The one goal that I set for myself when I was pregnant with my first child, was that I want to have a relationship with my kids where they feel that they can tell me anything. I want to be their safe place.
Over the years, I’ve had to tweak the ‘rules’ to my “you can tell mom anything” goal so that they don’t confuse our parent/child relationship with a friend relationship but overall I feel like we’re heading in the right direction. I’ll tell you for sure in about another 17 years if it worked but for now they know that, while I may be upset with their choices and have to come to grips with something that they did, I will listen to every feeling and emotion that is running through their little bodies even if I can’t fix it…even if I can do nothing for them but stand and hug them and tell them I’m sorry that they feel that way.
God must have had a plan when he placed this goal on my heart all those years ago because it helped open up the lines of communication with the boys at the start of the divorce and continues to this day. Typically, my oldest (my son that internalizes everything) will wait until we’re winding down the day and then tell me that he would like to talk to me in private, which is his clue to me that it will likely be about one of the following topics:
- The divorce
- His Dad
- Girls (this one is new and I’m still learning to not allow “oh how cute” to be written all over my face)
The topics have changed somewhat over the years and the frequency, but the one thing that I can guarantee that I will hear, at the end of every conversation, is, “Mom, I just wish it was like it used to be.” He has never once asked for his Dad and I to get back together but he has said that he wished things would not have changed. It gets me every time and it never gets easier to hear. So when he says it, I hold him tightly, we both shed a few tears – his for the hurt he has had to deal with because of my choice and mine for the hurt that I inflicted on my sons for making the hardest, yet best, decision of my life – and then we talk about the wonderful people he now has in his life and focus on all of the positives.
Last night we had one of our talks. He kills me every time he asks for a ‘talk’ because he delivers his request with such seriousness that I immediately go into panic-mode thinking that the words that will be coming out of his mouth will be crushing, yet they usually aren’t…I’m just a mom, it’s kinda part of the job to worry. Our talk ended up being about girls and why they aren’t always nice because ‘they whisper about me all of the time’ or ‘say my name funny on purpose to make me mad’ or ‘stop being a friend’ and while I tried to convince my nine-year old that a girl usually does silly things when they like a boy it hit me that I was doing it! I was building that mountain of trust so that hopefully one day I will reach my goal of openness with my kids. He was sharing something with me that was so intimate to him that I’ve been sworn to secrecy. And I’ve kept that confidence and helped to build that bond.
I’m sure that I will learn so much more about raising kids in the next 17 years but I have a few tips that I’ve either learned from trial-and-error or from respected friends and colleagues that I’d like to pass along. Most of these I’ve employed while helping the boys cope with the divorce but I’m hoping that one or more of these could help anyone’s family life.
- When they ask why you divorced their other parent, don’t tell them. They have precious hearts and minds and do not need to carry their parents baggage on their shoulders. Trust me, I have had MANY moments when I’ve contemplated telling them how I feel about their father and why, but I stop myself every time. And guess what?? They are starting to understand who their father is and how he is wired all on their own. It breaks my heart even still, but at least I wasn’t the one destroying one of their idols (and parents should be idols to children), their Dad is doing it all on his own.
- In our house, I repeat the following statement every time I’m asked why I divorced their Dad, “When you’re 18 I’ll be happy to tell you.” A wise man that I once worked with told me that he told his kids this and when they turned 18 they told him that they didn’t even need to ask. Let them be kids – don’t burden them with things that have nothing to do with them. YOU divorced their other parent, they didn’t.
- It really takes extra effort sometimes but in our house, my husband and I make sure that the boys Dad isn’t spoken badly of, in front of them, by us or others. When I was growing up, I was around friends that had divorced parents and I was shocked every time the absent parent was ‘trashed’ in front of my friends as part of their normal conversation. I never understood it and we just simply do our best to not bring him up, unless the boys have things that they want to discuss.
- It’s ok to not have all of the answers and it’s ok to tell them that you don’t know what to say or how to fix it. It’s ok to sit and cry with them but remember that it is your job, though, to help them find ways to cope. Whether that’s through religious support, counseling, divorce groups for kids, or some other way, finding a way to help them deal with these major life changes is critical to their mental and emotional health.
- Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have the answers. I’ve figured out that the one step that I took that was the right step, was being honest with them. The key though is to make sure that your honesty is age appropriate. My boys have returned to my home a few times with information about the divorce, and the issues tied to it, that do not belong on a child’s shoulders and it irks me like crazy. But instead of laying more on them by trying to explain more or defend more, I’m honest with them – I tell them that it’s nothing that they need to be concerned about at their ages, that the divorce had nothing to do with them and there’s no need to talk about the subject. I don’t sugarcoat anything or try to explain it away and I resist the urge to defend myself.
- I’m also honest (age appropriate) about the divorce. This one has been learned from trial-and-error. I tried to sugarcoat the process early on and it bit me in the behind. Someone else decided to share with them the harsh reality (at least in this person’s mind) of what divorce meant, which of course tore them apart. I stood there with egg on my face because it seemed like I lied to them yet all I was really trying to do was protect them. So now, I protect them by keeping them in the loop so that no one else can hurt their little hearts and by me choosing to deliver bad news then at least I have the ability to deal with the aftermath and can help them work through any disappointment or hurt that they may be feeling.
- Take care of your emotional health also. Have your own way to cope that doesn’t include dumping all of your issues on your children. Let them be kids. They didn’t make this choice – they are just along for the ride.
Be present. Validate their feelings. Be honest. Listen. Empathize. Sometimes the kids just need to vent; just need to know that the way they are feeling is ok and that they shouldn’t be afraid to share their feelings or emotions with you. Remember that you don’t always have to fix everything…just listen and love them with everything that you have.