http://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/bc-almanac/episode/15394733. My co-parenting segment starts @ 25 minutes.
In a world where a high percentage of marriages end in divorce, it’s surprising that books of this genre haven’t been published before. No wonder Dundurn Press snapped up this practical guide to surviving a divorce and bringing up children who live part time in two separate homes.
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In a recent post, I acknowledged three women who influenced and inspired me: Mary Tyler Moore, Gloria Steinem and Melody Beattie. Here I celebrate two more who shaped how I approach my world.
In my family, anger was a subject only to be glanced at from the corner of our eyes. My father would verbally explode or keep his anger inside, only to sit up at night weeping in the wee hours. My mother was somewhat more direct and might say, “I’m cross with you!” I don’t remember ever expressing my anger openly—it felt safer to retreat to my room and eat until the feelings faded. No one ever thought of sitting and talking about how to handle anger. In my twenties, Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger opened new possibilities, both for understanding my own scary feelings, and how to survive others’ anger without total annihilation. It still sits on my bookshelf.
As a divorced mother in my forties, I struggled with how to co-parent my two young sons with their father. Was I doing it right? Would they be okay? No one I knew was co-parenting, and I felt more alone than ever in my life. Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s writing in The Dance touched and nourished me. “What if the task is simply to unfold, to become who you already are in your essential nature—gentle, compassionate, and capable of living fully and passionately present?” Then I reached a few pages where she described her experience of helping her eighteen- and twenty-year old sons prepare to take part in their father’s remarriage. Her words felt like sweet rain in the desert. I was not alone! Others shared these bittersweet, mixed-up feelings.
These women, by speaking and writing about their experience and perspectives, expanded my view of what my world could be.
Upon whose shoulders do you stand? Who has opened paths of possibility for you? If we share torchbearers’ names, others can find them and by their light, see a wider future.
My years as a young working mother passed in a blur of seemingly endless tasks and challenges. I often wondered if I was doing things right, or enough, or how to measure up to so many expectations. I looked forward to Wednesday nights, when “You’re Going to Make it After All”, the theme song for Mary Tyler Moore’s sitcom, signaled thirty minutes of respite and encouragement. Mary’s joyful smile as she flung her hat into the air helped me grind through tough weeks. I watched her on The Dick Van Dyke Show and then on her own sitcom in rapt appreciation of her confidence, beauty and zest for life. The episode of Chuckles the Clown’s funeral still makes me laugh, watching Mary try to keep a straight face.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, she was a role model for me. A woman striking out on her own path, who achieved success without flaunting huge boobs or fretting about her lack of a male partner.
Remembering her brought to mind the many women from whom I have drawn strength. At key points in my life, their actions or writing appeared which I watched or read, mulled over, and took solace from. Each unfolded a view of the world I hadn’t yet grasped.
Gloria Steinem spoke at my university when I was eighteen. Here was a woman taking on the world on her own terms! Intelligent, confident, and unafraid of stirring up trouble, she was the first woman I encountered who intellectually and politically challenged the status quo. I read many of her books over the years, strengthened by her ability to frame powerful arguments and boldly express them. In Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions she declared, “Power can be taken, but not given. The process of the taking is empowerment in itself.” I took sips of her courage each time I opened her books.
One day in my thirties, distraught and overwhelmed, I wandered into a bookstore. Picking up Co-dependent No More, my eye was grabbed by the question, “Is your life unmanageable?” Melody Beattie’s matter-of-fact voice was my constant companion for several years as I came to terms with choices I had made. I rested my bruised spirit and read, “It doesn’t matter if…. It doesn’t matter… IT DOESN’T MATTER.” Subtlety was not what I needed. Melody gave me straight facts and insights that found their way in through the cracks in my ego and wounded pride.
These three women expanded my view of what I, and my world, could be. My next post will talk about two more women. I hope that this sampling will stimulate your own thinking.
On whose shoulders do you stand? Whose words and actions have brought you to who you are today? Of course, for me and most of us there have also been male pathfinders; but for women, it is particularly important to identify and celebrate our pioneering female leaders.
Divorce brings new realities flooding in from all sides. Some of them we won’t want to look at.
We are often urged to accept reality. Sounds obvious and reasonable, doesn’t it! Too bad it’s so hard to do.
When I struggle to accept something, it’s because I want my world to be one way, and it’s a different way. I’ll do anything not to see that piece of reality right then, because if I look at it and accept it into my world view, I’ll have to feel whatever sadness or anger or hurt comes with it. And it won’t be fun.
Accepting that the marriage is really over is hard for many divorcing parents. In my case, although I initiated the split, I could only look sideways at myself as a soon-to-be-divorced woman. The pain surrounding that was too overpowering to take in all at once — I felt it would have squashed me if I tried. So I got to know it gradually, with support, until I could stare it right in the eye.
The Unwelcome Guest
Why bother with that hard internal stuff like accepting reality? Why not keep on keeping on, and just make sure we get the groceries bought and the kids to school in clean clothes?
