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The New "Normal" - a post-separation family

Jason and I have been separated since January. We have had our ups and downs; but, have been able to keep Jackson largely unaware of our challenging moments. Things have been on a fairly even keel for the past few months and we seem to be getting a handle on the idea of co-parenting. In fact, we are comfortable with being around each other at the same gatherings and will even make a point of going to a gathering on our "off" night in order to have some additional time with Jackson.

Jackson let us know that this wasn't working all that well for him. The last time I attended a gathering when it wasn't a mama-night, Jackson told his dad that it was too sad for him to see me when it was a papa night because he did not like having to say goodbye to me and would have preferred to just play with his friends. I talked to Jackson about it a couple of days later and he said it was just too hard to not be able to stay with someone that he loved. We are so fortunate that he is so articulate and able to convey his feelings so well. I was heart broken; but, it isn't about me. Most of all, it hurts me to see that his dad and I have done something that has rocked his world to its core and are unable to "fix it" for him. I just want to take the hurt away from his little 4 1/2 year old heart.

So, a multifamily camping trip is coming up and it is not on a mama weekend. Jason and I have discussed it and decided that we are comfortable with both of us going. Obviously, we are going to talk to Jackson about it and make sure that he gives the idea the thumbs up. I am hoping that the idea of a whole weekend together, and not just a 2 hour drop-by, will make the difference to Jackson; but, I certainly don't claim to be able to read his mind. And, I don't want it to make it confusing (ie. Does this mean that mama and papa are going to live in one house again?).

I am wondering if anyone has experience with the post-separation family and how things worked for her/his family. Is anyone else going through these kinds of transitions? I'd love to hear about other separation/co-parenting experiences.

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All of you living in ONE household is really the best thing. It's a good idea for EVERY decision to be made, ask "what is the best for the child?" you might have to be "miserable" for a while. But it's really not so much about YOU and whether you "like" the other parent. That's what I would recommend. separation affects the little ones so profoundly negative. It truly does. I wish you the best.

My husband and I have been separated for close to a year now (the children are now 2 and 4). In light of kc's opinion, let me just say that living in one household was NOT WORKING FOR US AT ALL, whether from a parent-centered or child-centered perspective. No one was thriving under conditions of 24/7 conflict. Despite its challenges, evolving into a two-household family has been an enormous improvement for everyone. The kids absorbed the idea in a pretty matter-of-fact way. They recognize that Papi's apartment is also theirs, but not mine, and that Mami's house is theirs, but not his. My house is still the "primary" residence, and weekends alternate between the households. Since the kids spend weekdays in day care, this isn't as unbalanced as it might sound. We've also been flexible enough that sometimes I get to drop in on the kids at the apartment, my husband sometimes drops by to see them at my house, sometimes he takes extra overnights, and sometimes we still do brunches or other fun events jointly. Plus the phone contact back & forth is pretty constant. The kids usually cry for a few minutes after saying good-bye to one parent or the other, but then bounce back. They also tend to cry for one parent when they're mad at the other. On the whole, though, things really are working well, and the kids now have many more opportunities to see their parents at our best instead of our worst.

So that's been our experience, for what it's worth. Good luck to you!

KC, are you suggesting the OP stay in an unhappy marriage "for the sake of the child"? I think most of us that grew up in households with parents in an unhappy marriage might disagree with you.

To the OP, I don't really have any advice. It sounds like you and Jason are trying to be as sensitive to your son's feelings as possible. Just keep the lines of communication open and maybe enlist the help of a professional to help with the transition. It's a hard situation, no matter what. All you can do is continue trying to cushion the blow. Best of luck.

This is such a dicey topic. I think there's little grey area for folks on this one, we have either a black or white opinion and others have a black or white response. I was divorced pre-kids and certainly know the judgments people have on it, but I have to speak in support of kids here. I have to support KC on this one a little, at the risk of sounding judgmental. Our kids are little for only so long that setting aside our own stuff to raise them really should be considered. It takes two to keep conflict going and it's possible to tolerate quite a bit knowing that you're giving your children daily access to both of their parents raising them. If one person stops engaging in the conflict and starts putting the other partner's need first for awhile, it's amazing how that can change the dynamic and actually may help the other partner begin to do the same. It's not a matter of staying in an unhappy marriage for the sake of the children. It's making a conscious decision to accept your partner as they are, given that you chose them in the first place and decided you were committed enough to have kids together, for the sake of keeping your family together. It's not just for the kids. It's for parents to be able to divide the load together and share in the moments of joy that come with watching little ones grow. It's to protect your kids from having boyfriends and girlfriends and steps to have to deal with. It's to allow them to have one bedroom, with one set of toys, and one set of friends, and not to have to leave their house every weekend to go somewhere else. It's to keep your ability to have a say in their daily life that you will lose when they spend half the time somewhere else. Kids don't have to see only misery in this situation. They can see parents who made it a priority to keep their home intact. Maybe you can't be committed to making each other happy right now, but you can make a decision to be kind to one another, set your own needs aside and give the other person what they need for awhile and see if that brings them around. If you can't be a couple, figure out how to live in a multi-family home together or something so the kids don't have to say goodbye to one or the other all the time. I noticed you said seperated and not divorced. Maybe there's a possibility of rethinking the situation now that you've had a chance to get a feel for the down side of it all. I really don't want to add insult to injury with this post, but I can't not say anything about it. We all have to try so hard to keep our families intact if we're going to raise the next generation to do the same.

