As a young child, I lived with my family on a cul de sac in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. Growing up as a child of divorce, I recall feeling the stigma, feeling different than others around me. I recall feeling judged by others, by kids and adults alike, because my family was not the same as others.
Flash forward almost 40 years and now I’m amicably divorced with a child. My ex and I parent apart. We are friendly and can be together with our daughter and each other when we need to be. That confuses people. Why aren’t we married if we can be together in public with our child? A few years ago, a friend texted me that people were talking about me and my ex-spouse at the local swim club (a friend of hers texted her about it all). They were wondering why we were talking without stress, why were we standing next to each other cheering for our daughter during her swim meet. She wondered if that meant we were getting back together!
The answer was “No!” At that moment it was a swim meet, we were mutually excited and our daughter needed encouragement from both of us. We didn’t need to stand together, but it was so much easier for our daughter that we could, that she could look to one place at the pool and see both of her parents cheering together, just like other kids.
Presenting a happy face in public was not a major issue in our marriage and it doesn’t seem to be today. What we have figured out though, is how to communicate kinder over harder subjects and that our communication pattern works better for us in two homes.
How We Learned That It Was Better to Parent Apart
Both of us have worked hard through the years, in different ways individually, working to let go of the triggers we picked up during the unhealthiest parts of our relationships. Getting to this place was not easy. I wish it was. It’s not perfect now, but it’s better. We argue at times like everyone else and once in a while with our daughter in earshot, but most often over text or email. What is different now is both of us want to move on from the conflict and we stay focused on the goal of giving our child the best childhood possible. Within two homes we figured out how to parent apart, disengage from each other, and work together on the “business” of raising our child. We can now be our best as adults and parents for our child this way, provide good role models for her future interactions with others.
According to the American Psychological Association, 40-50% of couples in the United States end their relationship in a divorce. That implies 50 – 60% of families are raising their children in more than one home.
Conflict Causes Trauma for Children of Divorce
Research has found that only a small percentage of children experience significant stressors in the wake of divorce. However, divorce is not the trauma. A divorce and moving to new home(s) are changes people can recover from. The conflict between the parents is often the cause of trauma for the family.
Conflict between parents can arise under one home or two. It’s about how parents work through the conflict that helps a child. If conflict is present without any model of how to communicate effectively and rationally, it can be toxic to children, in one home or ten. If a couple stays married for the sake of the children, while maintaining unhealthy communication patterns, they are also showing their children that this type of communication is normal.
We are all are born to thrive in calm, peaceful, predictable environments but we also need adults to show us how to create them. Children need adults around them so that they can learn how to communicate with honesty and trust. They need healthy relationships to model later on in life. Watching your family members go through a healthy, communicative, cooperative divorce and thrive as co-parents after can be a model to children of how to communicate with others through difficult situations. It is the same model everywhere; what children need is to see the adults they rely on communicate with each other.
Divorce, just like many changes, is a stressful transition and parents are typically at high points of internal stress during that time. It is not the best time for calm internal reflection, change, and conversations. There are many paths to get to a settlement regarding children when separating. I will not go into them. But after all is decided, a “new normal” for the family can be established over time. While the first holidays were different and sometimes difficult, we all now have new traditions. Our daughter still looks forward to holiday traditions with her family – some she celebrates every year, others every other or every few years – all moments are solid consistent memories of her childhood.
Standing United for Our Daughter
That summer a few years ago, some people kept their distance from all of us at the pool, which was saddest for our daughter. Like me watching my friends get ice cream without me, she made an assumption that she was left out because her family was different. For her, it seemed real and she had questions. She also compared herself to others. She noted that Autumn that a new kid in school had it much easier as, “no one knew his parents lived separately.” Part of childhood is gaining strength and resiliency, which our daughter learned early in elementary school, but it’s a shame that any child has to feel different from their peers for any reason that is out of their control.
What I wish my daughter could have heard is how awesome it was that her parents, like others, are able to stand united and cheer for her. I wish she could understand that her parents are doing their best to parent apart and raise her in an environment that they believe will help her become her best adult. I am grateful that time has evolved us all a bit, for although my daughter is left out of some things, like all kids are, she is nowhere near left out of it all. Many other kids and adults are able to look past the familial differences and see that she is just the same as everyone else, with adults around her standing separate but united, supporting her for a successful future.
Recently, I found myself watching the end of “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Mrs. Doubtfire sums it up well when she advised children that families come in all different packages and sometimes parents can become better people and better parents when they live separately and parent apart. But whether or not parents are married or living together is not family. Family is the love that bonds them. Family is in our hearts. My daughter’s family will always contain her mother and her father. We may add step-parents and step-siblings along the way, but regardless, my daughter will always be able to rely on her parents being there for her, together.
A version of this article originally appeared on eisenblackstonegroup.com
Carly Blackstone, Psy.D., has nearly 15 years of experience as a clinician. Most of her work is in the area of individual, adolescent or adult therapy, Parent Coordination, or Reunification Therapy. From 2015 to 2018, she was the Director of the UPO Office of Parent Coordination at D.C. Superior Court. www.eisenblackstonegroup.com/