Here is my recent piece on HuffPost. Most families have some link to the military. Here are some thoughts about stepfamilies as we near Memorial Day.
After the legal ink has dried, many separatedparents find useful ways to talk with each other and ways to talk about their kids. We may get to an easy rhythm about talk as we get them through high school, and maybe college. But, at some point they go off into their own lives (maybe a bit later now, given the economy). They become FORMER CHILDREN and we become FORMER PARENTS. As former parents and, as separated parents, we have less contact with each other too.
When we talk with our grownup kids we can’t rely on the habits of the talk between parent and younger child, which often has the “perfume of power” around it. If I can’t be the wise, comforting Mommy, who can open a wallet, who am I? I struggled with this for a long time. I felt that I was leaving my daughter, my son in some fundamental way if I considered myself a former parent or them as former children. I wanted to be close and connected. The “perfume of power” didn’t cut it anymore. We needed to talk as “mostly peers” now.
As my kids went into marriage and their own lives as parents, I fumbled along and gradually learned to have those adult conversations. Now I see that I’ll always be their mother, older, occasionally wiser and ready to be available in that supportive, soothing way they sometimes need. And that I have to keep learning about how to talk with them so they will listen – and how to listen so they will talk.
In the years of learning how to do the adult talk I’ve missed the contact with their father about how they were doing and their joys and sorrows. We had contact but not the same kind as parents of young kids. His wife is very involved with the kids’ family life and growing numbers of children. We are grandparents together. But we three didn’t talk together about the families.
And then, this summer, after the kids and grandkids rolled through our lives for the usual vacation stays we just happened to have a lovely phone call. It was less about the details of our children’s families and more about this question of how to talk to adult children.
Fortunately we discovered there are three wonderful books to guide us. Ruth Nemzoff has written Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). Nemzoff, a leading expert in family dynamics, helps parents understand how to create close relationships with their adult children, while respecting their independence. Based on personal stories, this very readable book shows parents how to 1) communicate at long distances, 2) discuss financial issues without using money as a form of control, 3) speak up when disapproving of an adult child’s partner or childrearing practices , 4) handle adult children’s career choices or other midlife changes and 5) navigate an adult child’s interreligious, interracial or same sex relationships.
The other two books are by DeborahTannen, bestselling author of You Just Don’t Understand : Women and Men in Conversation (HarperCollins 1990). She’s now written two wonderful books about other kinds of adult conversation. The full titles tell of the delightful and important messages.
You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation (Ballantine Books, 2006) and I Only Say This Because I Love You: Talking to Your Parents, Partner, Sibs, and Kids When You’re All Adult (Ballantine Books, 2001).
Having adult kids keeps you on your toes. My friends as I often wonder whether our own parents – of the 1950s variety – spent so much time trying to learn new ways of relating to us.
Since the book – Wisdom For Separated Parents – has been published I’ve had some coverage by local Boston TV and radio and have contributed to The Huffington Post.
When talking about separated parents, one always bumps up
against the limits of the traditional language that the culture and
media have used. Our family forms outpace our language.
Families don’t break, they change.
Many of the parenting books I’ve read over the years have bemoaned the language of “ex” and “broken” but have not proposed a different language.
I am proposing new terms: “untangling” and “rearranging.”
These words describe what actually happens as parents move through separations and divorces and on to the next parts of their lives.
Adult children, the extended family and friends will be relieved to let go of the language of conflict. The new language more accurately reflects the kinds of families we all know.
“I did want him to fall off the edge of the earth at one point. It was going to be much easier if he just disappeared. But now, I can’t imagine not having contact with him. Every time there is a passage and these kids seem to have made it to the other side, we can connect. There’s really great tenderness around our parenting. And on Father’s Day, there’s nobody else I could have imagined raising my sons with. He’s a remarkable father.” (married 1979, separated 1987, divorced 1987, interviewed 2006)
The conventional wisdom fixes family change at the moment of public separation. But the people I interviewed for my book, Wisdom for Separated Parents, did not focus on the moment of separation or the day in divorce court. They wanted me to understand the smaller separations that led to their formal separation and divorce. Marriages usually don’t end in a big moment.
Divorce is not only a single legal event. It is a chain of relocations and shifting relationships. Rearranging is a more accurate word.
All families rearrange in large and small ways to accommodate growth and change. Throughout history, fathers went to war and died. Mothers died in childbirth. Families rearrange as they include in-laws, grandchildren, and aging relatives. It is no different for parents who have separated. They simply rearrange at two different addresses.
These words give a definition to the web of these continued connections and keeps children at the center of the connection, not as the remnants of something “broken.” As parents continue to care for their children they will be able to talk and think about success as parents rather than failure of marriage. “Untangling” and “rearranging” are words that support transition, not division.
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)
All separated parents have some kind of relationship with each other. As they move apart as lovers and former spouses the space between them is often filled with anger and sadness. Caring for the children is the primary point of contact. They may do that with lots of struggles.
Popular notions about separated parents focus on the first stages of separation and divorce – the space filled with anger and/or sadness. That’s the picture as they walk down the courthouse steps. They have big feelings moving into unknown futures-apart.
They go on to create new lives for themselves but the daily needs of children keep them bumping into each other. School plays, soccer games, birthdays, holidays, questions about camps and changing finances-fill the space between them. They thought they were getting away from each other and slowly recognize that having children together keeps them tied for life.
As years go by and the kids grow up and legal ties end, connections between separated parents continue to change. The space that was once filled with the energy of anger, abandonment and sadness can change. Anew, more benign energy can fill that space. This is the secret about separated parents. Their relationships continues and feelings continue to change.
The myths about separated parents leave them in those angry/sad early places. How their relationships change over time has often been well under the cultural radar and has not often been the focus of journalists and researchers.
I’ve been talking with parents separated for 10, 20 and even 40 years and want to share their stories. I hope this blog will help dispel the myths of continued struggle. Many separated parents come to cordial connections and are surprised by recognizing they are more than exes, they are kin.
“I did want him to fall off the edge of the earth at one point. It was going to be much easier if he just disappeared. But now, I can’t imagine not having contact with him. Every time there is a passage and these kids seem to have made it to the other side, we can connect. There’s really great tenderness around our parenting. And on Father’s Day, there’s nobody else I could have imagined raising my sons with. He’s a remarkable father.”
(married 1979, separated 1987, divorced 1987, interviewed 2006)
Stay tuned for more thoughts and stories. Please add your thoughts and stories.