When my ex-husband and I separated in October 2012, our sons were understandably upset. They knew there had been tension in the house for a while. Even at their young ages of 11 and 8, it was hard to miss the fact that Mom and Dad were no longer sleeping in the same room or even usually speaking to one another.
Having been a child of divorce myself, I knew how important it was to allow them a safe place to share their myriad emotions. Sadness, anger, disbelief, relief—all of it was fair game. And for a while I was willing to let them show it in whatever way suited them best. There were a lot of tears but also a lot of tantrums. They are, after all, children.
Eventually they had to learn to deal with their feelings in productive ways. Our life was going on. Even if Dad was no longer a daily part of our routine, our household still had to function successfully, and it was mandatory that the boys take on an active role in developing our new life.
My job when they were babies was to keep them alive, and the basics are still necessities. As they’re growing through this process, my job shifted from raising children to raising men. I have to make sure they are prepared to take on their own lives when they leave my home in a few years.
Now is the time that we practice the lessons they will need to be healthy, productive, responsible members of society.
1. Act with intent. In our house, the phrase “I didn’t mean to!” is often countered with “Well, you didn’t mean not to!” Did you intend to hurt your brother’s feelings by calling him a jerk, or are you lashing out about something else? I remind them all the time to think about the intentions behind their words and their actions and to choose their path carefully with that in mind.
2. Apologize. For my younger son especially, this is a difficult lesson. He hates to admit he’s wrong. But there is both power and relief in being able to look the person you’ve wronged in the eye and say, “I’m sorry I did that thing that hurt your feelings.” No caveat. No but. Just a direct apology.
3. Make amends. If you break something, you try to fix it or pay for it. This is a much harder concept when it comes to actions. Try your best not to repeat the behavior. Think about your intentions and what you were apologizing for, and try not to do it again.
4. Finish the job. Whether it’s homework or clearing the table after dinner or putting your dirty laundry in the hamper, finish what you start. With one less person and virtually no less work to be done in the house, it’s mandatory that they help. Leaving a half-emptied dishwasher or a towel on the bathroom floor creates more work for Mom, who won’t always be there to clean up after you.
5. Help, don’t hinder. “Are you helping, or are you hindering?” I’ve asked them this at various times since they were toddlers. Is what you’re doing right now—watching TV when you should be doing homework, playing a video game instead of helping with the groceries, arguing with your brother—in any way keeping our family unit from functioning at its most efficient?
6. Own your choices. No one makes you do anything, and every moment of your life is a choice to do or not do something. Don’t blame other people for your mistakes. Don’t be afraid to try something just because you might screw it up and fall flat on your face. Be proud of everything you choose to do, because there is a lesson to be learned even in our errors.
7. Express your love as easily as you express your anger. During the process of divorce, it’s easy to be angry. There are a lot of things to be mad or sad about, whether you’re a child or an adult. But you can’t let the bad push out the good. Even on your darkest days, find moments to laugh. Even when you’re upset at Mom and Dad for ruining your life, or pissed at your brother for losing your favorite video game, remind yourself of how lucky you are to have each other and hug them. Never fail to tell the people who matter most that you love them and why you love them. It’ll make you both feel better.
For all of us, this is an ongoing learning process. We act thoughtlessly and make mistakes. We apologize and move on and try our best to correct the behavior for the future. DH and I may not have been able to stomach for-better-or-for-worse, but we did create these two amazing young men who are with us for the rest of our lives. Hopefully I will do my job well enough now that they carry these lessons forward into their own relationships, forging their own lives with these solid skills.