I divorced in 2006 at the age of 30, with two kids then aged 3 and 7. My overriding feelings were of fear and uncertainty, and as I considered my future, I could only contemplate the loss of things I’d previously taken for granted, most worryingly my role as a parent.
The divorce was amicable but there were still differences to resolve. Around 18 months after first parting we’d moved on sufficiently such that we could consider co-parenting (where each parent fulfils an equal or near-equal part of the parenting role). We discussed, then established an arrangement where our daughters would live with each of us on alternate weeks and move between our new homes on the Monday of each week. That was in 2007. The arrangement has evolved over time but remains in place today.
As our eldest heads off to university this September and with both my ex and I having since remarried other people, now seems an appropriate time for a bit of reflection. We’ve all grown significantly in our lives following divorce, we’ve learned a lot and enjoyed many highs and just as many lows as any family separated or otherwise would face.
Co-parenting is by no means the norm in divorced families but in our case we both remained committed to raising the girls and playing an active part in their childhood; our relationship as husband and wife was over but our parenting role will last for all time. Co-parenting presented a means of preserving this involvement in the kids’ lives, but also a good way of allowing each of us to move forwards individually too.
For the last year we’ve co-parented them from a single home in an arrangement known as ‘Nesting’; the kids live full-time in an apartment and their mum and I come and go for alternate weeks using a third bedroom equipped as a hotel room, living-in as resident parent of the week.
It’s unconventional but it seems to suit the girls well and both our new partners seem to accept it as part of delivering on our parenting commitments.
I wanted to share some of the lessons that I’ve learned in 10+ years since divorce. I hope that many of these will apply whether co-parenting is feasible after divorce or not, and at whatever stage a separated family is at, post-split.
1) Kids are extremely resilient and adaptable to change. Kids are remarkably hardy, and way more perceptive than we give them credit for. This isn’t a license to chop and change things whenever it suits you, nor should you underestimate the importance of structure and routine in their lives. Divorced parents are often fearful for the long-term effects on the confidence, contentedness and accomplishments of their kids. In my experience however, kids always adapt, bounce-back and even thrive in life provided that you keep their interests at the forefront of your mind.
2) You cannot make kids adapt any quicker than they naturally want to. They’re adaptable to change but it’s pointless to try and force them to adapt any quicker than they naturally will. Creating an amazing bedroom for them in your new home, taking them on exciting holidays or packing weekends with entertainment and treats won’t help them adapt to separated family life any quicker, although you may prompt resentment in your ex! Just like adults, kids take time to work through things and accept their new reality. Even though our co-parenting setup was infinitely better for all involved, it still took them time to settle into it. The same has been true as I’ve remarried and brought two step-siblings into their lives and their mum has remarried too. In each change in life after divorce, expect a period of adaptation that will take as long as it takes.
3) Being a single parent (even if you find a new partner at some stage) demands many additional roles of you. You must embrace this rather than just survive it. Even with regular and ongoing input from both me and their mum, I’ve been required to fill a fair share of the roles that mum would fill in a non-separated family. I doubt any dad feels instantly equipped to shop for tights, sanitary products or training bras, but I’ve learned and dealt with it. Such experiences have encouraged a closer relationship with more open communication between us than I might have enjoyed if not divorced. I’m grateful for that.
4) Always talk respectfully of your ex and don’t make your kids a go-between. In the aftermath of divorce when communications are strained, it can be tempting to pass messages via the kids. This simply isn’t fair, nor is it their role. As they get older, they become more aware of what it means for you to be talking disrespectfully of your ex. They may also relay things you say to the other parent if they think it will further their own agenda. At all times it’s far preferable to speak respectfully to and of the ex, if only for the benefit of your kids.
5) Your kids just want you to be happy. They will likely recognise that if you’re happy in yourself, it makes you a happy and effective parent to them. They love you and as they get older will likely encourage you to pursue your own happiness too, even if it results in the unconventional scenario where they’re offering you dating advice!
6) Protecting the sanctity of your separated family structure is key. If and when you enter into a new relationship, it’s essential that you protect your parenting arrangement from outside comment and influence. Too often I see established separated families crumbling when a new partner comes onto the scene and takes issue with the kids and/or the close contact that the divorced parents have with each other. A jealous new partner can disrupt your ongoing contact and damage the setup irrevocably which is not in anybody’s best interests (besides perhaps their own). It happened to me in a failed relationship between my marriages and I’m lucky there was no lasting damage in the relationship with my kids.
7) Just when you think you’ve got it all on an even keel, something else will change. Just like when a kid starts sleeping through, teething ends, and the terrible-twos become a distant memory, as one period of challenge ends, so a new one will begin. Teenage hormones will rage, manipulations and tantrums will become complex, calculated and sophisticated. Life moves forwards, you move on, your kids become their own people. Don’t resist it; embrace that fact. Things change!
As I reflect on life since divorce, I’m proud of how far we’ve come. My fears at the outset were seemingly unfounded and I believe my kids have come through it unharmed. They’re both well-adjusted, popular, confident, academically accomplished and balanced young women (and I realise I’m biased as their dad!)
Each time I think I’ve got it figured out, something else comes up to prove me wrong for getting complacent. This is a common thread of parenting though, whether after divorce or not.
We are all going through a process of change and evolution in life. It’s what makes us who we are, it prompts us to grow, develop and strive for the things we strive for.
As I remind myself often, the role of parenting and raising your kids never really ends anyway; divorced or not, we’re all in it for the long-haul!
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