How to Raise Kids After a Divorce
Elin Nordegren, mother of two and soon-to-be ex-wife of golf megastar Tiger Woods, said this week that she feels "stronger than ever" about her future and herself, now that their divorce is underway. But she admitted that was first a process, having gone "stages of disbelief and shock, to anger and ultimately grief."
How exactly do you pick up the pieces, especially when you have kids? 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. But most of all, you're a different kind of parent.
Becoming a New You
One of the many things I've learned is that parents can't help their children until they've thought about themselves and 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 OK 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.
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. 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. As strange as this sounds, if you find yourself raging at your husband, 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.
Becoming 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 24-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 for help. Whatever happens during the days or nights when 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. But co-parenting after divorce is not the same as co-parenting 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. There's only you talking with the teacher, trying to keep your child in the school he's disrupting. 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 10.
Divorce forces you to become a new person. It really doesn't matter who made the decision or whose "fault" it was.
Ask Yourself: Who Were You Before?
Unfortunately, the legal change noted on your divorce papers does not usher in this change in identity. You do. Most of the changes occur gradually, with the result that you wake up one morning and realize that you're a different person. 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. You are a new person when you finally stop feeling like a failure, when you feel 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.
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 woman? What happened to that hope? Did you have other choices when you chose your husband?
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 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.