Erica, you deserve to be happy, just as Jackson does. As a child of divorce at aproximately his age, I don't remember anything about scheduling and locations, I just remember wanting more of my Dad. He disappeared into alcoholism. You and your husband just need to be there for him physically and emotionally, to reassure him that he's loved and cherished by both of you.

It seems like you two are doing a wonderful job managing this change tenderly. Don't take on the guilt of feeling like you should stay in a relationship that in your heart of hearts isn't working. I just don't see how this benefits anyone. Kids are smarter than that, they know when something's off. In the worse case scenario, staying in an uhealthy relationship could set a terrible example of what relationships are supposed to be like.

All of this doesn't address your questions/comments, I just wanted to offer support. If I was in your situation, I would probably want to check in with a counselor to make sure everyone's on the right track.

Good luck!

Erica - you and your husband are doing a FANTASTIC job! There will be hard moments, and your son will have his own heartache that you can't make disappear, but all the work you're doing to successfully co-parent will pay off over the long run. I am the child of two parents who stayed together WAY too long. It would have been so much easier on our whole family if they'd parted ways sooner, and we'd all adjusted and had time to grow into a separated family. Instead, they split when I was 13, and still weren't able to be in the room with each other by the time I left high school. I'd had a whole childhood with both parents together, so to have them split up when I was so much older rocked me to the core - and seriously affected my developing views on relationships and commitment. Anyway - I think you should just keep doing what you're doing! Listening to your son, never bad mouthing one another when your son is in earshot, showing him that you're both there for him, etc. I agree with Monica that checking in with a family counselor is a great idea. And don't let anyone criticize you for your very personal decision to part ways with your husband. They don't know the details, they don't know you, and it isn't fair to ignore your actual question and criticize the way you're structuring your life.

Anonymous, for those of us in marriages with ups and downs, that was a really inspirational post. Thank you.

I applaud you for sharing this personal part of your life. Its very difficult and each person will have a different answer. Most important is you know your child, but keep in mind maybe the camping will be confusing for him. I grew up with divorced parents and they made it a point to be at all the functions together and they were very kind to one another. That put me in therapy for years. I even told them that it was hard for me, but when you have both parents come up to you to ask if its ok, you end up feeling like the bad guy for saying no. I wished my parents kept boundries. It makes sense to have both parents at a graduation or your own birthday, but not at every friends party, play date, etc. I even made my husband promise not to do that if were ever to get divorced. Even thinking about it is painful to this day (i'm in my mid-30's). It can create for some kids a confusion on boundries. I can see that you love your son so much that you want him to be as painfree as possible, but he has already spoken about his feelings. It just feels like you aren't listening to him. Why put a child (especially a young child) in the position of choosing to let you attend. You know he will be hurt by having to tell you no and most likely he will say yes just to avoid hurting you. They may be little, but they want to protect us as much as we want to protect them.

I do think that getting therapy to help with transition is very healthy. I feel for what you are going through and its very clear you both want the best for your son. He is very lucky to have parents like you. Best of luck to you in a very difficult situation.

I kind of am agreeing with kc and anonymous. It takes two to keep the drama going. I don't think it's about being unhappy and miserable in front of the kids, I think it's about WORKING on this thing called marriage. I think people forget that there are ups and downs and as soon as hard times hit, they run. That may seem okay when there are no children, but with children, you really have to rethink things. It can't just be about "we don't like each other very much anymore so we're going to do what's best for US".

No disrespect, but once you have kids, one gives up that right to be selfish. Aside from spousal/child abuse I think there is always a way to keep a child's home intact.(therapy, counseling, the golden rule??)

