After Divorce: Staying Connected When You Are Apart (Part 2)
“The more children are connected to both parents and to their larger families, the more they can leave home in a healthy way. The more they have their parents in their hearts, as individuals, family and tribe, the more they have themselves.” Miriam Galper Cohen, author of The Joint Custody Handbook.
Children of divorce, who go back and forth between their parent’s homes, are often called ‘travellers’. When I ask traveller children, ‘What is hardest about going back and forth between two homes?’ they all tell me, ‘When you are with your mom, you miss your dad, and when you are with your dad, you miss your mom.’ They also talked about missing their step or half siblings and their pets that they must leave behind when they go back to their other home and their other family.
Most adults would consider it a hardship to live a life that demanded that they go back and forth between two homes, yet young children are expected to take it in stride. Children of divorced parents don’t get a choice about living the ‘traveller’s’ life. They have to become ‘travellers’ because they love, need, and want to be connected to both their parents.
Children of divorce don’t only travel back and forth between two ‘homes’, they travel back and forth between two ‘worlds’. In her pioneering book, Between Two Worlds – The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, Elizabeth Marquardt points out that children of divorce have to do more than figure out how to live in two different homes. Many children must cope with figuring out how to live two in completely different lifestyles, under different rules, while trying to figure out two different, even conflicting, sets of values.
One of the hardest parts of being a child who travels back and forth between two homes is that most adults don’t talk openly about how stressful travelling between two homes can be. Marguardt uses the term ‘happy talk’ to describe they way our culture denies the extra challenges that children of divorce face. Many of the books written for children of divorce have a cheery tone intended to reassure children and convince them that having two homes can be twice the fun. While reassurance is important, children also need to hear honest talk about the challenges of going back and forth so their struggles and stresses are validated.
Until we acknowledge and validate the pain, loss, and struggles children experience during and following divorce we can’t provide the support they need to heal from their loss and the resources they need figure out their new life. I consider Marquardt’s book, Between Two Worlds, to be required reading for all parents and adults who are committed to understanding and supporting the children in their life who are dealing with divorce.
It is not the purpose of this article to make divorced parents feel guiltier. More guilt does not serve us as parents or our children. My goal is to provide information and resources to empower all of us to better support divorced parents in meeting the special emotional needs of their ‘traveller’ children so children can have the strong connections they need with both their parents and both their families.
Children of divorce need their parents and their other adults to understand how their lives are different from the lives of children who live in intact families. Children of divorce are more at risk of not having their emotional needs met, because they often deny their own needs to try to take care of their parents’ emotional needs. When children are taking care of their parents’ emotional needs they are not free to just be children and express their own needs. Once we are aware that children do this we can give them the extra support they need so they do not loose their childhood to the divorce.
Different children need different things and all children need different things at different ages. One size custody arrangements do not fit all families or all children. Rather than just automatically interpreting joint custody to mean 50/50 everything, all the time, for everyone, we can support parents in being more flexible and creative in developing custody arrangements that meet the needs of their individual children.
While we may not be able change the fact that many children must travel between two homes, we can change how well we support children in travelling between their two worlds. We can:
- talk more openly about their challenges
- listen to, validate, and accept their feelings
- make filling their love cup when they are with us a high priority
- stay connected when they are not with us
- be more flexible about schedules and individual needs
- work harder at developing consistent rules and routines.
Travelling between two homes, two families, and two lifestyles is challenging for children under the best of circumstances. It is vital to children’s wellbeing that we support divorced parents in creating the ‘best of circumstances’ so families can stay connected even when they are apart.
Between Two Worlds – The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce by Elizabeth Marquardt
Families Apart – Ten Keys to Successful Co-Parenting by Melinda Blau
Connection Parenting by Pam Leo
The Kids First Center 222 St John St. Portland, Maine 207-761-2709
Visit Pam Leo’s website.