Divorce is a big deal for everyone in a family. It's an event that revises relationships, shifts schedules and decimates disposable income. Children often have questions for which parents lack answers— at least, in the beginning. Societal attitudes plant seeds of shame which are then deflected as assertions of blame. The whole thing looks bad and feels even worse.
It's natural for parents' personal guilt and protective instincts to engage during such a stressful time. What about the innocent children? There's no telling what kind of scars will result from this experience… Moms often develop an incessant need to nurture and they might harbor additional anger toward The Ex because of the perceived damage to the children.
The truth is that divorce will have a lasting impact on children. But so will a lot of other things. In an effort to remind guilty parents that their divorce is only one of many childhood hardships, I've compiled a list of painful memories from my own past. Some of these came prior to the divorce, some afterwards, but all are independent of The D-Word.
1. Moving. The summer after Kindergarten, we moved about two hours East to be closer to my dad's job. A few weeks before the big trek, I had a complete cry-into-my-cereal meltdown at my best friend's breakfast table. Leaving familiar territory at such a young age was traumatic.
2. Adolescence. Changes in body…changes in desires…emotional tidal waves...questions I was afraid to ask… answers that were accompanied by shifting eyes and flushed faces… juggling excitement with embarrassment… and going through it all alone. It was a rather painful period of growth.
3. Death/Illness in the Family. I lost a grandfather when I was ten and a few years later my other grandfather was diagnosed with a degenerative condition to be observed for years to come. These men were strong limbs on my family tree, which withered and fell away before my immature eyes. While they left me with many gifts and happy memories, their departures permeated my childhood with a heavy sense of loss.
4. Choosing my Religion. I grew up in a small town and all my friends went to church. But I didn't. The kids I knew were baptized. But I wasn't. Over the years, I attended various faith-related classes/events, but I never felt like I belonged. Casual conversations with kids at school left me wondering if I was already destined to an eternity in Hell (religious peer pressure is the worst!), and I was forever insecure about my relationship with God. It took a lot of research and soul searching before I made peace with my spirituality. The battle lasted well into adulthood.
5. Building a Foundation for My Future. The eternal destination of my soul aside, the most terrifying thing about my middle/high school years was trying to plan for a career I couldn't imagine. I loved to learn, my grades were good and my interests were wide… I was clueless when it came to course selection and college preparation. Expectations from my teachers were high, and I panicked. Paralyzed by anxiety, I denied myself the full college experience: a life-altering decision with lasting consequences.
Reading over this list, I feel immense gratitude for how well I had it. I have friends who grew up in violent families and/or suffered the death of immediate family members at an early age. I know people who struggled with drug use, teen pregnancy and suicide. There are children who’ve lost their homes and possessions due to various disasters. By comparison, my list of hardships doesn't seem so hard (even if I had included "divorce" on my list).
So, take a step back and breathe in a bigger picture. Trying times abound for everyone, at all stages of life, and divorce is just another possibility to add to the list. A parent's job is not to ensure that nothing bad happens, but rather to model effective behavior and support children during the difficulties in life. Forgive yourself, accept the reality and do your best to help your children grow through the experience.