Sunday, December 29, 2013

When It’s Time To Say Good-Bye

This year has been The Year Of The Split for several of my friends. In fact, each of the last couple of years has seen a few divorces among friends of mine. Just over two weeks ago, the divorce of another good friend of mine became final. Done. In the books.

Even when it’s the best decision for all involved, even when people divorce for all the right reasons, the process and the aftermath can be emotionally wrenching, especially when kids are involved. Will the kids ultimately be okay? Will they understand why this is happening? How terribly will they miss their non-custodial parent?  Will they blame themselves? What will they learn about relationships and commitment from this experience?

My parents divorced when I was two years old.  You might think I don’t remember anything from before the divorce, but I do.  I have foggy memories of being in our apartment in Miami, memories that my mom (who at first doubted I could remember something from so early) verified are accurate.  In other words, I was aware when the divorce happened, and I’ve lived as the child of divorced parents for almost all of my life.

For my friends who have gone through all of this in recent days, weeks and years, hopefully what I’m about to share will give you a measure of comfort.  What my parents’ divorce taught me is this:
  1. The word “family” is fluid in its make-up.  My “live-in” family consisted of mom-dad-and-me, then mom-and-me, then mom-stepdad-me-and-stepsister and finally mom-stepdad-me-stepsister-and-cousin. My family, as a whole, includes the usual suspects as well as stepparents, stepsister, half-sisters, several step-grandparents and step-cousins and step-aunts and step-uncles. It’s mind-reeling in its complexity. My sister and I used to joke that new boyfriends should be given formal classes to learn who is who and how everyone is related. However, all this standard and half and step stuff adds up to one thing:  family.  Family is what you make of it.  You can choose only to accept as relations those who fit the old-fashioned mold. Or you can choose to accept life’s challenges – including two people realizing that they perhaps should no longer be married – and can adapt the notion of family as things change. I… hm… what’s the saying?  Ah, yes.  I choose love.
  2. The word “family” may be fluid in its make-up, but love and security remain paramount in every definition, and it’s possible to maintain that love and security during and after a divorce. Not once do I ever recall feeling lost or alone or unloved or abandoned by either of my parents, because of the divorce or otherwise. As a parent, your child will follow your lead on how he or she should feel. If you want your kids to feel loved and secure, project that. You may go through moments of hurt or doubt during or after a divorce, but that’s your issue, not your child’s. Be the grown-up. Be the parent. Whether you are the live-in parent or the parent who now lives apart, shower the kid(s) with love and let them know you’re 100% there for them. Forever.
  3. When it comes to parents and children, physical distance does not have to equal emotional distance or lack of parental involvement. Not only did my parents divorce when I was little, but not long after they split, my mother and I moved a thousand miles away from my dad. Then my father moved to Panama for a year or so, and a few years after he came back to the States, my mother and I moved another 300 miles further from him. I don’t know what it’s like to live near my father. However, I would challenge anyone on the planet to show me a more involved dad. He knew everything I was doing. He knew at least as much about my grades and activities and friends and everything else as any live-in dad would, more so than many live-in dads I’ve known. How about that connection between my dad and me, that emotional bond?  My daddy and I are tight. We always have been close. We went through the typical ups and downs during my teen years, but I’ve never felt anything but 100% loved and valued and adored and cherished by my father (I’m getting choked up typing this), even though we've lived so far apart for so long and even though he remarried and had three more children. So no, divorce and distance will not doom your child to feeling lost and less loved and less in touch with the parent who no longer is in the home. It’s not only possible but vital to keep that connection going, no matter how far away a parent lives from their child or where life takes them. It takes effort, but it’s so worth it. 
  4. It’s important to be gracious about the people in your life, even those who have hurt you or gone through painful times with you. My mother never once, in all the years I was growing up, bad-mouthed my father. When he remarried, she never once bad-mouthed my stepmother. In fact, my mom never was anything but interested in how they were and excited for them in their happy moments and concerned for them during sad times. While my mom sincerely has one of the kindest hearts ever, she’s also human. I’m sure there were moments when she would have loved to have said something snarky about them or had a harmless laugh with me at their expense. But she never did. And I can say the same thing about my dad regarding my mom and stepdad. No matter how much you want to confide in your child or giggle about the other parent’s shortcomings, don’t. They’re not your friend or confidante, they’re your kid.  If there’s an opportunity to teach them grace and kindness, this is it.
  5. You can remain close to a person, and even love them dearly, after a break-up. My parents have remained excellent friends for all of these years. Even my stepparents are in on this love-fest. Everyone gets along. They not only tolerate each other, they enjoy each other’s company and look out for each other. It’s fun. It freaks out my friends. The key to all of this is that they didn’t let their relationship deteriorate into disdain or hatred before ending the marriage. They tried their best, but when it became clear that, in their words, they “love each other but shouldn’t be married,” they made the tough call to divorce. Rather than despise each other for not being enough or doing enough or changing enough, they recognized that they were two human beings who simply couldn’t make a marriage work with one another. How did this impact me? Well, I never felt that I was losing a parent through the divorce. I never felt caught in a web of animosity or indifference between my parents.  I was easily able to help integrate my stepparents and siblings and extended stepfamilies into my notion of family. And in my own adult relationships, while I’ve always been ready to learn and grow and adapt as part of a couple, I also have been sure to maintain a sense of self and to recognize openly when a relationship wasn’t meant to be. Thanks to my parents and how they handled their split, I also learned to recognize that a relationship’s failure doesn’t have to equate to failure on the part of either person in the relationship… and because of that, I’ve been fortunate enough to remain friends with all of my serious exes, even my ex-husband.

There are so many additional things that my parents have taught me over the years, things that I would have learned if they’d remained married and things that I learned because they divorced. The cool thing is that although they were divorced, my mom and dad were able to teach me so much together, just as any married couple would. Not only that, but they had the added support of my stepparents.  I don’t really think of myself as having two parents and two stepparents as much as I think of myself as having four parents. And with a headstrong kid like I was, four probably were necessary to keep me in line!

All this being said, I hope that this little post might be helpful in some way for any of my friends – or anyone for that matter – who is going through or has gone through a divorce and worries about the kids. What’s that phrase that was turned into a movie title?  “The kids are alright.”  And they really can be.  How alright… well, that’s up to you.  And you’ll do beautifully. Trust me.

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