That’s what’s important, right?
Partly. Getting those things done is important. But we won’t be able to move forward with rebuilding our lives until we let in our new realities. Open the door to that grubby unwelcome guest who keeps rattling the kitchen doorknob. Find a spot for it to sleep, sit near it and get to know it. Hear what it has to say, and weep. When it is finally known and its messages absorbed, it will slink out the door. Then we are free to ask how we will live our tomorrows.
Attending to the inner work allows us to accomplish our tasks in the outer world.
How to begin?
If you are in a difficult transition such as learning to co-parent children from two homes, start by assessing your overall level of stress. Do you need to get help and support? If so, get it. I used both a group and, intermittently, a counselor, and they made all the difference.
If you are okay to proceed on your own, here are some steps to try:
1. List the main outside changes you are making or facing, such as moving to a new place, starting a new schedule of being with your children, or making different financial arrangements.
2. Jot down the internal shifts you need to make which go with those changes. Mine included seeing myself as no longer married and part of my previous family – shifting to the identity of a separated and part-time mom.
3. Read through your list of outside changes and internal shifts. Which is the hardest for you?
4. Choose one tough aspect of reality and say it aloud. “I’m single and 45.” “My kids won’t have the stable family that I had growing up.” “My ex has lied to me.”
5. Have a conversation with yourself about that tough thing. As well as, “How do I feel about this?” ask, “What’s the hardest about this? What does it mean to me, or represent? If I accept that this is happening, what does that mean?” Write down your answers without worrying about grammar or anything else. (This is for your eyes only. No electronic sharing at this point!)
6. Once you have explored your tough thing, ask, “Is there any part of this that I canaccept, for now?” If the answer is, “No” you may want to reassess whether you need support. Or, it may be too soon. If you identify something you can begin to accept, write it down. Read it and breathe in and out. Repeat. Let whatever feelings arise come in. If you are overwhelmed, stop and go for a walk.
7. Be kind to yourself. When you’ve had time to digest what you have written down, it’s time for an action plan: identify anything concrete you can do to help yourself accept that tough reality. Make sure it is legal and won’t stir up family drama– your kids don’t need that. Focus on nurturing yourself and exploring something new. An action I took to help me accept being separated was joining a nearby church for social support. A friend of mine signed up for salsa lessons.
Does this sound like too big a deal, too much to tackle? I get it. This takes effort and courage.
Yes, accepting reality is a lot of work, but so is ignoring that unwelcome guest camped in your mind. Where do you want to spend your energy?
I cannot call fear a friend. Fear is a companion whose influence has only become clear to me in the last 10 years. It visits me regularly, invisible yet powerful.
I have taped a sign right below my computer screen: “LET GO OF FEAR”. I seldom notice it, but every now and then it grabs my attention. In these moments I can shift, step back, and loosen up.
To me fear is the devourer which, given license to roam, makes me want to hide under the covers. Even just hovering nearby it makes me snap at people and lose interest in what others care about. It drains me of vitality.
Can you relate? What are your signs that fear is standing too close to you?
In the early days of co-parenting, my haunting and ever-present fears were, “Will my children survive all these upheavals and changes? Will I ever feel normal again and have a life that includes resting places for me?”
A specific fear arose after living in a new apartment for four months. I was becoming stressed and incoherent from lack of sleep: the upstairs neighbors didn’t work, and tromped around at all hours, waking me night after night. I realized I was afraid I couldn’t stay in that apartment, and there were no other apartments close to my ex’s house. I stood back from my fear as well as I could to calm myself, and considered my options. Talk to them? I had already tried that. Take sleeping pills? They had me almost bursting into tears at work. Buy a house? My ex had said firmly he couldn’t afford to buy me out of our former home, so I had no money. Stalemate.
Finally a new idea came to me. I wrote to his sister with whom I had been close, explaining the situation and asking her to talk to him. She didn’t respond directly, but two weeks later my ex agreed to pay me out. With great relief I started house-hunting.
Fear stood so often at my shoulder that I took it for granted. My body stayed contracted and tight. A friend at work once commented, “You seem to have fear about how our project will turn out,” and I remember thinking, Well, duh…, of course, not understanding that there was any other way to be.
Fear isn’t all bad. Like our capacity to feel pain in our bodies, fear is a signal that important things are under threat. By pointing to things we should pay attention to, it can keep us safe. When we use fear as information, it can go hand-in-hand with, “I’ll make sure the children are okay, I will do whatever it takes to protect them and give them a good life.” This determination is powerful fuel for parents. It can take us through months and years of uncertainty, dealing with challenging ex-spouses, and having minimal time for ourselves.
But when fear paralyzes us, or stresses us for weeks at a time, it’s too close. What helps when fear overwhelms us?
8 Steps to Take When Overwhelmed with Fear
1. Notice it and label it
When feeling afraid, your body will often give signals, such as a stomach-twisting feeling, tight shoulders, or a headache.