The child may SEEM like they accept it all and it's all fine and dandy--but that doesn't mean that it is. Children in divorce situations WANT the parents to believe that they, the child is happy with everything, because they want to please the parents. And, even if the child is accepting of the situation, it is still not the best for them.

Poster, I'm sure you are trying to do what feels right for you. good luck.

Just my 2 cents as another single mama - Erica's post seems to be an attempt to connect with other mothers/families who can relate to the process of raising a child (or children) post-separation, rather than a call for advice on the decision of separating.

As a child of divorce myself, I personally disagree with the concept of staying together for the kids. I suppose it just doesn't make sense to me, won't evthough I certainly DO understand the benefits of a 2-parent home.

I simply want to state my support for families that decide a separation is the surest route to sanity and happiness. I also support those families that decide the opposite. I also feel that as the evolution of everything continues, relationships and families are no exception. It is up to us to make sure that our consciousnesses continue to evolve as well in order to keep up with culture/time/reality.

Erica- I think it is great that you are listening to your son, and ultimately that will be your biggest tool - as well as talking to other mamas/daddies in similar situations. Especially at this young age, these kids are remarkably honest about what's in their hearts.

I have been separated for 2 years and our formula changes often and constantly to accommodate everyone's lives and emotions and schedules, so for me a big lesson has been to realize that things aren't set in stone, and that I can be open to different ways of doing this.

Wow, what a subject, and I'm glad that people are dealing with it so sensitively. There seem to be two prevailing 'camps' of thought, and so of course what it really comes down to is that there is no 'right'!

My parents divorced when I was two, and almost every day of my childhood I was grateful to my parents for making that decision. My single memory of them together was of them arguing, and even at that age I was very conscious of how that got in the way of their being good parents. I never wished that they would just 'get over it' and focus their attentions on us -- as parents, we're people, too, and feeling happy, loved, and supported in our lives is every bit as important as making sure that our children feel the same. There are challenges enough to any decision without the woes of second-guessing the decisions that you feel you must ultimately make in your life. I always understood that my parents didn't get along, though they were sure to be civil and gracious, and my brother and I were made to understand that their feelings for each other did not affect their feelings for us, and I think that made all the difference in the world.

Sometimes I think that our culture of disposable marriage does lead to a kind of 'laziness' in the relationship arena, especially when coupled with our culture of fairy-tale endings, but it sounds like you and your ex have really tried and that now you are trying to make the best of an imperfect situation. I wish that all couples who split were as conscientious as you are being. I think that as long as you remain open and honest with your son he will be able to your best guide through the 'two-house' circus, and that in the end you won't be teaching him to disrespect marriage but rather to give every respect to himself and the people in his life, and that it is equally important to know when to let go as when to hold on.

Thank you for being such good parents, and thank you to all you other parents for weighing in on this delicate issue with such compassion!

As a child therapist, I encourage you to rethink the advice here about having your boy go to therapy. Therapy isn't a "normal" activity for kids his age and he'll come to it thinking he's done something wrong and that there's something wrong with him. I don't think that's the message you're wanting to give him. You and his dad are the people who should be doing the talking with him, not a stranger. Go to therapy for yourself to get ideas for how to approach situations with him if you want, but do think carefully about whether or not to send him. If he were a little older, I might agree with it, but not so at this age unless there's been some major trauma (abuse, etc) and his behavior begins to reflect difficulty dealing with it.

As a social worker I agree with Tracy, although I might add that it might be helpful to find some kind of "support" type group for your son of kids that have gone through the same thing. If he starts to display any changes in behavior, however, I would reconsider the therapy angle. There is also the idea of family counselling rather than therapy for just him.

I also want to add my 2 cents about the separation thing. I agree that happy parents make all the difference to having well adjusted kids, but I do believe that in this world today, many people decide to get married while at the same time thinking "well if it doesn't work out, we can always get divorced." I think there is less of this now since people are waiting longer to get married, but I still hear things like this from people deciding to get married. Marriage is a lifetime commitment. Sometimes it does not work out, but it should take at least as long to decide to separate when there are issues as it did to decide to get together in the first place. I think what most people are saying here, is if there are issues, get help. Listen to your partner. Ask questions. Read books. Be kind to one another. Show empathy for a partner who may have been raised differently than you and may have other opinions about child rearing. Take parenting classes together. To bring in another recent thread, get someone to watch the kids and go on vacation together. Most of all, I have found moms that have a good support group of women friends with same aged kids tend to feel that things going on in their marriages are more normal, as they hear that the same things are happening in everyone else's marriages.

