Lessons learned from my parents’ divorce

As a kid, I remember being very sad when my parents announced they were separating. I didn’t want my dad to move out and I was scared about what it would mean for our family when he did. I remember sitting in the family room in our little cape cod on Morgan Avenue, wildly sobbing, begging them to change their minds.

After Dad moved into a little apartment on the south end of town, the sadness began to dissipate. A peaceful calm settled over our house – there was no more arguing, no more tension-filled dinners.

Even as a 10 year old, I remember realizing that this new arrangement was better.

I learned that my parents’ happiness was what was important – regardless of if they lived in the same house or not. And, I realized that happy parents – not stressed out, bitter, argumentative ones – make a kid feel more secure and confident. They’re also more fun. Looking back, I have more memories of having fun and laughing after they divorced.

I’ve applied this lesson to my own divorce. I’m a firm believer that kids aren’t screwed up because their parents are divorced – they’re screwed up because their parents didn’t handle the divorce well.

I watched an Oprah once where a bunch of unhappy women blamed their parents for all of their troubles with love and money. One woman said her inability to form lasting, healthy relationships was because her parents were divorced and she never had positive role models to show what a happy, successful marriage looks like. She said she just didn’t want to make the same mistake as her parents did.

That’s bullshit.

Life is a collection of experiences – good and bad. I don’t view my marriage and subsequent divorce as mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t my favorite of all my experiences – but none of it was a mistake. I have three amazing children from that relationship. Getting divorced was hard, but I’ve emerged a stronger, more confident person now. And that’s better, right?

So, even with the benefit of hindsight, I’d accept that proposal all over again.

I feel I represent someone who’s better because of divorce (my parents and my own). I have observed my parents’ parting and have applied those lessons to become better communicator, better mother and better participant in my own relationships.

In addition, I’ve applied those lessons to make my own divorce better…better for me, my ex-husband and my kids.

As you may know, I’m a big fan of lists, so I’ve put together a list of Lessons Learned from my Parents’ Divorce. Some of these things I’ve learned by watching them do things well and to be fair, (and with all due respect to my beloved parents), some of these lessons are based on things they didn’t handle quite so well. Nevertheless, here it is – in no particular order…

Lessons Learned from my Parents’ Divorce

1) Be honest and open with your kids and explain things to them in a way they can understand.

Back in 1983, on that sad day in our living room, I remember my dad used a clever way to help my brothers and I understand what was happening. He held his hand up and explained that it represented our family (five fingers = five family members). He crossed two of his fingers (like you do for luck) and said that that’s how he and Mom used to be – very close.

Then he uncrossed his fingers to illustrate that they’d grown apart. He pointed out that even though the fingers were uncrossed, the hand was still intact. The fingers would always be a part of the same hand. Like the hand, our family would always be connected, regardless of who lived where.

I explained my own divorce to my kids in this very same way and I continue to try to explain things in terms they understand.

2) Respect your kids’ relationship with your ex.

My kids love and trust both me and my ex-husband. I try hard to make sure my words and actions about him are influenced by this fact. Bashing my ex verbally may make me look or feel better in the short term, but what’s the gain for my kids?

Even if he is at fault in some way, it doesn’t matter. I need to keep my mouth shut and respect the kids’ relationship with their dad. Otherwise I look petty and spiteful (the exact opposite of trying to make myself look/feel better in the first place).

Respecting those boundaries is better for everyone – really, it is.

3) Co-parent in a business-like manner.

I like to think of me and my ex as business associates. Together, we’re Family Incorporated, and our mission statement centers around the common goal of turning our kids into confident, responsible tax-payers.

We need to agree on the major points of upbringing (our business model) and pool our resources (time, money, energy) to successfully implement our strategic plan (growing little people into self-sufficient big ones). We set emotion aside and try to approach challenges logically and in a way that works for each associate.

For example, when my three year-old son breaks standard operating procedures and refused to stay in bed (at my house and at his dad’s), we held a conference call to address the issue.

Together, we determined that a zero-tolerance approach was best and outlined a game plan. Our objective was to overcome the obstacle of the boy getting up repeatedly, seeking attention. So our plan was this: The minute he’s out of his room, he’s marched straight back to bed without any coddling and with minimal conversation. This plan would be implemented each time he got up – regardless of at whose house he was sleeping.

The little guy eventually learned that Mom and Dad (co-CEOs of Family Incorporated) have the same expectation and deliver the same consequence for not following our family’s Code of Business Conduct. While we have two branch offices (Dad’s place and Mom’s house), the company’s rules and expectations are the same.

4) Communicate!!

Information is power and it’s true in divorced families too. Withholding information doesn’t help anyone. Again, thinking of this like a business relationship, what would happen if the project manager didn’t communicate with the rest of the team?

Thankfully, advances in technology support the ability to communicate with minimal human interaction. My ex and I prefer to text via cell phone, verses have real, live conversations. Text messaging for us is convenient, non-intrusive and keeps communications brief and on-point.

I’m sure my parents would’ve loved to have text messaging and email communication tools back in the mid-eighties. Electronic communication eliminates those, “I didn’t like your tone of voice,”-type problems.

