Divorce is never easy. I should know because I have been the child of divorce, twice. However, as someone who has been through this personally, I never imagined how hard it would be to watch my patients’ parents divorce. At the newborn visits things are usually great and I love watching parents become overwhelmed with love for their new family. Then at the next few infant appointments, I often only see one parent, which is typically the mother. I continue to ask about updates in the family and look forward to seeing how the families are growing and adapting with their child. We cover basic safety issues, like who is or isn’t smoking, and talk about major life changes, like new jobs or houses. Never though do I ask about their marital status and unfortunately, with a divorce rate in the U.S. anywhere from 15-50% there will be many of these families that do not stay intact.
I have had a few tearful moms sitting in a chair next to me telling me about their separation or divorce, and a few heartbroken fathers sharing tales of broken engagements or moms who no longer are involved. Each time, these stories rip at my heart. I remember fondly their happy days fawning over their newborn and think back to any signs of discontent that may have surfaced at prior appointments. Since I am a pediatrician and not a marriage counselor, families rarely confide their marital problems to me until it is over. This is appropriate, but makes the news all the more shocking to me when it is revealed.
Of course my focus for families dealing with divorce is how to help the child cope with this major life change and preparing the parents for how best to parent children living in and between two households. This is a complex, varied, and highly individualized discussion, however, there are a few points that ring true in most situations that I thought I would share here.
1. NEVER talk badly about the other parent in front of or to your child(ren). This parent is still their parent, even if not your partner anymore. Your child shares 50% of his/her DNA with this parent. Children can see similarities between themselves and their parents and so any insult to one parent is an insult that your child may hear as a reflection on themselves as well.
2. Even when you can not communicate with each other, you need to be able to communicate about your child. Avoid criticism about the other parent’s parenting style and stick to the facts. For example, instead of saying “you give her too much juice,” try saying, “let’s try to limit her juice like the doctor suggested.” If face-to-face communication leads to conflict, I recommend getting a small notebook and putting information about the child in writing, which can then be passed back-and-forth with the child when changing custody. This is also a nice way to share letters from school, artwork, and other paperwork that needs to accompany the child.
3. Keep the same rules and routines in both homes. It can be very hard to maintain consistency between two homes with varying schedules, however, all children need routines and children going through a major change like divorce need consistency wherever they can get it. Parents should be on the same page in terms of discipline, curfews, allowances, etc. Keeping the same traditions and routines provide comfort in a tumultuous time.
4. Even if you do not want a relationship with your partner anymore, maintain it for the sake of your mutual child. Fight the urge to push away, put aside your anger, and hang on to that connection so that someday your child can decide what relationship they want with that parent. This relates to #1 above in that this “deadbeat” parent is still your child’s parent and poor decisions will never change that. I recently read an advice column post on this topic that discussed this more eloquently than I ever could, so read it here— thanks, Cheryl Strayed!
After running through my divorce tips, one divorcing parent asked me if their child would be a “weirdo” based on anecdotal evidence that some children of divorce grew up to have psychological problems. There are a number of studies on this topic that I could have pointed him to, but since we were sharing anecdotes, I retorted that I was a child of divorce and had managed to escape becoming a weirdo, at least I hope. This exchange though reminded me that although divorce has been common for nearly four decades, there is still a stigma out there.
While no one enters into a marriage and family intent on getting divorced, there can be some positives to come from this difficult situation. I often remind parents how resilient children are and how they can learn from adversity. Through divorce, I learned to have a one-on-one relationship with my father that I might not otherwise have forged as early on in my life. We had to learn about each other in a way that otherwise my relationship with mom would have overshadowed. I also would never have met my step-father, who ended up a formative person in my adolescence. He stoked the academic side of my personality, broadened my cultural horizons, and encouraged my passion for city-living. I would not have had a sister, which is an inconceivable loss. I learned at an early age that my parents are humans… imperfect, vulnerable, and struggling, as we all are. And in that, saw that my future would not always be smooth, which was enlightening for a concrete-thinking tween finding my place in the world.
There are many ways in which divorce has complicated my life and I would be lying if I did not admit that there will always be some tender wounds, but ultimately, each divorce has taught me a life lesson that made me grow. I often feel prematurely akin to friends who also have divorced parents and while we joke that we are both somehow broken, we know that we are also made of some tough glue. So as I look at my little patients and their wounded parents bearing their family pain with me, they touch a piece of my heart that makes me both recoil as a victim, yet rally as an ambassador of hope.
[The above does not constitute medical advice, but rather my opinion. All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Patient details have been changed so as to protect their identities. I am not a therapist, so please seek mental health services if you need them. Crisis Centers in Philadelphia: http://dbhids.org/contact/crisis-response-centers/]