Ok, all that being said, if you have tried to the point where you feel all has been tried, try one more time. If you feel comfortable with your decision at that time, it sounds like separation is a good choice. I just don't think that most people think there is a choice. And by all means, if your partner is abusive to you or your children, GET OUT and find help now!

Full disclosure: keep in mind this is all coming from a never-married single mom.

I don't know one person who has gotten married thinking, "well hey, if it doesn't work, we can always get divorced."
And I think it's pretty obvious that the counseling would best suited for the parents and not the child. Again, just to make sure the family is doing the right things to support the child through the change.
Erica needed the uM community to offer insight on managing her post-separation family, not to judge her on her situation.

I would like to chime in with support for what Anonymous #4 said: that maybe you need to rethink going to the camping trip together. Your son has let you know it's hard for him to see you together, and I think this is going to make him have those feelings all over again, plus confuse him and get his hopes up that if you are spending all weekend together, maybe this means you're getting back together.

Also, while I completely understand that you plan to ask him if it's ok, I think it's asking an awful lot of a child his age to make those decisions. He doesn't need that responsibility at this stage of things. He needs to understand how things are going to be set up, and then have you two stick to the plan. (Of course, making adjustments to what isn't working).

That said, Erica, I so, so admire you and your husband for going about this in the decent, communicative, wanting-the-best-for-your-child way that you are. As a child of a (very nasty) divorce, I can say that having parents with your attitude would have made my childhood a whole lot better. My hat is off to you and your husband for dealing with this like grown-ups.

To Monica in Cali, in defence of some of the posters, myself included, I think the conversation about separation is not about the original poster. Sometimes these conversations take on a life of their own. On some blogs, new threads are started to go on side tracks, but often on uM this is what happens. So while yes, this is not what Erica originally posted about, please don't judge those who have responded with their thoughts, as they have all been pretty well presented and respectful so far.

Hi Debby,
As a former contributor on this site and avid reader for almost 2 years, I know how respectful and supportive the uFamily community can be.
I just feel like responding to her request for information and insight with the above "thoughts" from kc, ?, and the anonymous's (hmm..) was insensitive and judgemental.
OK, I'm done.

Hi all,

I appreciated all of the insight that people provided with regards to the issue I had posted about, the camping trip and co-parenting in general.

I've gone back and forth on how I should respond to the divorce and separation comments. KC was the first to comment and I was a bit floored by her comments. However, I certainly do not take to heart advice given by someone who knows nothing about me and my situation other than the short post I placed on the site. Obviously, this medium allows for everyone to voice their opinion and that is one of the things that makes it so interesting.

I did find my self being a bit defensive. Although the topic did take on a life of its own, some of the comments made me feel as though I was being judged. Did I need to tell people that we were about to separate 2 years ago and decided to give it another go? Probably not but, some of the statements going out there made me feel as though I needed to explain myself. However, Jason and I are completely comfortable with our decision and know that we have done what is best for all three of us. This was certainly not a decision that was decided upon lightly. And, honestly, who in the world goes into a marriage with the thought that "if it doesn't work, we can always get a divorce." I really hope that we are not at the point where Hollywood is viewed as the American "normal."

In regards to the comments on therapy, Jason and I met with a therapist who works with kids both before and during the physical separation. Jackson was never part of our meetings. I think that it would be helpful for us to talk to her again and get some ideas from her regarding these issues. I agree, I don't think that Jackson needs to be in therapy for issues that Jason and I need to resolve.

Back to the camping trip issue. As it turns out, I am going to take Jackson on Friday, Friday night, and part of Saturday. When his dad arrives on Saturday, I will head back to Portland and Jackson will spend the remainder of the time with his dad. Jackson and I went on a run yesterday and we were talking about the week ahead. I told him about the camping trip and the parental coverage. He said, "That sounds good, I am used to having two homes." I replied, "It does seem like you are getting used to having two homes." At which point, he corrected me by saying, "I am already used to having two homes."

Again, thank you to the people who shared their own experiences on divorce/separation/co-parenting with me. It is so helpful to hear from you. Neither Jason nor I come from a family of divorce and so we are doing our best to be sensitive to Jackson and his needs. But, having the view of someone who has been through it provides some wonderful insight.

