When Children Go Back and Forth Between Homes
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Put in some effort now to minimize the fallout later
My parents are approaching their 50th wedding anniversary, so as a Solo Mom of a 14-year-old boy and 10-year-old girl, I haven’t walked in my kids’ “children of divorce” shoes. In the seven years since their dad and I separated, there have been ups and downs along the way. Ups and downs are expected for all on the roller coaster of adolescence, but I wonder (and worry), How many extra downward dips has our divorce added to their rides? Will these extra dips leave a long-lasting imprint on my children? Will the efforts I’m making now minimize the fallout later?
I find packing to be a chore I’ve yet to master. I either forget something or regret the outfit choices I made days in advance before leaving home. As much as I enjoy going away, it’s not long before I look forward to returning to my bed and my pillow, and having everything else I’m used to at my fingertips. I would not enjoy constant travel, but that’s exactly how my kids live. I know it’s best for them to get equal time with their parents, but how can they feel calm when always on the move? There’s a newfound alternative, “nesting,” in which children stay in the marital home, and their parents come in and out depending on their custody schedule. Wow! I appreciate the benefits of this arrangement for children and admire those who can make it work. Sadly for my kids, this is not an option for us. The drama, tension, and arguing that would ensue by sharing space and daily household responsibilities would negate the relative peace my ex and I have found through divorce.
So, I do the best I can in making my kids’ recurring travels as easy as possible. My hope is that a little extra effort on my part results in them feeling safe and settled instead of transient. That means having most of what they need at each home so they’re not packing up every three days. When kids have two homes, 95% of their pants wind up at one house. Same goes for thermoses, shoes, shirts, and water bottles. We reallocate often enough, but it’s a never-ending battle that I finally ceded. Now, when reasonable, I suck it up and just get more of everything. Double the shirts, shorts, and bathing suits, extra socks and hair bands. For those items that can’t be doubled, I proactively stay on top of their schedules, dropping off a soccer uniform and winter coats, and picking up cleats and a party dress. My kids have enough to focus on with their schoolwork, friends, sports, and activities. As much as possible, I put the onus on myself. The fact that their parents divorced shouldn’t mean that my boy and girl carry a larger, literal, daily load. They don’t always have exactly what they want when they want it (not such a bad thing), but they have what they need.
While I’ve been minimizing the effects of our transitional custody schedule for some time, I’ve just recently started to combat something else that weighs on my mind, and likely in my children’s hearts: the reality that my son and daughter know their parents don’t like each other very much. Growing up, I remember uncomfortable nights at the dinner table when my mom and dad weren’t in sync. Fleeting moments, as their enduring marriage offered an assumption (and evidence) of love and like. My kids guess that their dad and I hold little mutual affection for each other, and our divorce turned any ponderance of dislike between my ex and me into concrete fact. But, there is something I can do. I can follow the number-one rule of divorce: don’t bash your ex to your kids! Do not put children smack in the middle of the two people they love most in the world. Jane Wyman was notoriously tight-lipped when it came to discussing her ex, Ronald Reagan. Kudos to Jane. It’s not easy to keep your thoughts to yourself when all you want to do is scream.
Admittedly, I’ve fallen prey to eye rolls and sarcasm when discussing my ex. As for his part, he has a spooky ringtone reserved just for me. I am making a real effort of late to rein in my snark while also releasing some happier memories. My kids were five and eight when my ex and I divorced, and they don’t have many memories of the good old days shared by their then-married parents. So as I put away my eye rolls and pack up lightly veiled criticisms, I am now opening up and sharing fun stories from our past. When the time is right, I will dig up our wedding album and some old home videos. As it stands today, my ex and I aren’t good friends. We can’t hide that, but we can minimize the negative and offer a glimpse into the foundation from which our children came. Love between their mom and dad is no longer present, but it was a reality once upon a time. Why not share that and put the negative on ice? It takes discipline and thought, but my kids are worth it.
Lastly, I think about what being a child of divorce means for my children’s future coupledom. Will they be able to sustain a healthy relationship, or do kids of divorce inevitably wind up as divorced adults? Research shows that living with conflict is the determining factor in their future fate, not divorce. Kids who live in a home with a high level of conflict are more likely to divorce themselves. Those whose parents divorced wound up faring about the same as those who lived with married, low-conflict parents. Children often thrive postdivorce in the absence of conflict in the home! My ex and I didn’t have high levels of loud conflict, but we had off-the-chart levels of quiet tension. We are both much happier in divorce than we were in marriage. My kids live in two homes filled with friends, light, laughter, and fun. Family dinners, Sundays watching football, a mom and dad who are both free to be themselves in their separate spaces. I know our kids will fare better with both of us happy separately than miserable together. They do not have a dreaded predetermined fate.
My children have challenges, just like all children. We all screw up our kids just a little bit. One day I’ll learn exactly how I’ve fallen short as a mother, just like all mothers—divorced or not.
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