2. Ask, “What is this fear about, exactly?”
Put your answer into words: “I am afraid that….” You may have more than one fear at a time. The step of naming and untangling them may present a new perspective.
3. Remember that fear is often about things that haven’t happened yet
It exists in your mind. Co-parents’ fears can include the other parent moving away, or taking you to court.
4. Make space for yourself to calm down
Stand up, move around, swing your arms. Take five deep slow breaths. Step outside and look at the sky. Move right into this minute, away from the future. You are giving the elbow to fear, telling it to stand further away.
Write down all the actions you can think of that may help improve the situation — brainstorm. In the earlier example, my list included approaching the upstairs tenants, moving, and taking sleeping pills.
6. Size up your list
Which actions are most important and doable? Which can you do by yourself? Which can others help you with? Make a plan for the next three months. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
7. Shift your focus
If the fear crowds in close again, remind yourself that you are dealing with it and shift your focus. Tell it to back off, you’ve heard its message.
8. Create rituals that nourish you and your kids
Perhaps it’s a game of Monopoly with them on Saturdays. One of my favorite bedtime rituals with my younger son was going through our day. He’d ask, “What did you do today, Mommy? And then what? And then what?” And I would ask him the same things. Those precious few minutes each evening made us feel safe.
If, in spite of all your efforts, fear is dominating your life, then consider seeking professional help. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to fortify our resources when needed.
Your marriage is ending, and you are a parent. In the midst of upheaval and strong feelings, you have to make complex and critically important choices. Where to live? How to keep finances manageable? If and how to use lawyers? How to divide parenting time and responsibilities?
No matter how frantic or devastated you feel, take the time you need to make good decisions now. Fairly or not, if disputes arise later, judges may look at the choices you make in the first year post-separation as a basis for the future. So you’d better be making wise decisions!
Here are 7 steps, illustrated by my own example from when my then-husband John and I were separating.
1. Recognize when a big decision presents itself. Flag it in your mind.
John and I decided to co-parent our 5- and 8-year-old sons. That was the only given; we had to figure out everything else. I knew that I had to decide where to live, but didn’t think about it as one distinct question—it was just part of the stressful blizzard swirling in my head.
2. State it in a sentence; write it down and look at it.
I didn’t do that; it never occurred to me. If I had, I would have written:
Should one of us stay in the house, or sell it and both move?
3. Consider what you know about the decision and your options. What are some facts?
Some of my thoughts were:
Our house, while a comfortable size, had a substantial mortgage and high taxes.
Selling this house and buying smaller homes in a nearby area would be much easier financially for both me and John.
The boys had no memory of living anywhere else.
4. What feelings do you have about it?
The house was full of my painful memories of our strained marriage. I couldn’t wait to escape it. A different neighborhood, while unknown, felt like the chance for a fresh start.
I liked the neighborhood and would be sorry to leave it; the boys liked it, too.
5. What assumptions are you making?
People kept telling me that kids are resilient. The boys would make new friends in a new school.
6. How may your family history be influencing you?
I never considered this question. Later, I remembered that my parents had moved five times over my growing-up period. My siblings and I didn’t like it, but we survived.
7. Talk it over with at least one person with a detached view.
Go over each point, and ask them to test what you may be missing, or overstating. If you are lacking information, get it before finalizing your decision.
I didn’t discuss the decision of where to live with anyone except John; I simply figured out that I wanted us to sell the house and move to a less expensive area.
What happened in the end? John was determined that one of us would stay in the house. I was appalled at the prospect of keeping it, but he wasn’t to be budged. He stayed in the house and I rented a nearby apartment for several years until I found a house a block away.
How wise was my decision? I am very glad, now, that John’s choice prevailed.
It turned out that keeping our family house worked very well for the boys. I underestimated the value to them of the social stability during family upheaval; my assumption of their resilience was true, but not the complete picture. I also didn’t foresee the financial support my parents offered me.
Because my own family had moved periodically, relocating seemed to me a normal choice, but that didn’t mean it was best for our sons right then. I was a smart, responsible, loving mother, making the best choices I could, yet my assumptions and painful feelings drove my decision-making. I couldn’t see the whole picture clearly.
You can do better.
Please understand: the choice of retaining the family home may not be best for anyone else. This is simply an example of an important decision. Each of us has a different set of circumstances. What I am saying is that following these generic steps will strengthen your decision-making.
Here they are again. To make wise decisions:
- Recognize when a big decision presents itself. Flag it in your mind.
- State it in a sentence; write it down and look at it.
- Consider what you know about the decision and your options. What are some facts?
- What feelings do you have about it?
- What assumptions are you making?
- How may your family history be influencing you?
- Talk it over with at least one person with a detached view. Go over each point, and ask them to test what you may be missing, or overstating. If you are lacking information, get it before finalizing your decision.
Don’t be rushed. Taking time to make wise decisions will ease the transitions for your children and lay the foundations for a better future.
Co-Parenting 101 by Philyaw and Thomas
Mom’s House, Dad’s House by Ricci