On my 42nd birthday last week, my divorced parents of 39 years helped me celebrate by having dinner with me. It was just my parents, husband, and kids (I have no siblings). It had taken 35 years for them to get to this point. I asked the waitress to take a photo to commemorate such a moment:
It sure had been a long time coming.
As we ate mussels and scampi at this cute seaside restaurant not far from where they separately live in Ireland, all I could think was, “Why has it taken so long to get to this point?’
My parents separated when my mom was pregnant with me and divorced when I was 3. My memories of my childhood are littered with disappointments and an overwhelming sense of guilt from trying to please them both while at the same time trying to keep the peace between them. At age 18, I escaped to England to attend college and never returned home for longer than two weeks at a time. I wanted to avoid the drama, angst, and stress that came with my warring families.
I always wondered why my parents couldn’t try to put their differences aside and maintain a civil relationship for the sake of their child. It would have made my life infinitely easier and also have made me want to be around them more, rather than running as far in the opposite direction as my feet could take me.
So, using my own experiences, here’s how I wish my parents had acted to make life easier on me, their only child.
1. School events: Make it a parents-only affair
My experience: A minefield. My dad would automatically assume my mom would attend all school functions and had to be cajoled into going to parent evenings to meet my teachers. They would then squabble in the corridors, culminating in my dad storming off. They just could not put their personal differences aside to focus on me. Often I hid letters about school events in my bag, rather than having to deal with the war of who would go to what.
How to do it: School events can be a headache, especially if you have new partners or spouses who expect to be brought along, but draw a line and insist that any kid-related school event is a parents-only affair. It isn’t about integrating families, it’s about you being the best and most interested parent in your kid’s education. End of story. Meet for a coffee beforehand to get any gripes out of the way and then plaster on fake smiles, if necessary. Be united in the one cause: your child. You want the best for them, so show the school your best self. It can be done.
2. Your kid’s dating life: Stick to the same ground rules
My experience: I was so worried about offending my dad by having my long-term boyfriend meet my mom first, that I decided to hide the whole relationship from them both. I became wildly secretive about any boys I dated. I wanted something that was just mine. That they couldn’t use as a weapon in their arsenal against each other, like my mom telling my dad, “You letting him sleep over in the house, even in separate bedrooms, is wrong,” or vice versa. It would become less about me and more about point scoring. So I told them nothing.
How to do it: Try and meet your kid’s date, but don’t encroach on their lives or take offense if the date has met your ex first. It makes no difference in the grand scheme of things. What you need to do is meet up and stick to the same ground rules.
Once again, put aside personal differences to focus on one thing: this new boyfriend or girlfriend who is making your kid happy! Hoorah! All that should concern you is that your teen is able to communicate with you about the relationship. And that includes even if they find talking to your ex easier. It doesn’t matter. They’re talking to someone and that’s the main thing. Teens have it hard enough without having the extra stress of worrying, “If I confide in my mom, will that make my dad feel excluded?”
3. Weekends: Don’t make it a competition
My experience: I stayed living with my mom’s ex-boyfriend after they split up. It was the sanest place to be: an oasis that my parents couldn’t touch. I saw both my mom and dad, but often their anger for each other (or this ex of my mom’s) became so consuming that they weren’t able to listen to my needs at all. They took things personally rather than trying to understandwhy I liked staying at my mom’s ex-boyfriend’s home.
How to do it: So your kid grows up spending one weekend with you, one with your ex. Then they become a teen and suddenly they want more time at mom’s house (or dad’s) because their boyfriend lives next door. Don’t take it personally. They’re just spreading their wings and gaining independence. Try to understand why they want to make the choices that they do and try to be flexible. It isn’t a competition about who has the better house/bigger fridge/more relaxed curfew rules, it’s about adapting as your kid grows up and listening to their needs.
4. Birthdays and Christmases: Take turns
My experience: On my 18th birthday, I decided against a party because my parents couldn’t agree on how they would pay for it. My mom often said, “Ask your dad for money, he has it.” Likewise, my dad would retort, “Ask your mother for money, she runs a hair salon.” This meant I usually did without the tennis racket, gym shoes, or whatever else I needed at the time, as they were always too busy arguing over who would pay for it.
Their childishness made me suffer. Christmases were the worst, as I ate two Christmas dinners, was inevitably picked up too early by one parent, and spent the whole day feeling guilty I wasn’t with the other. It was miserable. I truly think this is one of the reasons I’m not a big fan of Christmas, even to this day.
How to do it: The best solution for a birthday is that you try to see your kid together. (See: my fabulous 42nd birthday above!) If you can stomach each other even for just a meal, then that’s great! If not, take turns: one year your kid has dinner with dad on their birthday, the next year with mom. Or if it’s on a weeknight, then they celebrate on that day with whomever they live with, and then celebrate with the other parent on the weekend.
