Suddenly Single

Dear Mamas,

My husband and I recently divorced. He already has a new girlfriend and wasn’t around that much to begin with so I’m glad it’s over. But I ‘m worried about how to make it as a single parent. I feel guilty about the kids (7 and 10) missing their dad and also worried about having less time for them now that I’m working full time. They live with me but their father has visitation. Suggestions on how to keep things healthy and happy?

Thanks! Judi

Dear Judi,

So sorry that you’ve been going through a rough time. Divorce is hard on everyone for sure but as you know, kids suffer the most. Hopefully, your ex will be responsible about keeping close relationships with the children and providing for them financially as well as emotionally.

One of the most important things to tell them, right off the bat, is that the failure of your marriage had nothing to do with them. I can’t say this loud enough! I know it might seem silly to think that children would take responsibility for the fact that Mommy and Daddy got divorced but they often do, across the board and with frightening regularity. A good way to counteract this misunderstanding is to tell them often that they are so loved by both of you and that there was nothing they did to contribute to the break up and nothing they could have done to prevent it.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that little guys often end up in the middle of unresolved angry or resentful feelings between divorced couples. Although this happens way more often that anyone would want, I don’t think it’s usually a conscious or deliberate choice.

Instead, it typically results because two hurt, disappointed adults split with a lot of unresolved issues but still have to deal with each other frequently because of shared parenting responsibilities. Talking bad about the other parent, refusing to be flexible about special or unscheduled but important visits, not following through on agreed upon schedules for child care responsibilities, bringing kids home late or failing to pick them up on time are all ways that Mommy and Daddy keep the fight going. These behaviors are scary, hurtful and confusing for kids. It’s not fair and can cause a LOT of long term damage.

A good way for divorced parents to prevent this type of collateral damage to their children is to be super aware of how they talk about their ex and to make sure that they never say anything that could be heard as mean or blaming. It’s also vital to honor their parenting agreements and commitments regardless of what the other parent does.

Obviously this does not hold in the case of dangerous or blatantly irresponsible behavior on the part of the other parent but if you can pull it off, you’ll be teaching your kids how to take personal responsibility despite challenging circumstances. They will notice and appreciate how you handle yourself even if they don’t say a word. And hey, complaining about your ex is a lot more satisfying when you do it with your friends, anyway. Plus, they, being older and wiser, may actually be able to dole out some useful advice.

We all want to end up with healthy, happy adult children one day, right? Children of divorce can get there much easier if they don’t grow up feeling that in order to love and be loved by one means they have to hate or betray the other.

On the practical side, there a few things to keep in mind. One is to create and maintain structure in the form of schedules, rules and rituals. Predictability creates feelings of safety and security for kids. It also teaches valuable life lessons including a desire for order and promotes peace and a sense of well-being. Lots of bang for your buck there!

Lots of single parents feel guilty about their work taking them away from their kids. Don’t! Everyone needs to eat and have a safe place to lay their heads and that takes money! The good news is that your kids can and should step up to help more. It’s actually good for them. Don’t let your guilt about having to head out to the office each day seduce you into letting them off the hook regarding chores and reasonable expectations for behavior. They need (and love) that strong steady hand that guides them towards becoming responsible and competent people.

One of the traps that single, working parents often find themselves in is letting the kids stay up later at night in order to indulge their own desire to hang out with them. Not a good move because children really need their sleep in order to stay well and rock their own lives at school and with their buds.

But you can have special little rituals that you follow each night at bedtime that will ease some of your pain. Indulging in them will set a tone of togetherness and provide an opportunity for being close and cuddly. Anything like reading a book out loud for 15 minutes every night or talking and snuggling for 5 minutes once lights are out, or making tomorrow’s lunches together while talking about their day will go miles towards keeping your connection strong.

Don’t underestimate the power of these rituals. I remember reading about a single dad who suggested to his 10 year-old daughter that they challenge themselves to see how many nights in a row he could read to her. His wife had just left him and he was worried that he and his daughter would drift apart as she got older. He thought this nightly bedtime ritual might hold them together. The “streak,” as they called it, lasted until she went off to college! She says that it held her world together and was an extremely important part of her day and her life (take a look at them talking about it here).

Another way to ease the guilt of having to be away each day is to schedule a fun family activity to do together every weekend. These things don’t have to be expensive or exotic, just something interesting that the kids can to look forward to doing together with you. Baking cookies, going on a picnic, taking in a game at the local high school with pizza afterwards – anything that involves the two or three or four of you hanging out together in a relaxed way would work great. It’s the planning and looking forward to it that’s as important as the activity itself. And, of course, the consistency of ritual.

Last, but not least, make sure that you set aside some time each week for yourself. Every single parent really needs to have a few friends, neighbors, or family members that they can call on at any time of the day or night if need be. No one can “parent” alone. We all need to occasionally bounce problems and concerns off of someone else. We all need a reality check now and again and we all need to get a break from being Mommy once in awhile.

So there you have it. A few suggestions that I hope will ease your mind and help you take the first steps towards being a knock-out single mama.

Love and best of luck to you!

 

 

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.


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