Great advice about how to put your children first despite the pain and challenges of being divorced.
Although we try to avoid divorce at all costs, if it does happen, it doesn’t necessarily have to lead to the complete breakup of the family. In the past, we worked under the assumption that ex-partners were considered adversaries, with any contact being antagonistic and hostile: “The dissolution of a couple was synonymous with the dissolution of the family,” explains Helena Afonso, author of the French book Two Households, One family: the relationship between parents after a conjugal separation. Yet, with experience and time, couples have become more aware that in any separation, the role of the parent should never change.
Psychologist Gérard Poussin, a professor in clinical psychology and author of The Children of Divorce, a French-language title, introduces the notion of co-parenting. He speaks of a relationship “based on mutual support and cooperation.” He encourages parents to discuss school grades and warn each other about medical appointments, and especially support each other in difficult situations. “Children need a certain level of consistency to grow up normally. Imagine that a 5-year-old goes to bed at 8 p.m. when he’s with mom, but at dad’s he’s allowed to stay up until 10 p.m. watching TV,” explains Poussin. The divorce process doesn’t always make this easy. Over time, the separating couple needs to establish what level and type of contact is necessary to maintain effective co-parenting.
The longer good quality co-parenting continues, the better it is for everyone; it will have a more positive impact on the whole family, in particular the children. Key to its success is the relationship between the ex-spouses: the degree to which the parents have managed to get over feelings of resentment and anger towards each other, “but also their ability to separate the problems and conflicts of their ex-couple status from the questions linked to the education of their children,” points out Afonso. Ex-spouses, especially fathers, have a habit of getting more involved in their parental role if they receive approval and support from their ex.
So how do you set the right limits in this new relationship? “Have brief but regular contact, pick conversation topics that relate to the kids or that don’t interfere too much with parenting skills, avoid subjects that could lead to conflict, and don’t constantly bring up contentious issues, such as vacations,” emphasizes Afonso. It is not necessary to be good friends to be a good parental couple. All it takes is a bit of cordiality and respect.
We spoke to three divorced moms to learn from their experiences on how to continue being successful parents through separation.
Julie, a journalist, aged 41, divorced for 8 years, with an 11-year-old child
Her best advice: Make peace
“My ex-husband and I didn’t actually speak to each other for a year. As soon as the phone started ringing we would jump on it and hang up straight away. He hadn’t taken our break-up very well. The only viable way we could communicate with each other about our 3-year-old son was through text messages. ‘What time are you picking him up?’; ‘He’s sick so make sure he takes his medicine’; ‘Check his hair for lice’… I found it very annoying; he didn’t know how to cope with himself, let alone our son. He began to torment me with little threats, such as: ‘If you arrive 5 minutes late, I’ll keep your son.’ This reached the point that one day he threatened me with legal proceedings to gain custody over our son. Supposedly I worked too much and didn’t look after him enough. I got scared. I brought up the subject with my lawyer, who reassured me I had a solid case. She opened my eyes to the fact that my husband’s reaction was that of someone who’d been hurt; in this story, I had gained everything, and he — on top of being unemployed —had lost his wife and son. She showed me that we needed to stop our war for the good of our son.
“Supported by prayer, I decided to put my pride to one side and make peace, even if I felt I was facing a brick wall. I gave in to everything. Concerning finances, I wrote off the idea of receiving any alimony, and custody arrangements, well, I became more flexible. My ex preferred to get our son on Friday night, rather than Saturday morning; it wasn’t a problem. One day, he said to me, ‘We made the most beautiful thing together: Max.’ This one phrase really touched me, and still does today. Little by little, I felt he was taking on his role of father once more, becoming more responsible — someone I could rely on. I got him involved once more in the education of our son. Two years ago, I accepted equal joint custody. I remember our first post-divorce dinner together, all three of us, at a restaurant in a neutral location. Max was so proud! That’s when I realized the importance for him that we remain, above all, his parents.
