Do we really put our children first?
Separation for parents can be amongst the toughest experiences in life; the hurt, anger, pain and insecurity can be unbearable, and in those moments of feeling utter rejection you are meant to act responsibly on behalf of the children so that they are put first?
What if you simply detest the person you brought them into the world with? Why would you give that person what they wanted?
For the past two months I have been helping a woman who was walked out on by her husband and has been left to raise the kids on her own wondering whether she'll ever truly accept his decision to leave her for another.
How does that blur your vision of what's appropriate action and what is fully justifiable vengeance? In my opinion, 'always putting the kids first' is a commonly overused misconception that if fully understood would eliminate most, if not all, conflict between separated couples regardless of the majority of circumstances.
That is of course unless one of the adults is not in a position to be a positive influence on their child's upbringing either because of mental health, addiction, abusiveness towards the other or legal boundaries but in my friends case, the guy is a good Dad, the kids do love him and his only crime as far as she is concerned is that he chose another life that didn't involve her.
My friend described to me an incident that frames perfectly the power struggle that takes place with separated partners. She had recently denied the father access to the kids although he gave 48 hours notice. Dad lives in Europe with his new girlfriend and he also travels constantly because of work, making the opportunities to see his children few and far between. He does support them financially, although contact with them is a work in progress from both sides.
Saying no to his request wasn't a decision taken lightly but she wanted to show him she was in charge, she already had plans, the kids didn't seem bothered so she 'showed a bit of backbone' for a change.
She wasn't sure about her decision though, she wanted to know that what she did was right, she couldn't stand the feeling of 'making a mistake' so I asked how she could be more confident in her decision making and she admitted she didn't know what was for the best sometimes.
My own personal view was that she may have been feeling guilty about denying her ex access to the kids. He gave 48 hours notice and she was only going out to the cinema - the kids weren't even going but it would have meant she would have had to have cancelled on her friend.
Given the dad's lack of opportunities to spend time with the kids and how we had discussed at length on another occasion how she could actively encourage more contact between them, it's easy to imagine she may have had unwittingly used this as a way of exerting some authority on her ex and I suspect, as is so commonly the case, this was done without fully considering what was best for the children.
It's also really common to find that the kids don't seem too bothered when Mum mentions Dad's efforts to see them, why is that the case? I would always challenge in the circumstances when the absconding parent is of no risk to the children or other parent, when you ask the children if they want to see their other parent, do you think they give an honest answer? My friend pondered and remarked no. They probably tell me what I want to hear.
It's our job to guide our children through life yet in separation children as young as three can display a staggering awareness of anything uncomfortable for adults and assume the role of 'protector'. My childhood was littered with memories of incidents where I remember being acutely aware of what could go wrong before it had actually happened, I was pre-empting and helping the adults around me avoid a confrontation, it's sad but I don't think it's entirely uncommon.
At a young age we really do pick up on everything, so never assume that your efforts to disguise your negative feelings towards an ex go over the kids' heads at that or any age because they feel and sense everything.
In my friend's case, why would the children pretend to be less interested? Because they are protecting her and trying to show loyalty, does the ex walking out on her make them feel differently about Dad? They will inevitably be disappointed and confused but no, they still love him. And if they love him would it be strange for them to not want to see him?
She recognised the role the children play as protectors. She no longer wishes to see a disinterest in their face even though it pleases something in her when she mentions Dad, because she knows it's false and it's possible that it is only there because her feelings about Dad were potentially being projecting on to them.
So you feel bitterness and resentment towards your ex, they want something that you have and in this situation it is so easy to say no but where is that decision actually coming from? The conclusion was it would have taken nothing to rearrange her cinema date with a friend in order to facilitate the children seeing their Dad so she very honestly suggested that it came from the hurt. Does hurt make good decisions? Not if you consider who stands to lose out when hurt calls the shots.
The decisions made on account of hurt and bitterness are those you can justify for a period but will always end up feeling guilty for. Why? Because your children miss out and whilst some can justify that they don't need their other parent, well, did hurt tell you that?
'If saying no leads to a sense of strength and empowerment but saying yes also leads to strength and empowerment, which would you rather?'
What do you get if you say 'no' when it could easily have been a 'yes'? You get a surge of control that you might not have had during the relationship. You may feel like you're establishing boundaries and yes you would hurt the other and even anger them, but you'd also deny the kids and in the long term, create more problems for yourself. Children know when you are being fair and when you are not, they forgive you because of love and your experiences that they perceptively empathise with but they are far from oblivious and they rarely forget.
What is your priority, your hurt or the children's heart?
We make decisions from different places. I think the hurt sits in the heart so making decisions from there could be confusing too. Parts of our anatomy don't really make decisions anyway, our subconscious mind offers up our instinct and our conscious decides if we think it's a good idea or not.
One thing I personally understood is that negativity breads negativity and the same can be said for positive energy in that if you keep reacting from the hurt, you will remain in the same mindset, that of a victim.
Whilst you might legitimately be a victim as far as the other persons actions are concerned, how long you stay a victim is down to you and the decisions you make thereafter.
The golden rule...
A wonderful analogy comes to mind, when a decision is tough and emotions are spiked, take your thoughts far from hurt or vengeance or from you role as parent and pretend to be the child's agent! Ask yourself, what is best for my client and remove your wants and needs from the equation. If you can do this in times of pain, these scenarios will soon become pain-less because you are acting on behalf of your children and no damage, guilt or ill-feeling can resonate from that.
Saying yes is not weakness. It takes true strength to make decisions based on what's right for the kids and not to seek empowerment through denying access. Whether you say yes or no you will always feel a sense of control. Decisions made for the love of your children may not sit right with the hurt you feel initially, but you can feel pride in the strength of character you have shown to say YES and not use the children's contact with their other parent as a source of control.
Strength takes many forms and the ability to put others first shows dignity and a belief in ones decisions that can see a person through anything.