I’m sure there are boatloads of self-help books on how to properly discuss divorce with your kids. Books, pamphlets, YouTube tutorials, old Dr. Phil episodes chock-full of special instructions on how to have The Divorce Talk with adult children, teens, pre-teens, young kids, toddlers, embryos. I’m certain it’s all there for the newly separated or divorced to peruse as they zombie their way through that first traumatic year.
Hell, my ex gave me a book about divorce and children that probably covered it. But, for some reason, we never got around to having the actual talk with our kids. Our separation and eventual divorce happened so gradually it just never came up. He moved in with his mom during the first few months, but spent a lot of time at our house. When our 5-year-old asked why, we explained that just like she argues and needs a break from her 3-year-old brother sometimes, so do moms and dads.
By the time we made the decision to move into different houses, the kids were used to going from my home to staying with their dad at grandma’s, so the change didn’t seem to rock their little minds. Plus, we still hung out all the time. I helped my ex move into and set up his house and spent the first night there, and he did the same when it was time for me to move into my house. We then spent most of the summer together with the kids. Lots of sleepovers, trips to the public pool, dinners. Unsure if divorce was inevitable, we even hired a babysitter so we could do things together without our children.
For the most part, they barely seemed to notice that they now shuttled from one house to the other during the week. We treated it like an adventure, explained that two houses are better than one and aren’t they lucky that they have two homes with two playrooms and bedrooms full of toys and get to play with two sets of friends? We never called our new places “Dad’s house” or “Mom’s house” because we didn’t like how it sounded. The houses feel like they belong to our kids more than us, plus that terminology suggests a negative family divide when we still feel very much like a family unit, if restructured and relocated.
Eventually we realized divorce was inevitable and, when our daughter started kindergarten last year, we slipped quietly from a fun summer routine of togetherness into a new, more structured joint custody arrangement based around school, daycare, his writing schedule, and my new full-time job. Eight months after our divorce was final we still don’t say Mom’s house or Dad’s house. His home is “Millheim House” after his town and mine is “Boalsburg House” after the village in which I live.
Again, we contemplated having the divorce discussion but it felt even more unnecessary. Unnatural. At this point we’d been living separately for more than a year. They’re well aware we lead separate lives because we couldn’t make being together work. They know that we still love each other and will always love each other because we get to share parenting the three most excellent human beings ever created. So what more do kids at 6, 4 and 1 really need to know? Mom and dad live in separate houses but we still love you very much and nothing else is going to change.
Do we really want to introduce the big D word into their lexicon at this age when I am proud of how naturally we slid into our current state of family-ness? Wouldn’t talking about it make it more of A Thing instead of just a new reality they appear to have become accustomed to? Why scare them with that kind of discussion at such a young age when they already seem to have accepted the situation and moved on?
Sure, there are gut-wrenching moments when the older children miss their dad while with me and I feel guilt strangling my soul. All I can do is apologize that they’re feeling sad, talk about it if they need, love them hard, and FaceTime their dad. Thankfully, those moments pass and are becoming fewer and farther between as our sweet family soldiers forward in this new state of being.
To say something or not to say something? Up until recently I was still floundering when it comes to explaining to a 6-, 4-, and 1-year-old what exactly the new family deal is. Then, last week the kids and I took a walk around our neighborhood after dinner. My 6-year-old daughter and I somehow wandered into a discussion about love and marriage and people who love each other, and I don’t remember why but at some point she said to me, “Sometimes people break up, like you and dad. But they still love each other, like you and dad.”
I stopped. Stunned. How does she know about the term “breakup,” I wanted to know.
She shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly. “I dunno.”
She and I discuss all manner of things, including where babies come from and what it means to be gay and yet it was her discussing my “breakup” with her dad that prickled my armpits with sweat.
Here it was. The moment I’d been dreading since our separation a year and a half before; witnessing my child’s realization that mom and dad are no longer together. And wondering if maybe we had failed her in letting the nearly two-year ordeal take place in what we felt was a natural process as opposed to some sort of scary family meeting wherein we defined divorce.
“What does ‘breakup’ mean?” I asked my wise and wonderful 6-year-old daughter.
“That you and dad live in separate places now.” She tilted her head, squinting up at me in the fading sunlight.
“Yes. How do you feel about that?” I ran my hands through her springy curls.
“It’s good. Is dad going to find another girl?” I swallowed hard, her question a sledgehammer to my fragile heart. I noticed Henry, my 4-year-old, is listening to the conversation.
“I hope so, baby. I love dad and want him to be happy and if he can find another girl that makes him happy I think that would be really great. Don’t you? A person who could become a part of our family, another person to love and who loves you.”
She thought about it for barely a second before nodding yes and then immediately began speculating on whether the dog the man headed our way was walking was a terrier and if so, what kind.
Well then. Okay. Good talk, kid. Good talk. Do you have any tips on dating after divorce, my wise and wonderful daughter? Mommy could use some advice …