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Talking to the kids

A different kind of normal
by Daphne Strassmann

Why it is important to ground your kids in the reality of divorce

When kids talk

It is awkward to have a polite conversation that centers around divorce. "What do you do for a living?" is a question we are used to answering well. Things are different when the topic of divorce comes up. The person with whom you are speaking will probably struggle to give you an appropriate response. There are probably some Hallmark cards with the right wording for the divorce occassion. But without the card in your hands a casual conversation about divorce can be tricky to handle gracefully. An adult could replace awkwardness with a sympathetic sentiment such as: "Geez, I am sorry to hear that!" But what does a child say to another child when the topic is divorce?

“ Even though things will be different now, one thing will stay the same
Both of us will always be your parents, and both of us will always, always love you just as much as ever.”

— a Hallmark card

Imagine your child saying "my parents are divorced" to a classmate. What kind of reaction will they get? Adults can be more sophisticated and stumble, somewhat gracefully, through these conversations. On the other hand, children of divorced parents will elicit a completely different type of conversation.

You child might get questions from other kids that sound like: What is divorce? or Is your dad still your dad? or Is your mom going to divorce you too? How come your parents got a divorce? Do you have to live in a different house? Is your dog coming with you? Can I divorce my older brother? These kinds of questions can be an overwhelming burden for a child when they are not prepared.

My daughter was confused about how her dad and I would get a divorce. After all her parents had already been living apart for a long time. She was five and rightfully perplexed by this idea that someone has to make family matters "legal". Even for adults it is a delicate concept to identify the exact moment when a separation becomes a divorce. Is it when one of the spouses moves out? Is it when one of the parents files for a divorce? Is it when you go to court and the judge pronounces the marriage over? For children how a parent experiences the separation is just one more piece of information they need to understand for their own stories.

My stepdaughter so impressed with the prospect of a new step family by her dad and I marrying, thought the only thing missing was a step-dad. She figured the best way to get one and complete the 'set' was to have my daughter's dad be her new step-daddy. Life gives us head-smacking moments when we understand something in an obvious way. It is difficult to have those moments unless we make a concerted effort to check in with our kids and to point out what might seem obvious to us. At times I had my divorced parent radar out and pointed out to my daughter: "Look honey, Suzy's parents are divorced also." Or, "Do you know if Jimmy is with his dad or his mom this weekend?"

Children will be equipped to answer questions if they own language or understanding of how their lives have changed due to divorce. To children, what they experience is fact, what they see or hear around them is what they will take in and maybe respond to when prompted.

Misery loves company — Where do we sign up?

Nowadays being a parent can be daunting task and divorce amplifies the responsibility. In most places of a divorced parent's life something will have to be redefined and reassessed. Ideas and beliefs about family, marriage and responsibilities will be shaken at their core. Life, as we divorced parents know very well, changes forever.

Divorced parents are a complicated entity. There are many combinations of households with divorced families. Some divorces result in businesslike arrangements in handling the kids. Many divorces result in a friendly and effective parent connection for the kids. Other divorces are an endless continuation of a dysfunctional marriage litigiously arguing every step of the way. No matter what type of relationship you have created with your ex, the challenges are the same. We should want to be there for our children. We should want to see them through their feelings and changes. A parent going though a divorce battles with constant push-pull keeping their emotions and perceptions in check, while doing the same for our kids.

If we agree with statistics on divorce we should believe that divorced parents are not alone. There is a an unconscious comfort in knowing we are not isolated as we face the world and your children face theirs. If divorce statistics are correct and our misery has a lot of company then our children should be able to see their experience reflected in many others around them. But how? How can the label of a child who comes from a divorced family be normalized? How do they experience a 'different kind of normal'?

My child has been going to school in our community in both private and public institutions. I expected that the 50 plus percent divorce rate in the USA I keep hearing about would be represented. Instead, what I saw looked more like 10% of any of her classrooms. When I have asked parents or educators about why there aren't more divorced families represented, some theorized that economic reasons make some divorced parents go elsewhere in search of more affordable housing. Other theories went that there were more second marriages or families heading towards divorce in the classroom mix. Regardless of what the true numbers are in your child's environment, there are lessons to learn and gear to figure out.

A new lexicon to match the reality

No matter how much we hear about divorce we are still at a loss of what language to use. In her book, The Good Divorce, a book based on her longitudinal study of family relationships after divorce, Constance Ahrons, PHD asserts the idea of using healthy language in what she refers to as normal family. She explains that language for families of divorce is clouded by negative perceptions. She uses the term binuclear family. "A binuclear family is any family that spans two households. Nuclear families have one nucleus, one shared household. Binuclear families split into two nuclei, two households, each headed by one parent. The family continues to be a unit even though it shifts from a nuclear structure to a binuclear one." Dr. Ahrons chose this term because, as she explains, she "wanted to normalize the families of divorce by putting them on the same par as nuclear families."

In my experience the vocabulary for kids, adults, and educators doesnŐt always reflect an understanding of divorced families. As parents we do the best we can and improvise the rest using whatever resources we get our hands on. We buy the self help books or talk to our therapists. Ultimately, we go out into society and arm our kids to deal with their identities as well as we can, but I believe we need to do more work to help us in this area.

When people do talk about divorce some are eager to share their experiences, good and bad. I know a man who heard about a new product designed for kids of divorced families. The product was a backpack designed to help them transition easily from one home to another. He thought this was a terrible idea because, in his words, "it would remind the kid they came from a broken home." The only thing I could imagine was: "Boy! You must have a horrible divorce story to tell". This person had concentrated solely on the pain of their divorce. Unfortunately that mindset skipped over the total picture, the 'story' of a child's life. Children of divorce should not be denied that part of their reality.

Of course, situations vary from case to case. Children will experience divorce differently with age being a factor. A child who was an infant or a toddler when a separation occurred will have a different experience than a child who was old enough to live the before and after of the divorce. Sooner or later both of these children will observe the difference between their own family unit and that of their peers. Our kids need the words and tools to use when their life becomes a different kind of normal.

As the adults we need to shrink down to our child's level and see how they are processing what they observe. How is the divorce making sense to them? How are they explaining it to others? What do they hear you say? A friend told me she was surprised when her kids just 'assumed' she was divorced from their father because they had been separated for so long. When she started talking about the impending divorce to them, they were puzzled. These kids had lived through the hardest part of a separation and at some point separation and divorce became synonymous.

We need to find the right ways to help our children through the process of divorced life. We need to pay attention, not only with what they internalize, but how they express themselves to their peers and the world around them.

I am sure there are plenty of people who might disagree, and would be glad to tell me that I am promoting an extremist view that perpetuates the demise of the family unit. I am not advocating for normalizing divorce. I am advocating for normalizing the experience once divorce has happened. Your child needs to know that although they have two different homes, whatever sets them apart from a two-parent household are things which are 'normal' to their own situation. Within the intricacies of scheduling a kid's life between two homes the problems aren't that different than those in a non-divorced family. You might hear the same litanies from parents urging their kids to hurry up, or go to bed or eat their spinach and clean their rooms. The children's response will also be familiarly consistent and the teenage eye-rolling might even look the same.

Call me optimistic if you want, but I truly believe that most of us want to do the best possible job as parents. There will always be circumstances impairing how well we do our jobs and divorce will have blinding effects on a parent's judgement. If you manage to squint a bit, take a look around you. Your family is not alone in numbers; your newly defined family is not unique and isolated. Your children have friends and peers who have similar stories to tell. Your family is simply a different kind of normal.

Daphne Strassmann is a re-married divorced parent.
She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with her husband Steve. They have a new baby and share two children with other parents.