“The reality didn’t hit me until the day we moved,” says 14-yearold Rose, whose parents were finally divorcing after years of trying to save a tumultuous marriage. “I was just standing there in the house – with all these people coming in and out, moving things. It was awful.”
Rose Tuttle, her mom and dad and her siblings, Suzanne, 16, Daniel, 7, and Marie, 4, along with their beagle, Odie, lived next door to her mother’s parents, giving her easy access to the added support and affection of her grandparents.Her school was within walking distance.But all that changed when her mother and father finally separated.
From Rose’s perspective, there had been cold wars and hot spells of fighting between her parents for years, so she did not expect anything substantial to happen. But, one summer, three years ago, she and her sister, Suzanne, returned from summer camp to find their bedrooms painted and redecorated. Her parents seemed to be in harmony. The girls were surprised and pleased. But shortly thereafter, her parents told the kids they would be getting a divorce.
“It was a surprise, but not a surprise,” Rose says. “They had problems for years.We knew they were considering divorce, but it always seemed so distant. Then suddenly, there it was. We had to move.” She missed having her grandparents next door and was afraid she would have to choose between her parents. She worried about the two younger children, Daniel and Marie.
After the divorce, Rose says her dad did keep in contact for awhile, but then the visits diminished. The non-custodial parent might feel like the children do not need him anymore – that they [the kids] are busy with their new lives, and so the parent pulls away. Rose’s brother Daniel says, “I wish my dad would let me help him at work again like he used to.”
Sister Suzanne adds, “It’s a bad feeling; sometimes we don’t hear from him for weeks.” According to these kids, keeping both parents in the picture is important.
Couples coaches David Hulbert and Sherry Finneran of the Family Education Center in Richmond suggest that even if your spouse is not cooperating, try to keep communication open for the sake of the kids. “Do not say negative things about your spouse. The child is one half you and one half your spouse. It makes them [the kids] feel bad about themselves if they have a bad impression of their father or mother.”
Geri Hale-Cooper, director of volunteers of the First Baptist Church Divorce Recovery Program in Richmond agrees. “When going through a divorce, the greatest gift parents can give their children is to encourage them to love the other parent. Though you are losing a relationship, your child is not and should not. That person is still your child’s parent, and your children deserve to be able to love, and know, and to spend time with that parent without feeling disloyal, and without having to take sides,” Hale-Cooper says. “If you canGive this gift, you will spare your children much confusion and pain, and you will earn their respect.”
Daniel says, “I’m glad my mom is not mean to my dad like some of my friends’ parents are to each other.”
Older sister Suzanne adds, “When you do get to have time with your parent – no checklists. A visit should be a visit, with no lists of ‘are you doing everything right?’”
Sarah Russell was five when her parents divorced. Because the couple could not afford to separate, they continued to live together. “I really did not understand what was going on at all. I guess they were trying to protect me. It would have helped if they had sat me down and explained.” Then she and her mom moved in with their grandmother and her father moved in with his girlfriend. Sarah says, “That is when I realized what the divorce really meant.”
Giving your child special time – just you and him or her – is cherished. Sarah says, “My Dad took us out on Wednesdays. He picked us up and took my brothers to their Boy Scout meetings.He and I went to the library and picked out books. This was my favorite day of the week and my best time with him.”
Sarah says she could not connect with her father’s new wife. “She tried to be friendly with me, but I blamed her for their divorce and couldn’t accept her. Maybe if she had taken it slower, not tried so hard, so fast.” Hulbert and Finneran, the couples coaches, say parents should reach out to new partners. “As hard as it may be, build a relationship with your ex’s new friend. That person will be handling your child during visits. You want them as a friend, or at least neutral – but not an enemy.”
If you are a stepparent, or the newest factor in the equation, take it slow. Your relationship with the children must progress naturally and cannot be forced.
George, who was nine when his parents divorced, said he loved both parents and was sad. “I got a new stepfather,” George says, “and the best thing my mom did was to tell him to be a friend to my brother and me and not try to be a dad.”
Sometimes, children rebel. Mary’s parents divorced when she was 13.
“Initially, I thought that it should happen. It wasn’t a big emotional thing for me.” However, her mom had to move to a new city and go to work full time. Suddenly, Mary found herself with added responsibilities, taking care of two younger siblings, one of whom was handicapped. She says, “I went from a very structured life to one with no structure and more responsibility. So I rebelled.” The teen recalled hitchhiking to Maryland with friends, staying out late nightly, and disobeying in other ways. “My mother could not stop me.” Finally her mother asked a male friend from their church to intervene. Mary says, “That brought me back to reality. He gave me the structure I needed.”
For children and parents, working through the emotions and the circumstances of divorce can be more manageable with a peer group. Hale-Cooper, of Divorce Recovery, says, “In the group, I found a community, a place to express and share my feelings. Now, I help others. The teen and children’s groups at the Divorce Recovery Program can do the same thing for kids. They can express their feelings in a group that truly understands and the kids can help each other.”