“Today, we are truly forming one unit: we go to piano auditions together, school trips, school meetings … We make any schooling decisions together, consulting each other all the time, and I’ve even found myself saying to my son: ‘You’re behaving badly, I’ll call your dad.’ Last week, he had his first tween party, and his dad called me to give me the lowdown. We’ve even managed to dine together, all three of us, at his home. I was pleasantly surprised to see my son clear the table and get himself off to bed. For the first time I stayed to chat with my ex, putting the world to rights. I realized that we were complementary. He’s a father who emphasizes self-management, whereas I’m a mother hen, watching over homework, teeth brushing … I’m delighted he’s the father of my son.”
Corinne, a 44-year-old photographer, divorced for 7 years, two children ages 10 and 14
Her best advice: Don’t stir up the past
“During the first year, I forced myself to accept many things for the good of my kids: equal joint custody, parents’ evenings where I remained ramrod straight, his permanent reflections like: ‘The children are badly dressed,’ ‘You’re not making them work hard enough,’ ‘They sleep too late when they’re with you’ … Yet he was the one who left me! I let it go because I knew his aggression was just a reaction based on his guilt. I think he also realized what it meant to be a father, a role he hadn’t really invested in before. The work I went through with a spiritual counselor over a long period of time really helped me to receive his criticisms without reacting. Then, it became impossible to speak with my ex; we communicated through the nanny, who went from one house to another.
“One day, I cracked. I wrote to him saying that I couldn’t cope with any more of his criticisms, I didn’t want to stir up the past, I didn’t regret our history, and that he would remain the father of my children, and that I would always tell them he is a good father. After he received the letter he just said: ‘I don’t have any words in response to what you’ve said, just thank you.’ Our relationship then became calmer. Today, we manage to coordinate with each other. We telephone each other once or twice a week. When we hand over the kids, we give a summary of the week. Sometimes we meet up, always outside for a coffee, to speak of more specific issues. Most recently, we spoke about our eldest, who is going to high school. What school should we choose? How will he get there? What options should he consider? We speak purely of our children, never about us. I avoid all contentious issues — especially anything to do with his new partner. My children can’t bear her at all, to the point that my eldest wanted to live full-time with me last year. I encouraged him to change his mind, for his benefit. He needs his father as much as me. Starting this summer, our relationship has developed into a parental friendship. We send each other photos of our kids on vacation, we go to Mass together, we’ve even gotten into fits of laughter, as was the case at our last teacher-parent meeting. I’d almost forgotten that we’d separated! I’ve turned the page, and the pain has passed. We remain parents for the rest of our lives.”
Agathe, stay-at-home mom, aged 40, divorced for two years, three children ages 8, 11 and 12
Her best advice: Be united parents
“Since our separation four years ago, our children have been our main concern. We were a separated couple, but still parents united in the love of God. To communicate as smoothly as possible, and update whoever was picking up the kids, we followed the advice of a child psychiatrist who suggested a correspondence notebook. This was warmer and less impersonal than an email, and it could assure some continuity from one week to the next: ‘John’s math grades need watching,’ ‘Lucas needs more confidence,’ and ‘Mason needs to feel valued,’ etc. At the end of a trimester, I ended up using email as it was just quicker to write. As our divorce progressed, the emails got shorter. I wanted to get straight to the point, as if our relationship had ended.
“Today we use text messages to remind each other of the essentials: ‘Don’t forget the dentist appointment,’ ‘Have you paid for the soccer lessons?’… I remain courteous, even when I’m annoyed. I always say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ Even for more crucial issues we start an exchange by text and swap to email if more detail is necessary. Lately he wrote: ‘Cris is unbearable, I want to send her to boarding school’ to which I replied ‘no’ by text. I would like to see him at the end of each year, just to summarize what the children have been up to, their behavior, their extra-curricular activities … but he avoids any contact; he thinks the way we are doing things is fine. No doubt, he worries that I’ll end up on more sensitive issues, such as the alimony, which the judge has not yet determined. I think that our relationship will become more serene once our divorce has been settled. But overall, the assessment is pretty positive: we have managed to stay united as parents for our children. They haven’t had to take one side over another. We make sure we communicate what is necessary concerning the children, we set boundaries, and we reassure them; all three are flourishing.”