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Q&A: How do you foster resilience?

Managing your own emotional needs

Divorce involving kids amplifies an already painful situation. One of the most difficult aspects of getting through a divorce is the emotional wellbeing of both parents and their children.

As a divorced parent, you need to manage the everyday things and try to keep yourself together no matter how sad or angry you may feel. You still need to go to work, put breakfast on the table, figure out after school activities or child care. You get the picture. These things, in essence, are no different than what you were used to before the divorce. However, now some days sadness consumes you, anger may drive you, and life doesn't make so much sense anymore.

You want to be connected to your child. You want to make sure that your children feel safe and protected through their uncertainty. But, how about you the parent? How do you deal with your own feelings of uncertainty, loss or confusion? How do you get the tools you need to build resiliency? Whose emotional needs come first on a given day? Yours or your child's? This judgment call is tricky.

Here is my interview with the first of three individuals who have dealt with these questions professionally and personally.

A conversation with Ruby

Ruby is the mother of five. She married a man with three children, who became her stepchildren. During her 18-year marriage, she had two more children. 13 years after her divorce, the conversation leaves Ruby feeling down and emotionally tasked.

Can you tell me what was the first things that became challenging or difficult when you were first separated or got divorced?

I had some concerns regarding the endurance of my relationship with my stepchildren. As it turned out, it was not an issue but at the time it was a big concern. I was aware that I was not as present for my adolescent children as I would have liked to have been. I was not only not emotionally strong enough to bear their concerns about the dissolution of the marriage, but also I was not as able as I would have liked to be involved in their lives.

Do you mean available emotionally or physically or both?

I mean emotionally. I was physically there; the children were living with me, their dad had left town. But, I was quite emotionally thrown off balance, and was not as emotionally available as I had been in the past.

How old were your adolescent children at the time of the divorce?

14 and 17 years old.

How old were your stepchildren?

25, 27 and 29 years old.

So these stepchildren had been a huge part of your life for the 18 years of your marriage. No wonder you had such a big concern about enduring a relationship with them.

Yes. My step-children were 8, 10 and 12 years old when I married their father. They lived with their mom in the midwest and spent some holidays and summers with us.

“Certainly at work it wasn't something that I talked about. It felt like a secret in a way and it felt painful.”

— Ruby

When you got divorced or separated what do you remember telling your kids about what their life was going to be like?

I didn't predict or tell them about what their life was going to be like. I told them pretty much my side of the story. I told them my view of what happened and why the marriage could not continue. I did not know their dad's plans. It was very difficult for us to communicate. Soon after we separated, he moved from Boston to the west coast, and his communication with me and with the children was erratic.

Well, their age was certainly appropriate to understand what you were telling them.

Yes right, and my sense was that they had a pretty good idea about that. Their dad also told them his side of the story. Both of us knew enough to continuously reassure them that they were not at all responsible.

Even though I was very hurt and angry with my former husband, we both had some concerns about how to talk to the childrenabout it. In fact we went to a therapist to ask her advice. Her point was that we had to come to terms with it. That once we came to terms with our getting divorced or separated, the reasons for it, and the rightness of that decision, then talking to the children about it would be easier.

Did you do that and did it make sense to you?

Yes, that made sense to me.

Did you and your ex-spouse agree on how to handle the kids?

It wasn't an issue. He moved out and wasn't very present. He said he would be, but his involvement was unreliable. Then he moved away to the west coast. I was very upset with him for that. The children wouldn't hear from him for several months and would be concerned. They would worry about him. Nor did I receive child support.

At the time of our separation, we didn't have any kind of formal parenting arrangement; we had some financial arrangement which wasn't adhered to consistently.

Was he there for birthdays or major celebrations?

When he was on the east coast he was with them on their birthdays and at celebrations and special events — this was very important to all of them.

So there wasn't much of a plan.

There really wasn't much of a plan, frankly. He was difficult to communicate with. There was hardly any reason to believe anything he would say would really come to pass so I didn't really count on that.

What do you remember your children or your stepchildren saying to you?

I think they were conflicted and didn't want to take sides. Initially my son was very angry with his father.- I think it hurt him to see me so unhappy. But neither of my children said very much then. Now both children talk more about their feelings around the time of the separation. .

What did they say, in terms of the divorce affecting their own lives? Did they worry about anything?

Not at the time so much but afterwards. Both of them later said that their parents were not there when they needed them. They said it at different times and in different ways.

My son had difficulty in high school and was going to a private school. My daughter who also didn't like the public high school she was going to said something like: Do I have to act out to get some attention here? I want to go to private school too. She didn't say it in so many words but that is what she was trying to convey to me.

I thanked her for calling my attention to this, because I really depended on them telling me what they needed, because I wasn't able to really tune into them. She wasn't having a good experience in her school and nobody was taking care of her, so she really needed to take care of herself and she just took that initiative. She has always been an independent kid. She was the younger of the two children.

