Real Talk on Parenting & Divorce
Updated: Jan 20, 2022
We won’t sugarcoat it, it’s not easy to parent through divorce. But we have resources that can help.
The hardest part for me is not having that partner, that companionship, at the end of the day. You’re doing everything on your own, and it's exhausting, and also, it’s lonely.
(Suzanne, age 47, separated for 4 years)
I used the word destabilizing a lot in those first few months. I felt off kilter with so much time alone, when everyone else had family time and events to be at. Figuring how to be by myself, especially over the holidays, was particularly hard. It still can be.
(Jill, age 42, divorced for 8 years.)
People will say a lot of interesting things when you tell them you are going through a separation and divorce. We’ve heard the gamut, everything from “Doesn’t every marriage have rough patches though?” to “We don’t believe in divorce” to “Just put the kids first and everything will fall into place.”
Our favourite therapist likes to remind us these kinds of comments say more about the giver of the advice than the receiver, but the last one in particular makes us break out in hives.
It’s not that it’s not possible for a kid-first approach to work, and work well, in separation and divorce. There is so much evidence out there that children-first legal approaches can work best for everyone in the family, and we know that one of the main predictors for poor outcomes for children in separation and divorce is conflict.
Positive, low-to-no conflict divorces that minimize trauma for the kids are of course possible and important to strive for, and there is plenty of guidance out there on how to try and get on that path if you need a refresher. But we personally have no bandwidth for fueling the “happy ending comparison game” when it comes to each family’s dynamics during separation and divorce.
The problem with this well-meaning but naive advice is that it implies 1) that we aren’t already spending every waking moment worrying about putting our kids first and 2) that if we just follow this magical one-size-fits-all solution, we can get through this with no conflict and no problems.
And that just simply isn’t true.
The sudden shift to solo parenting can be a grind down to burnout and exhaustion punctuated by new and strange periods of alone time. Like any loss, change or challenge, parenting through separation and divorce can be good, bad, beautiful and ugly, often all at once. Finding a new normal can simultaneously be full of painful challenges and rich opportunities.
It's easier to get knocked down because you have no in-house backup. Where is our reprieve?
(Suzanne, age 47, separated for 4 years)
Rather, we’ve found that parenting through divorce can actually look like any or all of these real and messy situations:
Only one parent might be willing or able to put the kids first in decisions related to separation and divorce, and that parent has no control over how their ex conducts themselves or the choices they make with regards to the kids. Magnify this nightmare by 1000 if the ex is a narcissist or narcissistic abuser.
High-conflict divorces can happen even when it’s just one parent that’s not willing to get on the same page, despite the best efforts of their ex, and this can derail even the best parenting plans.
Each child in the same family can react differently to a separation or divorce; what gives one child anxiety and endless tears at bedtime for months on end might not even cause their sibling to blink out a single tear. We can end up custom-parenting each of our children through divorce for years, with a lot of curve balls thrown our way.
Even when a separation and divorce proceeds completely or relatively amicably, and the children make out “just fine” in the end, we as parents might struggle; we often measure the “success” of a divorce by how well or not well the kids fare, and don’t often talk enough about the toll that divorce, parental guilt and guilt-fueled sacrifice can have on parents going through this.
A parent can put their kids first and do everything in their power to parent “right” through divorce, and it can still be an incredibly hard and long time for some kids to adjust.
We say this a lot, but it’s true: no two separations or divorces will be the same. Be wary of advice, however well-meaning, that suggests there is a way to guarantee yourself or your kids any certain outcome.