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What About the Kids?

After Hurricane Andrew slammed into the Florida coast in 1992, killing twenty-six people and causing more than $30 billion in property damage, stunned residents were slow to pick up the pieces.

Whole neighborhoods had been destroyed. Utility lines were knocked out. Businesses failed. Gradually, though, people put their communities back together. Streets still had the same names. Familiar movie theaters reopened. Stores restocked their shelves and opened for business as usual. Everything was the same but everything was different. Everyone who walked down the street was proud of the rebuilding but knew in his or her hearts that it was not the same city as before.

What happened after Hurricane Andrew is equivalent to what happens after you divorce.
Divorce is an end and a beginning. From the moment you walk down the courthouse steps, you’re going to need new knowledge and new ideas and most of all a new you. Even after the disequilibrium of the breakup is restored and you’ve found balance in the various spheres of your life, you’re a different person. But most of all, you’re a different kind of parent.

One of the many things I’ve learned is that parents can’t help their children until they’ve thought about themselves, about where they’re coming from. So let’s begin right there. First you need to take control of your own life. I wish I could tell you that it’s okay to lie down and pull the covers over your head, but that’s not possible. You may feel like you’re the only person in the world who could ever feel this bad, but let me assure you, you have plenty of company.

Once you’ve decided that “it’s really over,” you’ll have set into motion the task of becoming a different person and, to your surprise, a different kind of parent. While your decision marks the end of a marriage, it’s also the formation of a new kind of family. It’s a new play with different characters in strange settings, changes in parent and child relationships, and predictable transitions that most parents fail to anticipate.

Most people don’t understand that divorce follows a long trajectory. What you feel today is probably not going to be relevant to your life three, five, or ten years from now. The quick fix that you want to put into place tomorrow won’t be of much use down the post-divorce road. You can take steps to ease your immediate pain, but the really hard work comes one day and then one year at a time with changes that ricochet into your life and into the lives of your children.

You’re about to undergo a metamorphosis. To succeed for yourself and your children, you’re going to have to create a self-image as someone who can cope with the demands set before you. You can’t become an effective parent until you’ve regained your footing and begun to repair the damage done by the failed marriage and the inevitable stresses of the divorce.

How fast or how well this happens depends on how you respond to the challenges and frustrations that lie ahead. There’s no way not to cry. Whether you left the marriage or you were the one left, crying is good for the soul. It doesn’t banish the hurt but at least you can get the pain out of your belly. But if you’re caught up in the image of having failed in your marriage — because you were betrayed or you’re guilty of breaking your marriage vows or your judgment was just plain lousy — your parenting will be burdened. Nor can you muster the strength you need if you think of yourself as a victim. It may be grossly unfair if the person you trusted most in the world is the cause of all your pain, but that feeling must yield to the tasks before you.

As strange as this sounds, if you find yourself raging at your husband or wife, it really doesn’t matter if you’re right. What matters is that being enraged will eclipse your ability to be a good parent. It will cloud your judgment and make it harder for you to take care of yourself or see your children as being separate from you, with different needs and priorities in their young lives. Worst of all, it will make it much harder for you to be a compassionate, loving mom or dad.

If your divorce is like most, only one of you wants to end the marriage. Never in my thirty years of working with divorcing couples have I seen two people sit down quietly at the kitchen table and say, “You know, we both made a mistake, let’s go our separate ways.” There’s almost always pain and palpable grief. At this point, the hardest thing you face is the need to avoid getting stuck in your pain. Think of Lot’s wife. She was offered escape from Sodom and Gomorrah, which were due to be destroyed by God, on condition that she refrain from looking back. But tragically for her and her children, she did look back and forfeited her only chance for rescue. The decision to divorce requires that you focus on what lies ahead, unrelated to how or why the divorce happened.

If you are the one who wanted out and are feeling great relief and pride at having, at last, done what seemed impossible, you are to be congratulated. But you’re still going to face problems with your children. I assure you that you cannot expect instant support or even understanding, even if they’ve seen you suffering.

A New Kind of Parent

Divorce creates two separate single parents with two homes, two sets of furniture, two refrigerators, and separate insurance policies. Each of you wakes up every morning to discover that when your children are under your roof you have responsibility for their well-being, discipline, and entertainment. As single parents you can surely cooperate, but you are no longer joined at the hip as mother and father over each twenty-four-hour day. Even in bad marriages parents often protect each other against the anxiety and fatigue of parenting. If a child is sick, parents who no longer share a bed still take turns getting up during the night.

But with your divorce, true shared parenting evaporates. You have no one to call on for help. Whatever happens during the days or nights that your children are with you, it’s always your turn. Of course you can work out a cooperative arrangement with your ex-partner and I surely hope that you will. You can divide custody. You can decide to split errands and soccer games. You can share the children’s favorite recipes. But coparenting after divorce is not the same as coparenting within marriage. If the nursery school calls to say that your previously well-behaved son is biting the other children and breaking toys, you can’t set the clock back.

You certainly can’t say, “I want to talk this problem over with my husband.” There’s only you talking with the teacher, trying to keep your child in the school he’s disrupting. If you let your seventeen-year-old borrow your car and he’s several hours late, you walk the floor alone. You can call your ex or the police, and probably you should, but they will not pace the kitchen floor with you. You can turn to your family for help or hire a nanny, but no one will supplant a full-time partner. A successful divorce requires you to be stronger than you’ve ever been, as if you are one person doing the work of two with the tenacity of ten.

