A few years back I was asked to comment on my single mother status, and to offer rules of thumb for others in the process. But it was recommended that I provide a single phrase, guideline or piece of advice – I was stumped – at least briefly.
How do you distill ten years into a few sound bites, especially when you’ve survived not only a high conflict divorce, but a confusing and gnarly aftermath?
Digging through the mental Rolodex, I was initially at a loss. Should I talk about the importance of emotional stability for children when their universe seems to be crumbling? Should I dive into the dirty details of mind games and manipulation? What about the lessons to be gained as you’re plunging into the post-marital dating pool? What about gray divorce? Rediscovering your self-esteem? What about reconstructing dreams that have disintegrated?
Sometimes, when you have so much to say, beginning is the hardest part.
Then I had my light bulb moment. I knew exactly the phrase that opens avenues of discussion. Not only does it capture my experience during divorce, but it applies equally to the years that have followed.
It was – and still is – one of my most sustaining mantras, and it’s this: never assume.
Advice to Divorcing Mothers:
A selection from my “Never Assume” files?
Here are some items that date to the divorcing process. They also extend into the period of healing and adjusting that follows.
- If you’re still in the process of divorcing, never assume that your attorney is the sole provider of information, never assume that all bases are covered, never assume that follow-up legalities won’t be required. This is not to disparage legal counsel or their expertise; it’s a reminder of the attorney’s role and your responsibilities; you must take ownership for asking the right questions and realistic expectations. That means arming yourself with information. And remember the old adage – if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
- Never assume that your best friend’s divorce outcome will be yours, that your college roommate’s outcome will be yours, or that your identical twin living in Wichita (while you reside in Philadelphia) can guarantee what lies ahead. Remember that divorce laws are state-specific, your circumstances leading to divorce are between you and your spouse, your family’s support (or lack of it) is equally unique, your attorneys and your judges will differ in their skills, approach, experience, application of relevant law and decision-making.
- Never assume that you fully know the person you once married. Most of us are not at our best when we’re hurt or angry, much less positioned as adversaries at the termination of a marriage. In fact, divorce may reveal that married or not, you didn’t know who you were with, as the battlefield may bring out the truest nature in our soon-to-be exes.
- When it comes to your kids, never assume that your child is telling you everything that he or she is feeling – about the divorce, about an absent parent, about school, about you, about a new romantic partner, about your ex’s new romantic partner. Age is clearly a factor in ability to express observations and feelings, but so are temperament, relationship with the other parent, relationship with you, and capacity to articulate feelings. And let’s not forget that a child generally wants the love of both parents, and may not wish to compromise the tenuous security of either parental relationship by further rocking the boat.
- Never assume that your kids will heal at the same time in the same way. They’re individuals, right? They will grieve, act out, and adjust differently – just as they would in response to any major life event in which they feel they have no control – especially one that affects their parents and their home life, and potentially friends, school, and activities. In other words – their universe.
- Never assume that life after divorce is entirely under your control either. Your ex may be a great co-parent for a time, but circumstances can alter the situation – unemployment, remarriage, step-children, or new children. What if one of you relocates of necessity? What if medical issues throw a monkey wrench into an otherwise smooth situation? Never assume these circumstances cannot occur – to him or to you, as they can happen to anyone, affecting the co-parenting dynamic as well as the financial situation.
- Never assume that the under-performing co-parent won’t mature into a better one – more cooperative in terms of active parenting, or more responsible financially. But never assume that he will. On a personal note, I’ve been down the path of wishful (magical?) thinking, and living in denial is ultimately fruitless. A positive attitude is one thing, but head-in-the-sand ignorance is something else again.
- Never assume that transitions will be simple or short-lived, that your White Knight is around the next corner, that you won’t find yourself stalled professionally, or that you won’t experience periods of financial disarray. Never assume that you aren’t capable of digging deep for guts you never knew you had, mastering new skills, and rebuilding a life in which you flourish – especially when you’re the model for the children you adore.
- Never assume that change will come easily for kids, but never assume that they won’t astound you with their resiliency as family reconfigures, and new possibilities for all of you begin to emerge.