As for Christmas: again, take turns. Don’t make your kid eat two lunches just to fit you both in. Be civil. Maybe one year a grandparent is ill and so you have to swap. Maybe bad weather stops your kid from traveling at all. Just remember it isn’t about you getting your perfect Christmas. It’s about understanding that obviously you both want to see your kids on Christmas day, but that it’s just ONE day and there will be many, many others.
Don’t make your kid choose. Talk to your ex to draw up a plan, and don’t play vile games to get your way. No one wins when your kid is unhappy and feeling guilty, least of all you.
5. Vacations: Focus on your kid’s needs, not your own insecurities
My experience: Actually this was one area my folks did OK in. They couldn’t afford many fancy vacations, so I never had to choose between who to holiday with. Often in the summer holidays, I went to stay with my dad, as he lived closer to my friends.
How to do it: So you want to take your kid to France and your ex has plans to go to Spain at the same time. Talk. Reason, negotiate, and work out a solution. There is always a solution. Never make your kid feel bad if they decide that rather than spend a week in some cold, wet caravan in Wales, they want to vacation with dad in Portugal at his luxury villa.
Yes, it is a hard pill to swallow when your ex has all these fancy-pants houses, holidays, gifts, etc. for your kid, but think about the kid, not your insecurities. Kids don’t love a parent more because they buy them cool stuff or take them on exotic holidays, so why should they miss out just because you feel inadequate? Again, this is about them - not you.
6. College and graduation: Be there - end of story
My experience: When my mom dropped me off at college in London, my dad took very little interest, merely asking what it would cost him. I felt disappointed that he wasn’t more engaged about where I was going to study for three years. I felt even more disappointed when the three years ended and he refused to come to graduation, wanting to avoid spending a day with my mother.
How to do it: This is it, people. Your kid is off into the big world, and it’s your last chance to show them that you can be a grownup! Being united at a time that is very unnerving for your kid will make so much difference. Help them with their choices, support them if they don’t make the grade, and try to understand their decisions.
Dropping them off at college and stepping away is a momentous moment. Don’t you want to be there? And likewise when they graduate. This is about them (the over-riding message here), so stand back and marvel at the great person you have raised, and together, send them on their way.
8. Your kid’s wedding day: Remember, it’s their special day - not yours
My experience: My dad called me up a few weeks before I got married and said he wouldn’t make a speech if my mom’s ex-boyfriend was invited. I cried, stressed, and then decided: so be it, I’ll make a speech myself. My dad argued with me about what he would contribute financially, so I decided to take out a loan to pay for the wedding breakfast. In the end, he agreed to pay for it, but the stress and worry I had about how to have our wedding was something I never want my kids to have to go through.
How to do it: Agree in advance how much (if anything) you want to contribute and stick to it. Don’t make the funds come with obligations.
Next, make sure your kid knows that as long as you’re there, it doesn’t matter where you sit or what role you play in it all. There is so much stress that comes with organizing a wedding, the last thing they need is to worry about whether you can cope with seeing your ex or how offended you’ll be if you don’t have a starring role. Put on your best self and be gracious and lovely to all, no matter how many years you’ve held grudges.
Remember: it’s their special day. Revel in the fab kid you’ve helped produce and how happy they are. Celebrate that. All the rest? Shove it in a big box marked “not for today.”
9. Grandkids: Share, share, share
My experience: Well, they have been the salvation of all. When my son was 4 months old, I got a job presenting a TV show in Ireland and had to fly home every weekend with him. As I worked, my family minded him, and you know what? They all took turns dropping him off and picking him up, and THEY ACTUALLY SPOKE. They made peace over his fluffy baby head. The relief I felt was incredible. Now we can spend Christmases and other events together, and they just dote on my kids. It has been a revelation.
How to do it: Share, share, share. How amazing that you now have these little people in your life. It is time to bury the past and look to the future: they are right there, toddling in front of you. Your kid has gone on to parent, and they are looking to you for guidance. So the way you behaved with your ex or your new partner is what they will now be emulating. Moreover, they’re passing it on to the little people they’ve created.
This is the time to REALLY step up for your kids if you haven’t before. Give them a break, spend time with your gorgeous grandkids, and thank your lucky stars you are alive to see them. Life is too short, isn’t it?
And finally, the most important rule of all: it isn’t about you.
If you want your kid to grow up well-adjusted, happy, secure, and confident, then don’t make them a pawn in your war. Don’t badmouth your ex, don’t make your kid feel guilty about their choices, and ALWAYS make them the main focus. No matter how much your ex hurt you or how vile the divorce was - it’s irrelevant.
As long as they are being a good mom or dad, that is all that matters.
Sure, it isn’t easy holding your tongue, compromising, or watching your ex move on with a new partner while you raise three kids alone. All of it doesn’t come with a guidebook. Every day there is a new curveball coming at you at high speed. But take it from me: don’t let your kids suffer because of your broken-down relationship. If you can be the bigger person, your kid will appreciate it more than you will ever know.
From someone who saw all the wrong ways, I only wish that my parents had had this list when I was growing up.
Do you have any rules for divorced parents you’d add to this list?