Midlife Isis: Can kids be happy with divorced parents?

As you may remember, I wrote my first "Midlife Isis" blog and promised a weekly installation detailing my separation from my husband of 13 years and our plan to raise our sons in a loving-but-non-nuclear family. That was three weeks and three rough drafts ago. Turns out, writing this is more difficult than I expected.

The decision to transform our family was the biggest and most difficult decision of our lifetime. First and foremost, we had to answer the question: Can our kids be happy without having both parents under one roof? Or will this, inevitably, screw them up?

Like numerous friends, I grew up in a family with unhappy parents who made the decision to muddle through their bad marriage until the kids turned 18. In the meantime, they faked it, and consequently, I saw them at their worst.

And yet, I know now -- as an adult facing many of the same issues that they did -- that my parents did the best they could and were following a model that was thought to be the best choice. The "staying together until the kids are 18" concept was common during past decades -- particularly the ‚Äė80s -- but because of my experiences, I can't do it. There are so many reasons for this.

I want my sons to someday live with partners they are truly in love with. I don't want to model a relationship for them -- even with their father -- that is anything less than that. Sure, their father and I love each other, like family members do, but we are not "in love." And we are too young to give up passion, even for the sake of our kids. However, our society -- even the supposedly progressive community in which I live -- suggests that I'm being selfish.

But despite judgments, we soldier on and return to the afore-proposed question: Can our kids be happy living in two households?

Deep thought, conversation, reading, soul searching and weeping -- so much weeping -- helped me come to the conclusion that yes, my sons can be happy living in a non-nuclear family. Most of all, I believe that having happier parents is better for them.

Currently, we are in the process of redefining family and structuring their lives based on a network of people -- dominated by their parents, of course -- who love and support them. At the same time, they are learning that everything changes whether we want it to or not.

More than anything, I realized that my kids aren't going to "turn out" or "not turn out." I hear people use these words -- "she turned out really well" -- but I don't believe there is any such thing. We are all fluid, ever-changing beings living a life of ups and downs. My sons are living in a non-conventional family structure that includes parents and grandparents who love them very much.

Once again, different does not mean bad.

It has been three months since I moved across the street from my soon-to-be former husband. We co-parent our sons equally: they are with me Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday and every other Monday. The four of us spend time together at family functions like birthday parties. Overall, it has worked better than I expected.

Our boys, at this point, are thriving and happy, despite occasional comments that are, for me, heartbreaking. However, I have to make sure I don't project anything onto them or give them the idea that separation is sad. If they decide it is, then it is, but they might not decide this. In any case, conversation is always a possibility. I "check in" with them regularly, but mostly, they only want to talk on their own time.

Their moods change quickly. We have fleeting moments to connect before they move on to something else. I try to honor this.

For example, a few weeks ago, while at a cookout, my 6-year-old crawled onto my lap and said, completely out-of-the-blue, "Sometime it's hard to be in two families."

I held him closer and prepared to talk about a challenging aspect of separation and divorce, right in the middle of a Sunday evening social gathering. But before I could utter any words, he started speaking again.

"That guy has hair on his toes," he said happily, pointing at the feet of a guy sitting in a lawn chair next to us.

 

Talkbacks

Truly | Sept. 7, 2010 at 6:16 p.m. (report)

Kids can be happy in divorce situations, particularly if the home was extremely stressful and abusive pre-divorce. Remember though, no one will ever love those kids like the ones that raised them from infants. A household with those 2 parents can't be beat. Statistics show that most kids of divorce will have more problems, plain and simple.

All those 'in love' feelings with new partners will also fade into the reality of the day. New problems and obstacles will occur. Why not figure out what happened with the loving feelings with the original partner? Work on that instead of running away-taking the easy way out. This easy out will end up being the most difficult road you may ever take. For you and your kids. For the rest of your life.

For the sake of the kids, I hope you work it out with the father. It doesn't sound like there were serious problems from the tone of your blog. Sounds like selfish reasons to be honest, though maybe you aren't telling it all.

Otherwise, get used to the new anxiety-that of yours and your kids. And the 'what ifs' and 'am I doing the right thing' that will haunt you till the end.

It is hard to watch someone destroying their family for these seemingly fixable issues-while other families work through extreme trials and tribulations to keep their families together and happy. Teach your kids how to prevail, solve problems, and love their family above all else, not run from problems and pretend it is progressive.

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strangebattery | Aug. 30, 2010 at 10:45 a.m. (report)

Been through this too. Not easy. TIME. It just takes time.

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collaborate | Aug. 29, 2010 at 3:19 p.m. (report)

I've been a divorce lawyer, including court-appointed advocate for children's best interests, for nearly 30 years--in recent years as a mediator and collaborative lawyer focusing on helping couples who want respectful resolution rather than court battles. Based on many family studies and my professional experience, the unhappiness (and sometimes lifetime damage) for children is based upon the level of conflict between their parents rather than the separation/divorce itself. I commend you and your husband for focusing on the needs/interests of your children--that assures the healthiest outcome possible for them.

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katergator | Aug. 29, 2010 at 12:57 a.m. (report)

35634 It is absolutely possible to be happy with divorced parents! My parents split up when I was seven and my sister was 4. 20 years later, I am working in a conservative setting, where divorce is not common. When people find out that my parents are divorced they act surpised and then sorry, but I often tell them it's the best thing that's happened to me. Sure, it was hard at the time, and was followed by a 5 year period of counseling and back and forth between my parents, trying to see if they could handle getting back together for us. Everyone in our family was miserable during that time, but when they finally let go everyone was much happier, and I fully believe happier parents are better parents. I'm incredibly tight with my mom and my wonderful step-dad, but still have a relationship with my father. It would've been terrible to grow up in a home with constant fighting and bitterness, instead I grew up with happy parents who don't resent each other. The important thing is to not compare yourself to other "nuclear" families, and think you are somehow less of a family. Families come in all shapes and sizes, and the important thing is that you are happy with the one you have, not the one you don't.

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mrjspoons | Aug. 28, 2010 at 2:54 p.m. (report)

34729 Sounds like you are doing a great job of thinking things through for your kids. Keep up the good work!

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