It’s been a long time since I last wrote a post. The truth is that I’ve had a rough time over the last few months, both emotionally and in terms of my physical health. For a while this blog felt like a pressure rather than the outlet it had come to provide for me – and whilst I have had plenty of ideas and inspiration for posts, I came to feel somewhat overwhelmed by the idea of writing and so I stopped.
However, one thing has remained. I have spoken at some length in this blog about my unhappy marriage and my decision to leave it, and one of my posts on this topic was featured on the NetMums website (http://netmumsblog.com/2013/11/18/guest-blog-staying-together-for-the-sake-of-the-children/) generating 1000s of extra hits for my blog. And what remains is this – the huge numbers of women, both friends and strangers, who contact me to tell me they too are in unhappy marriages. Many say they wish they could find the courage to leave, and many others tell me they have made the decision to end their relationships. Most of the women who contact me just want to tell someone what is happening in their lives and their heads, and I tell them that I’m happy to listen but am in no way qualified to give advice.
But the most common concern for these women is the effect the separation will have on their children. They want to know how to explain what is happening, and how to support their children through the early days. And this is an area where maybe I feel I can be of use. I am not a professional – I certainly am not qualified in child psychology, and there are probably dozens of “experts” whose advice is available on the internet and in books. However I am a mother who has supported her own children through a marriage breakdown. And I did find some specific ideas and techniques that I think could be of use to other parents looking to minimise their children’s pain and help them to make sense of their feelings.
And so that is the purpose of this post. To write down the things I and my children found useful when, nearly 2 years ago, I told them their father was leaving – in the hope that some of it will work for others. If you have any other suggestions for ways to support children through their parents’ separation, please do comment below so others can benefit from our shared experience.
1. Your children aren’t stupid
The chances are your children have been just as unhappy as you have. Whether they have been living in a house of anger and arguments, or whether they have been picking up on less obvious tension and wondering whether they need to decide on their own allegiances, you can be sure they have not been oblivious – even if they are very young. My twins were barely 3 when I ended my marriage, yet L’s immediate reaction when I told her was to say “Good, now I don’t have to listen to Daddy shouting at you any more”
2. Don’t try to make everything better
When our children are upset our automatic response is to try to fix it. It feels natural to say “Don’t be sad!” or “Please don’t cry!” as we wipe away their tears. But I realised that this is telling them the sadness they feel is not allowed. Everything seemed to change for L when I simply said “It’s OK to feel sad about this. It’s a very sad thing that’s happening. It makes Mummy feel sad too. Would you like a cuddle?”
3. Crying can help
It seemed to really resonate with L when I said: “It’s OK if you want to have a cry. Tears can wash away the sadness”. By suggesting the idea that crying could make her feel a bit better, it appeared to actually have that effect on her.
4. Use a good book
There are lots of books tackling the way a relationship break-down can affect a child, and I asked around for recommendations. One friend suggested “It’s Not Your Fault Koko Bear” by Vicki Lansky, and I’m so glad she did. It’s a great book for young children, and deals simply with the feelings Koko bear experiences when Koko’s parents separate. Halfway through the book there is a very useful page of questions to discuss with your child which can help them to talk about how Koko is feeling and, by extension, how they feel too. My suggestions in points 5 and 6 below were ideas that I developed from the Koko Bear book.
5. Show them you’ll always fit together
Using an idea from Lansky’s book, I told my children that when Mummy and Daddy got married we fit together like two pieces of a jigsaw. However as time went by our pieces stopped fitting so well and that’s why we didn’t want to be married any more. However the good news, I said, was that I would always be a perfect fit with both of them. I demonstrated this by each of us spreading the fingers of one hand and slotting them together like the joining of two puzzle pieces. In the early days of our separation, both J and L would often, and at random moments, ask me to check we still fit, and derived great comfort from seeing our fingers intertwine. It was a solid and physical way to reassure them that no matter what happened between me and their Daddy, they and I belonged together forever.
6. Have regular feelings-checks
Again, an idea I adapted from Lansky’s book was this way of showing that whilst we felt low and tearful in the early days, it wouldn’t always feel like that. I said “today we feel very sad, but next week we’ll feel a tiny bit less sad, and the week after that we’ll feel even less sad. Every week that goes by will be less sad than the week before, and one day we won’t feel sad at all”. Then each week, on the same day, we discussed the fact that we didn’t feel quite as sad as we had the week before. It seemed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy – I told them they’d feel a bit better next week, and lo and behold, that was indeed their experience.
7. Let them talk about it … but not wallow in it
L quickly caught on to the fact that saying she felt sad about Daddy meant instant cuddles and attention, and I had to learn to differentiate between the times she was clearly feeling genuinely low, and the times she was milking it a little. On these occasions I’d briefly remind her that she was feeling better than she had the previous week and then suggest a fun activity for us to do together. That meant she was still getting the Mummy-time she was clearly craving, but in a positive and happy way. The weekly feelings-checks meant there would always be a scheduled time to talk about how we felt – so J and L never felt I was dismissing them or trivialising their feelings … and of course when I knew she was genuinely experiencing a low-day I supported and comforted her as much as I possibly could.
8. Get family and friends using the same techniques
All of these ideas are well and good, but are of limited effect if they are not used consistently by the people who have significant input into your child’s life. In the early days of separation there was a day when the children were visiting my ex parents-in-law. L told them she was feeling sad only to be told not to be silly, and was then subjected to a crazy and overwhelming display of hand-clapping, “comedy” dancing and loud singing as a way of “cheering her up”. I had asked their grandparents to respond instead with “We know you’re sad darling, it’s OK to feel sad about this” but unfortunately stubbornness and ignorance prevailed from that side of their family. My parents, in contrast, provided a calm and loving environment in which their grandchildren could safely express their grief and worries. The difference in J and L’s emotional state when returning home from the different sets of grandparents spoke volumes.
9. Tell their school
The end of your marriage is a deeply personal and emotive experience, and the last thing you may want to do is share this information with a near-stranger when it is still new and raw for you. But your children cannot switch their feelings on and off, and cannot be expected to only express their sadness, worry and frustration at home. The support of the school will be invaluable to your child during the early days, and you can also ask their teacher to keep an eye on them and let you know how they are when you cannot be there to watch them yourself.
10. Accept that this will affect your children forever
J and L are immeasurably happier now we are a family of three instead of four. They very rarely even mention their father, and live a contented, safe and fulfilling life with me. They barely remember a time he lived with us – this is the only life they really know. And yet, over 18 months post-separation, L suddenly grew tearful one day and asked why all the other dads are nicer than hers. The following month J asked apropos of nothing why Daddy used to shout at Mummy. The pain of what he did to our family remains with them and probably always will. And so I have learned that part of my role as single mother is to continue to support my children through their journey of understanding and acceptance, and for them to always feel safe and validated in expressing their emotions.