, and with good timing. I work hard to give my kids the deepest sense of who I am, even if they don’t fully grasp it today. Letting them see my emotions while providing them with safety and love is always a goal for me. I trust the bond I have built, and then I work hard to maintain it It looks different at every stage of this journey. Sometimes it’s talking, then it’s listening, then it’s holding on, then it’s letting go.
As I sit here at my oldest’s freshman orientation at TCU, the speed with which it passes it unbelievable. Don’t waste a minute fighting your ego and give them the opportunity to love and be loved by both parents…because what if, in the end, your child is only as happy as their least happy parent? Show them your joy, let them know they are safe and loved and the story can still have a very happy ending.