Divorce forces you to become a new person. It really doesn’t matter who made the decision or whose “fault” it was. The transformation is similar to what happened to you when you first had a baby. From day one you embarked on a new adult role for which you had no dress rehearsal. The birth certificate didn’t make you a mother or father. You remade yourself into a parent. Remember when you suddenly found yourself getting up in the middle of the night to carry out new and unfamiliar duties? You learned to be responsible in ways you never imagined. Your hearing got sharper. You could detect your baby’s breathing a room away and you could hear her faintest cry. You carried a constant awareness of your child’s needs whether you were one mile or three thousand miles from home. So, too, divorce requires you to rally yourself to carry out new responsibilities that are every bit as difficult and demanding as those you learned after your first child was born.

Who Were You Before?

Unfortunately, the legal change noted on your divorce papers does not usher in this change in identity. You do. Divorce doesn’t happen in the courts, although the public record is what makes it official. It happens in the psychological changes that occur over time in both you and your ex-partner. Most of the changes occur gradually, with the result that you wake up one morning and realize that you’re a different person. You no longer cry yourself to sleep, wake up angry, berate yourself for your poor judgment, obsess all night about whether you made the right decision, or feel like screaming much of the time. After weeks or months, indeed sometimes years, of feeling shaky and bewildered, there will come one psychological moment when you become this new person.

How can you tell? You’ll know that you’ve begun to acquire this important new identity when you finally excise your partner’s voice somewhere inside your head berating you, accusing you, pleading with you, or hounding you. You are a new person when you finally stop feeling like a failure who says, “I tried so hard but my best was not enough,” when you feel free, even hopeful, and can make decisions without trembling inside. In taking these new steps toward a new identity, reward yourself with something real that makes you feel good. Try a massage, a night out, a new hairdo, or go for broke and get a whole new outfit or set of golf clubs. As it is after any shock, you may start out walking a bit unsteadily but then you will gather strength as you go forward.

To begin the healing process, you might try this simple exercise. In your mind, go back over the years and try to recapture who you were before you got married. Are there earlier self-images that you can substitute for the sad ones linked to your failed marriage? Were you hopeful as a young man or woman? What happened to that hope? Did you have other choices when you chose your husband or wife?

One woman told me, “I was a very attractive and popular girl. I had several men vying for my attention. I’d already enrolled in law school but gave it all up when Jim came along and swept me off my feet with promises of everlasting love that turned out to be false from the honeymoon on. I look at myself in the mirror and can’t believe the worn, out image with dark circles under her eyes that looks back at me. Even my hair has lost its curl. What happened to the real me?”

A man told me, “She was the prettiest girl at school and the mayor’s daughter to boot. I was from the wrong side of the tracks. I thought that with her at my side we would reach the moon together, have a wonderful gracious home, and create the family I always longed for. But the marriage drained my self-confidence and my drive. For years I almost suffocated in boredom.”

So try to find your earlier self-images and use them to rekindle the hopes and strengths that you need to move ahead with your life.

At some point every man and woman, whether left or leaving, has to face up to the hurt and disappointment that go with a failed marriage and the continuing tensions of the divorce. Resolving grief means letting go. In divorce, it’s letting go of the memories collected over many years of being together. It means letting go of the hopes and dreams that led you to marry this person in the first place. You need to pull up the memories of your courtship and all the good times you had together, to mourn each recollection individually and put them to rest. Many people find that therapy helps them in this process. A sensitive therapist can provide support as well as understanding that can break into your loneliness and restore your perspective. One man credited his therapist with restoring his sense of humor. “I was beginning to bore myself with self-pity,” he said. “Thank God she helped me snap out of it.”

Copyright © 2003 Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee

Excerpted from: What about the Kids? Raising Your Children Before, During, and After Divorce By Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee
(Published by Hyperion; ISBN: 0786868651; US$23.95; hardcover)

The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce gave us new and important insight into the long-term effects of divorce on children who have grown into adulthood. What About the Kids? is a new book that tells parents in unprecedented detail how to help their children over the long haul — what to say, what to do, what to expect — every step of the way. Tapping into the latest findings on how children develop, this clearly written guidebook helps parents understand why children at different ages react the way they do to divorce and how to head off trouble before it begins. The book follows divorce chronologically so parents can find advice for whatever stage of the experience they are in, including how to help older children many years after the breakup.

Judith S. Wallerstein is the founder and executive director of the Center for the Family in Transition. She is senior lecturer emerita at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California at Berkeley, where she has taught for twenty-six years. She has spoken with more divorced families than anyone in the nation, and lectured to thousands of family court judges, attorneys, mental health professionals, mediators, and educators. She has appeared on Oprah, the Today show, and Good Morning America, among others. She is the author, with Sandra Blakeslee, of the national bestsellers The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts and Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce; with Blakeslee and Julia M. Lewis of the bestseller The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, and, with Dr. Joan Berlin Kelly, of Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce.

Sandra Blakeslee is an award-winning science writer who contributes regularly to the New York Times. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.