Here we are at the season of graduations. Separated parents will know why I’m talking about possible nightmares. Whether it graduation from kindergarten, high school or college, a graduation may be the first formal gathering after a parental separation/divorce.
Parents may be solo or with a new significant partner. Where does everyone sit? Both parents may be civil to one another or even friendly but new partners may not understand friendliness between former partners – or want to be that cozy in such a public setting.
Marie Hartwell-Walker has written a wonderful short piece: Graduation Day: A Primer for Badly Divorced Parents at http://www.parentadvisor.net/. She’s given lots of wonderful advice about how to prepare for new ways to be together.
Once you’ve had kids together there are plenty of family gatherings – other graduations, weddings, births, funerals – that bring separated parents together again. In fact, new opportunities come at those times of gathering, opportunities to see each other and life choices through new lenses. When you see the pride and love your former partner feels, a more benign energy can develop that helps soothe old hurts and angers and feelings of abandonment.
All separated parents can learn how to honor the accomplishments of their children so that graduates feel truly honored and not spun back into the old tensions of the separation.
But the first time of gathering is full of uncertainty and tension for everyone. Parents and their new partners can learn to be proud together by noticing what works and what doesn’t. My favorite line about trying new things is – you don’t have to know what to do – just don’t repeat something that hasn’t worked before.
Most people think of joint custody as a pretty standard way to think about caring for children when parents are separating. It wasn’t always the standard. In long ago history father’s “owned” children. And in more recent history, laws favored mothers as the primary custodian, with limited visiting rights for the father. As late as 1977 mental health journals encouraged children to remain with only one parent, usually the mother, suggesting that it was “too confusing” for children to have access to both parents.
In the 1970s James Cook separated and asked the court for shared custody. The judge in the case told him that was not possible. So James Cook formed a coalition and worked to enact, in 1980, the California law making joint custody the first preference for separating parents. Joint custody is now the first preference in most of the United States.
In the 30 years since the California law was enacted, there is ample evidence to suggest that parents and kids can grow into new kinds of family. After separation, connections are untangled and rearranged around the children with incredible variety. We’re Still Family: What Grown up Children Have to Say about Their Parents’ Divorce (Constance Ahrons, 2005) is based on interviews with adults who made up the original study group for The Good Divorce her hugely popular book from the 1990s. She found that 75 percent of those children, now adults, were positive about the impact of their parents’ separation and divorce. The key to the positive feelings is how parents related to each other after the divorce.
Knowing more about the long history of parents and children after separation can be fascinating. Separated parents untangle and rearrange relationship with each other as kids graduate and marry and have their own families.
Hurray for the people like Mr. Cook. He died this year at 85. He helped shape legal ways to support families who wanted to continue to be connected in new ways.
“We couldn’t talk to each other. Well, we talked because we still had to talk about the kids. It wasn’t cozy. It was civil. I don’t remember ever not being able to talk about the kids. That was just unquestionable. We put the grownup anger aside. We’re friendly now. I wouldn’t say we’re close. You know, in a very strange way I love her. I still love her. But I’m not comfortable with her.”
(married 1974, separated 1995, divorced 1998, interviewed 2006)
This is a guy who, in 2005, showed up on his ex-wife’s doorstep on Mother’s Day with a bouquet of flowers and some loving words about how much he appreciated her as the mother of his kids. They had struggled about time and money for many years. But, suddenly, in 2005 he made this gesture. He wasn’t able to say why it happened just then. He just changed in his notions of how to connect with her. She was surprised and touched.
In my nearly 30 years of professional experience as a marriage and family therapist, I have heard countless family stories about such changes. Parents feel a respectful caring and shared pride in continuing to parent. They no longer are at war or desperately abandoned.
I have been a separated parent for 35 years and there have been lots of changes. My family was never “broken.” It changed.
That phrase – “broken family” – haunted us all. The peak of divorce was in the early ‘80s and parents who separated then were pioneers in changing notions about family and parenting and separation.
As a family therapist and a separated parent I wanted to know more about other parents who had lived that long history. I began to talk with friends and former clients. I chatted with anyone willing to share their story about ties to an ex-partner. The men and women I spoke with wanted to tell me how their relationships untangled and then rearranged over many years. They felt like successful parents rather than exes. And when the grandchildren began to arrive they knew they were kin.
“I think it’s because of the children. Just because you get divorced does not mean you end the family. Just because you have your differences and you are not a couple anymore does not have to affect those kids negatively. They see that you’re adults and can take care of your own problems and laugh and talk together.
(married 1969, separated 1992, divorced 2000, interviewed 2006)