Almost before she sat down, Brenda had to let me know the news: “We’re done. It’s over. There’s no going back.” Her 9-year marriage had just “finally, officially” ended. For Brenda this was a major moment, and she was so ready to move on with her life.
The problem was her two children were absolutely howling for their father, especially her 11-year-old son – a product of the three years of co-habitation that had preceded their marriage. He’d swing between acting out, even threatening his mother, to weeping and begging for Mom to take Dad back. Her daughter, 7 going on 8 at the time, was uncharacteristically quiet, almost poker faced – except when she, too, became agitated and tearful about missing Dad and being worried about him.
“I don’t know,” Brenda said. “It was so bad, for so long, I really thought the kids saw that it wasn’t getting better and that getting the divorce would be a new start, make life easier – but home is even more hellish now.”
The difficulties weren’t just inside the home, though; her son’s troubling behavior extended to declining academic performance and was also becoming a classroom “behavior management” issue. Her daughter’s teacher was sending emails about “low energy” and how she thought she “might be depressed.”
Brenda was one of countless clients – mostly women – seeking support and direction on the heels of a family breakup. And while the specifics are always unique to the individual, there are always a few basic threads that persist and a few general recommendations that apply:
Being the mother – and now the single, primary custodial parent – to your children will require energy and attention you thought you already were pouring out, but those already stretched reserves will be called upon even more. The children will need endless loving reassurances that things will be okay – but, (AND) – you’ll also need to continue to have standards and expectations regarding the children’s behavior. No excuses. Allowing your own guilty feelings to lower standards and expectations is THE major mistake.
The school is, of course, a crucial ally and resource, and that line of communication should be open – wide and strong. You want to know what’s going on and you need to convey real support to your children’s educational environment and providers. However, be careful about having the school’s “needs” override what’s best for your child: e.g., evaluations for Special Ed, possibly including psych testing and medication, can be a slippery slope. You’re the decider. Obviously, the children’s unhappiness is mostly connected with loss, grieving, and fear of abandonment. Once they’re reassured that the home is still functioning, that Mom is holding up okay, and Dad is at least “out there” and a reasonably reliable presence, there is a tendency to return to stability, even “normality” (whatever that means.)
Because counseling requires a mental health diagnosis if insurance is going to be used, sometimes a divorce situation is required to look (on paper) like an illness more than it truly is. However, no escaping it, counseling is still where discussions about deep, complicated feelings and the mysteries of human behavior mostly occur. Time passes, people move on. If Mom made the right decision and is mostly happy, the children, too, will mostly be happy. And yes, down the road there will be more time for Mom to have more of her own life – just not yet.
Unless Dad is truly out of control (e.g. actively abusing substances and/or dangerous) Mom should bend over backwards to include him and cooperate flexibly with him, while also relentlessly requesting and expecting that Dad keep his end of the agreement. Successful co-parenting over the long haul is the goal. Easier said than done, obviously. But the benefits are huge over time.
Don’t let him push buttons that trigger your adversarial impulses. Don’t let your own – very justified – resentments spill out and churn the family environment. Don’t make things worse. You’re on duty. Take the high road. The children are watching.