Lessons learned, lessons taught

I learned a lot from my parents’ divorce. I don’t blame them for how my life has turned out – they’ve influenced choices I’ve made, but they’re not responsible for them.

I know my kids are all going to grow up and have problems. I know they’ll sit in a therapist’s office, spilling their guts and I’m pretty sure my name will come up.

And I’m okay with that, really. They may not agree with the choices I’ve made, but will hopefully recognize that my choices and actions have shaped their own decision making in a good way.

Now that I think of it, I hope they’ll get their money’s worth for those therapy sessions. Blaming your divorced parents for your problems will be pretty passé in 2028.

Maybe I should try harder to give them something good and juicy to work with.

Wanted: SWM, must own ear plugs

Most single moms are so busy taking care of kids and home, that they aren’t very good at putting their needs first. For me, the idea of dating seemed like a luxury and about as realistic a venture as sprouting wings and flying to the moon.

When would I find the time? How would the kids feel? Where would I find a sitter with a car but without a life on a Saturday night?

For a long time, when the idea of getting out and meeting someone popped into my head, I’d sweep it away just as quickly. So when a colleague from work unexpectedly asked me out one day, my response went something like this:

“Uh, well, thanks. That’s really nice of you. Um…you know I have kids, right? I’m not really sure that…well, I want to but…I just don’t get many free nights. But I still want to…”

I sounded like an idiot.

But there was a good reason for my hesitation. Logistics aside, dating as a single mom can be really scary. Before I had kids, if I went out with a dud or a jerk, the only person at risk of getting hurt was me. Now, with kids in the equation, there’s a whole new level of pressure.

I was afraid to bring someone new into my life (our lives) until I knew for sure the person was:

A) not a psychopath, and
B) truly liked kids in a genuine, but not-at-all-creepy kind of way.

And, on the flip side, I was nervous about how my kids would respond to someone new. Kids are unpredictable. They say whatever’s on their minds and are prone to unsolicited tantrums and outbursts. What kind of guy would willingly get involved with a lady with three, rambunctious kids?

Frankly, I questioned his sanity for asking me out in the first place.

Despite my stunning response, he assured me he was still interested, really enjoyed kids, and was willing to wait until my calendar freed up.

Okay, I thought. This guy’s different. I’ll give him a try.

Several weeks later, we made that first date happen. And, over time, we saw each other more and more. I learned that he was down to earth, close to his family, and that we shared many interests. Sprinkle in intelligence and a sense of humor and well, what more can you ask for? We just clicked.

After a few months of covert dating – my brood didn’t know I was seeing anyone – he asked when he’d get to meet the kids. Nervously, I suggested we introduce him as “Mom’s friend” and spend the evening at a local festival.

Even though I was initially apprehensive, everyone had a blast. Somewhere between the midway games and cotton candy, I relaxed and just enjoyed the night. After we got home and put everyone to bed, he told me he was impressed by how everyone was.

Frankly, I too, was impressed by their behavior. They were respectful, sweet, and funny. There was no bickering or whining. Looking back, I think they were thrilled to have another grownup to show off for. They told jokes, did cartwheels and, aside from juggling flaming batons on unicycles, were quite entertaining.

“They’re just so…good,” he kept saying.

Every time he said it, I’d blush and thank him, though, on the inside I kept thinking, “Just wait...you haven’t seen anything yet.”

Over the next few weeks, I held my breath, waiting for the first outburst, tantrum or fight. I wondered how long it’d be before my kids showed their true colors. In my house, we do things with gusto. We laugh hard, play hard, and fight hard too. And I wondered how he’d react. Would he turn tail and run?

Sure enough, a few weeks later, the happy façade gave way. We were all in my van, heading out for dinner. My two-year old who, seconds earlier had been singing and giggling, did a prompt 180 and burst into a full-blown temper tantrum. He wailed as he kicked the back of my seat and his face turned as red as the toy fire truck he hurled at the back of my head.

I glanced over to see my new boyfriend’s look of terror.

“What happened?” he whispered. “He was fine just a minute ago.”

“Oh, he does this sometimes,” I said apologetically. “It’s best to just ignore him.”

Ignore him? Yeah, right. I was skilled at tuning out my kids’ outbursts. But asking a single guy who wasn’t used to this to just ignore him was a ridiculous request.

For an instant I figured that this new relationship was doomed. As my boy howled in the back, I could actually visualize a gigantic wedge that would be driven down between our bucket seats.

“You are so going to dump me,” I said, only half joking.

Surprisingly, the fear on his face gave way to a smile.
”I will not be bested by a two-year old,” he said with a sly grin.

Suddenly the giant imaginary wedge disappeared.

Inexplicably, in a matter of seconds, my little guy turned off the waterworks and began to sing. The tantrum was over and my new boyfriend hadn’t jumped from the moving vehicle to get away – not this time.

It is possible for single moms to date, but it comes down to finding the right guy. My advice is to take it slow and be realistic about what you can and can’t expect from everybody – kids and grownups included.

Patience is key, a sense of humor is critical and a set of earplugs in the glove box doesn’t hurt either.