What my son said was that at a time in his life when he should have been moving away from his mother; he couldn't. He was feeling a degree of obligation and genuine compassion for me and was unable to just move on. He was quite articulate about that.

Was there anything that surprised you in how your kids dealt with the divorce?

Not really. Years later I have heard from my daughter how much she missed my presence and how angry she was at me for not being able to take care of her needs as she saw them. I certainly understand her point of view and my point of view was that I always did the best I could. Her dad was not present; I was the one who was always there.

As someone who grew up without a dad, I felt at times that my mother was both mother and father. It left me feeling like I missed the kind of the care that I wished for at times. When you have to take over both roles, something always comes up short doesn't it?

Yes it does. I had a job that demanded a lot of my attention.

Looking back, what as the most difficult thing for you to manage being divorced and being a parent to your children.

There were practical issues. I had a job teaching. I was emotionally devastated by losing that trust in our relationship upon learning of the the years of deception. So I went into analysis. I also had a good friend who could be there for my daughter mainly when I was not that available. My friend and my daughter had a connection. My daughter could go over to her house and be there. She didn't take much advantage of it but it was nice to know that my friend was there. Going into analysis turned out to be a very good thing otherwise I would have "used up all my friends".

In what sense?

In telling them story to them over and over. I was pretty emotionally caught up in regurgitating the story over and over again to figure it out; to see what kept me from knowing more, and being more honest with myself about what was really going on for a long time. How much did I really know but didn't want to know? How much did I really not know?

But I would like to go to the beginning about the whole idea of separation and divorce and the profound effects it has on the couple. In divorce, there is an element of profound disappointment that cannot be underestimated. We use the word disappointment as if was a simple thing, but it isn't at all simple, it's a deep kind of a grieving for what might have been.

I know what you mean. You go into a marriage thinking that your life will be a certain way and one day it turns out it hasn't matched up to that thought. You include your idea of children within that profound disappointment don't you?

Sure, there is also an element of shame that it didn't work. I felt exposed and that it was very public. Certainly at work it wasn't something that I talked about. It felt like a secret in a way and it felt painful. As much as I know the outcome was inevitable there was still an element of: What could I have done? What should I have done? All of those kind of questions.

For me the question was: "Was it really that bad? ". Especially seeing my child's sadness.

Yes, in my case it was. When we went to see the counselor about what to tell the kids about our divorce, one of the interesting questions that came up was:
When did you have some doubts about this marriage?

I knew before we got married at some level. We were going to get married and didn't know where we were going to live or what we were going to do. This was the 1974. Picture the times, Woodstock and all that. We decided to get a tent so we could have a roof over our heads wherever we wound up. Buying the tent wasn't good enough so we decided to make our own and we could not decide on how to make it. So he made his side and I made my side and we realized they didn't fit together very well. Now, was this a metaphor for a marriage that shouldn't have been or what?

Did you do this as a compromise?

I guess so. We really didn't think very much.

With hindsight, is there anything that you would have done differently?

If I could have done anything differently, I would have been more assertive and direct in expressing my confusion and anger. I probably would have gotten divorced long before I did. There was much more than I was aware of, a sense of things not being the way that they appeared. I was unwilling to really deal with how scared I was at the prospect of getting divorced. I remember about ten years before, sitting at a bus stop waiting for my son and making a list of the pros and cons of separating from my ex- husband. In retrospect I wonder, what was I thinking? What was I doing?

When you looked at that list do you remember if there was a side, which was longer than the other?

Again, right at the top of the list was the relationship with my stepchildren. I was very concerned about that. I think it might have been better for everybody if we would have ended the marriage earlier.

You have talked some about what how your kids experienced the divorce. What do you think they would say today about that? Do you think they know that you did the best you could do?

I have a very different relationship with my son than I do with my daughter. They see those years, and my response to them, and who I am now, very differently. I don't know how much my daughter not calling me back a lot today, is related to her feeling that I wasn't there when she needed me to be there then. She is the kind of kid who gave out mixed messages and when she was upset would say: "Leave me alone" and go into her room and close the door. And I would leave her alone. Years later she said I shouldn't have left her alone. She wanted me to pursue her more.

What would you advise your own children or a friend if they were considering a divorce in which children are involved? What would you say to them?

I guess to be real and honest. I would tell them to take the time you need for yourself. But also push yourself a bit, to be sure to give the children the time that they need. And expect to feel really lousy for a while. I'm amazed still at how much my own worldview continues to be affected by the circumstances of the divorce and the fact of the divorce. For me it was a devastating feeling of disappointment..

And distrust?

Yes distrust. There is that too. You don't trust your own perception and it's a tremendous feeling of loss, the loss of potential.