by Erin Skillen
Source: Island Parent Magazine
Originally Published: September 2017
It was bathtime. My two kids were playing with toys in the tub when my six-year-old son stopped and looked me in the eye.
“Why can’t you and Daddy be married anymore?”
It’s a difficult question at any time. But when you’re immersed in the evening hustle, trying to get the kids out of the bath and into bed so you can tidy up dinner and make lunches and get some work done, it’s disarming. I had no words. And in the absence of a response, he began to cry.
I scooped him out of the tub, wrapped him in a towel and held him in my lap on the bathroom floor. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to apologize or make it seem that not being married was bad. I was speechless as water soaked through his towel and began seeping into my clothes. So I cried with him.
In classic form, my three-year-old daughter continued playing, oblivious to the painful moment occurring outside of the tub. I took a deep breath, dried our tears and found some words. I couldn’t answer his question, so instead I told him that Daddy and I love him no matter what, repeating “I love you, I love you” over and over until he calmed down and was ready for bed. I never did have to answer that question.
I’ve been writing this column for some months now and have been putting off writing about the hardest part—telling my kids. I have tried and tried to put these words down each month, but always set it aside and focused on another aspect of divorce because this part is so damn hard to face.
And then this past weekend I was out with a friend and his daughter. She’s 16 and her parents separated when she was five. We were talking about marriage and she said, “I think it’s better to have two happy parents that aren’t together anymore than two unhappy parents who stay together.”
I froze. Hearing her say that, from her perspective, having lived it herself and knowing that she came through it all as an intelligent, well-adjusted near-adult was like a wave of relief passing over me. I almost asked her to say it again. Instead, I tucked it away in my memory and knew it was the boost I needed to tell the tale of breaking my kids’ hearts.
My separation was pretty non-traditional. We continued living in the same home for about 10 months. I stayed upstairs while he moved into the suite downstairs. We continued to share most meals and handled bedtimes and weekends with the kids together for the most part. The kids were only two and five at the time, so the only thing they noticed was that Daddy was sleeping downstairs. I lied and told them it was because of snoring. Lying to them felt terrible, but for me it was a way to delay telling them a much more difficult truth.
Even just the thought of telling them that we were separating—that their lives would be very different moving forward—made me feel ill. I didn’t know how to actually go through with it. I worked with a therapist to prepare myself to be calm during the conversation, and to be ready with the words that would explain the situation without scaring them. I delayed it as long as possible. And then it was time.
We all sat together at the kitchen table and I started: “Mommy and Daddy aren’t going to be married anymore. We still love you both very much and while some things will be changing, we are still a family.” To be honest I don’t remember much more than that. It’s all a blur when I try to recall the details. Oddly, the last moment that felt that blurry was my wedding day.
What I do remember is that it went better than I had feared. My son was not as emotional as I expected, and my daughter didn’t really understand but wasn’t upset by her confusion. Soon after, we all went together to show them my new place. They were excited by having a second room and a new house to explore. Their dad and I were not nearly so excited. It was tense and awkward but we both did our best to put on a positive face for the kids.
Telling your children that you are changing their lives forever in a way they won’t want or like is heartbreaking. Realizing that you are giving up half of their childhoods by co-parenting, rather than parenting together, is the most devastating part. I’ll share more about co-parenting in a future column, but for now I will say that thinking about the fact that I will only witness 50 per cent of them growing up is so paralyzing I can’t let myself go down that path of thought anymore.
It has been almost a year since that conversation with my kids. They have adjusted well to the new 50/50 living situation, in part because they’re at an adaptable age and in part because their dad and I work hard to have a positive co-parenting relationship. My work life has led me to collaborating with a child psychologist and early on she gave me a book she wrote for young children about separation and divorce. I read it with my kids and the recognition on my son’s face, followed by “That’s like us!” made me realize how he may have been feeling different from his friends, as most of them have parents who are together. It gets a little easier each time he meets someone who “has two houses too.”
My daughter has moments where she cries out for the other parent when she’s upset or has a nightmare, or is just missing the other parent, but overall she and her brother have handled it all better than I imagined. Will that continue? Who knows. But for now it’s okay. And with any luck one day they too will value having happy parents who made a very tough decision.
Erin Skillen is the COO of FamilySparks.com, an education company that helps parents navigate the toughest job in the world. She’s also a mom and a bucket list slayer.
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