Just for the record, I strongly believe there are people who DO have the mind set that divorce is an out if marriage doesn't work out. I don't think they are going to say it publicly, and I do not believe they would EVER say it to their partner, but it exists. How could it not. Look at the divorce rate, even after short marriages. There are people of all kinds, and some don't think the way we do. As I said, I think this is why people are waiting longer to get married, as they are not willing to settle and do not WANT to feel that way. I belong to several single mom groups and many of the women never married, not because they did not have the opportunity, but because they knew that the men in their lives could not fulfill what they needed, or they could not provide what the men wanted. I myself was in a long term relationship with a man who I know would have felt in the back of his mind that knowing divorce was an option would have been the only way he would have opted for marriage, and knowing he felt that way, I had to make the difficult choice to end the relationship for good, as I knew that if we married and had children, my children would grow up in a disfunctional family, or end up as children of divorce. Granted, many people go into marriage having no idea that things will change, people will change, and they do. And that is really sad. But I have to say, as a single woman, that the pressure to do the norm of society, to get married and have a family, are enormous, and I still feel that to this day as a single 39 year old woman. It's too bad, as I feel over time, our society is going to be much more accepting of all of our family choices, including single parents, gay parents, families of divorce or separation, and couples or singles who choose not to have any children.

Erica, I am sorry that the posts made you feel judged. I do not think that the MAJORITY of the posts were intended that way, but if mine did, I regret that very much.

Wow, fascinating post & comments. Thank you for sharing, Erica. It is big of you.

I am tempted to jump in to the fray about all the hot button topics that have come up, but I'll restrain myself because it's pretty much all been said. However, the original request was for input about our own experiences with separation and co-parenting, and I think I have a little bit to add here.

I've had a number of close friends who grew up under troubled parental relationships -- divorced, separating, sticking together even though they despise each other, whatever. If I had to summarize the character trait that these friends share, it would be "extreme sensitivity to lying." They hate lies, and yet they expect them in relationships.

So these people (like anybody) bring their own challenges to adult relationships. But that doesn't mean they'll fail. I love all the friends I am thinking of; I think of them every single day; and now that they're "thirtysomething" they're doing fine. One's married and stable, one's a single mom with a really cool career, one is simply one of the most fearless people I have ever met.

I can't give advice about what to do with the significant other, but I think it's pretty safe to suggest that whatever you do, it shouldn't be an act. If the parenting you all put on is an act, the kid will know it. And if -- divorced, together, whatever -- there is real love and honor between you two parents, they will know it too.

Godspeed on your journey!

That was also inspirational for me, Martin. Thank you, too. Advice like this helps me figure out how to live my life.
I hope no one else considers my sincere thanks for their insight offensive. I wouldn't even know how to respond.

Wow - I must have really meant that!

Erica, thanks for putting yourself out there like you have - yep, it's hard to ask for advice without running the risk of opening yourself to the entire spectrum of feedback, isn't it?

For what it's worth, some things that have worked for us (I've been separated/divorced from my kids' dad for six years now; my kids are 9 and 14. I'm also the product of a very contentious dysfunctional family; my parents divorced 30 years ago and still cannot communicate about anything having to do with their grown children.)

* my ex's time with the kids is his chance to shine as the primary parent. Although I started out showing up at soccer games on 'his' weekends, I soon learned that it sent mixed messages and just gave one more opportunity for my kids to miss me/one more traumatic scene. Ditto calling them when they're at his house - they're more than welcome to call me, but I never initiated phone calls. They need to learn and trust that dad is a caring, competent parent; he needed to see for himself just what a all-consuming job it when you're the solo 24/7 parent.

* my son did see a therapist when he was seven or eight - she was billed as another medical professional, and visits to her were just like the ones he made to his pediatrician. In fact, she suggested that we explain it to him that she was his 'thinking doctor'. As a result, there was never any stigma or wrongness attached to it.

* Martin's on the money when he talks about the 'extreme sensitivity to lying' that kids of divorced parents experience. But the flip side to that is that the kids don't have to get (and shouldn't get) complete, unvarnished, detailed honesty, either.

* My motto in the beginning? Take the high road so much you get nosebleeds. And it paid off - my ex and I now are much better parents apart than we ever were together.

My kids acknowledge this - they know, for example, that we talk often, exchange email, share an online family calendar, and will gladly do what we can to make situations easier for the other parent (we jokingly call it the 'no, after you!' syndrome.)

And while I'm sure that - in the best of all possible worlds - staying together would have been best for the kids, what they have now is pretty darn good, and could have been far, far worse.

Hello, Sarah here from Think Out Loud at Oregon Public Broadcasting. We're doing a show this Thursday about family and the holidays. I'm looking for guests for our show and would love to speak with some of you... or have you comment on our blog. Feel free to contact me at srothenfluch@opb dot org or check out the comment thread at www.opb.org/thinkoutloud.
Thank you
Sarah Jane Rothenfluch

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