Don’t expect your child to be your confidant, and give them time to grieve.
“It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”
I‘ve always loved this line from Toni Morrison’s Sula for perfectly capturing the essence of grief. Sharp, endless, and without direction. Isolating, sometimes in sneaky and self-imposed ways.
This past holiday season prompted me to write about the unique set of struggles adult children of divorce face while grieving, but this is my first time acknowledging how parents often unintentionally make those struggles more difficult. I fought more with my mom and dad during what I now affectionately call my War of the Roses period—the year we all lived under the same roof as the divorce raged on—than during my other 25 years combined. We couldn’t possibly understand each other (and didn’t want to) because we were too isolated, too consumed with our own despair.
If I could hop in a time machine and share some “hindsight is 20/20” advice from my perspective, this would be it.
1. Be prepared for your child to enter a mourning period.
Divorce is frequently compared to death for a reason. The common denominator is loss: the sudden absence of a spouse or parent (my dad moved to another state; some parents disappear from their child’s life altogether), the painful burying of memories, the mountain of regrets. But despite the inherent heartbreak in both situations, people often, D.A. Wolf argues, “demonstrate more compassion when it comes to the former, though the ghosts of the latter still walk the planet.”
Your child, no matter how old, will mourn the loss of the partnership that once made him or her feel secure. I mourned the loss of family, foundation, identity, and love, and because of the nature of people to judge and blame divorcing couples, I struggled with the added departure of family friends who had abruptly turned their backs. This mourning continues with every new change, albeit quietly. As with any loss, people only give you so much time to grieve.
2. Realize that your child, in this situation, is not a friend or confidant.
Relationships evolve over time. But no matter how “friendly” you and your child may be now that they are older, there are certain pieces of information that they should never be privy to, particularly during a divorce. Unfortunately, psychotherapist Donna Ferber notes that “due to the rationale that adult children won’t be affected now that they ‘have lives of their own,’ divorcing parents often overlook or minimize their adult children’s feelings.”
The truth is that divorce is devastating and alienating enough for us without hearing the latest news on your division of assets or a recap of yesterday’s courtroom drama. If you find yourself wondering whether or not you should share such details with your son or daughter, ask yourself: Would you tell your child if they were 8 and not 28? No? Then tell a friend, pastor, or therapist instead.
3. Be there for the big moments, and don’t make them about you.
The day I walked across the stage with my master’s degree was one of the best days of my life. My cousins drove down to attend the ceremony, we had a delicious family dinner at one of my favorite barbeque restaurants, and later I got roaring drunk on my front lawn with about 30 of my friends. But before the sun went down and the booze set in, I was a jumble of nerves. My parents’ moans and groans for weeks over who was sitting where and how much interaction there would be had me feeling about as essential to my own graduation as an extra folding chair.
In comparison to other families, I’m lucky. There are parents who refuse to attend special occasions just because they don’t want to see their former spouse; parents who do attend but spend entire ceremonies badmouthing and name-calling. Whatever animosity you feel toward your former partner, your child’s birthday, wedding, or graduation is not the place for anger and resentment. We need you there to celebrate us, not to rehash old battles amid our streamers and balloons.
4. Recognize that you will always be united by your child.
Though your relationship with your partner may be ending, your child’s is not. It’s important to resist not only badmouthing your child’s other parent, but drawing negative comparisons between the two. By criticizing your child for sharing DNA with your former partner, you are indicating that your hatred for your ex-wife or husband extends to your child as well. Repeated accusations like “You are acting just like your father,” or “I knew you’d turn out just like your mother,” made me feel ugly and flawed, as though there was now something reproachable deep within me that could never be removed.
It is callus and unfair, not to mention totally unrealistic, to expect that your child will never display characteristics of the person who supplied them with half of their genetic makeup. Instead of scouting out the similarities that displease you, try viewing them as evidence of the rich history that gave you your son or daughter to begin with. Just a few weeks ago when my great aunt passed away, it meant the world to see my mom and dad finally able to embrace their 30-year run by being at the funeral proceedings for each other, and for me.
5. Love your child.
Telaina Eriksen, who has previously written for Role Reboot on raising a gay daughter, recently shared on Facebook that she receives questions from other parents of gay teens on what they should “be doing.” “Love them,” she wrote. “Love them. Love them. And then love them some more.”
Love transcends isolation. If my mother had kept this last suggestion more in mind during our many fights that year, she may have not needed the other four. If I had kept it more in mind, I might have escaped saying things that I now know cut her to the core. I wonder what a similar list of suggestions from her position—from any parent’s position—might look like, and I sincerely hope that someone writes it one day.
But until then, I imagine that the list would start with loving them. And then loving them some more.
Chelsea Cristene is a community college professor of English and communications living in central Maryland. She writes Gender on the Rocks, a blog about gender, relationships, culture, education, and the media. Find her on Twitter.