Keeping your family together when your marriage is coming apart By Monica Ginsburg photos by Frank Pinc
Ellen Canter of Chicago has been separated from her spouse for more than a year. The divorce is not final, but she and the father of her two children have already implemented a co-parenting arrangement that gives them both nearly equal time with Talia, 8, and Emma, 3. They live in the same North Side neighborhood, share a car and have keys to each other's homes. Both are involved in childcare decisions ranging from changes in Talia's after-school activities to participating in family therapy. Canter says they both try to avoid finger pointing and animosity that is standard fare in most divorces.
"We don't spend a lot of time together, and it isn't easy, but at least we are civil," says Canter, director of development for the nonprofit agency Family Focus. "We have two young children and they need both of their parents. I hate the fact that we've done this to our kids, but we're doing our best to present a consistent parenting team. We are both equally concerned about their well-being."
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than one million divorces are reported in the United States each year. In a report issued in 2002, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates nearly half of recent first marriages may end in divorce.
While experts disagree about the long-terms effects of divorce, research shows the children who do best are those whose parents put aside the bickering and focus on the kids.
"After a divorce, children find their relationships with relatives suddenly change, relationships with friends, grandparents, all their checks and balances change," says Louis Kraus, chief of child psychology at Rush University Medical Center. "In some divorce situations, the chaotic relationship can go on for years.
"Where the child will attend preschool, selecting a parochial or public school, extracurricular activities, everything can be a huge debate and you're putting the poor child in the middle."
Kraus says when one parent talks negatively about the other in front of the child, it directly affects the child's self-esteem.
"Parents need to be really clear that their hostile behavior has a negative impact on their children," he says. "The better the parents handle it, the better the children will be, period. ... You have to look at your children's interests, quite frankly, before your own."
Honest is best Putting your children's interests first starts at the beginning of the process.
Break the news of your divorce or separation plans together and avoid placing blame. Emphasize to your children that they are loved and you're still a family, just not a traditional one.
Be prepared to answer any questions, even if they seem off-track.
Concerns often focus on living arrangements, birthdays, holidays and vacations, the "hinges a child hangs his life on," says Suzy Yehl Marta, founder and president of RAINBOWS, an international nonprofit grief support group for children and teenagers based in Rolling Meadows. And tell them sooner, rather than later, so they have time to emotionally prepare for change.
"You may think your problems are a secret, that you're keeping it behind closed doors, but that's really not what's happening," Marta says.
"In 99 percent of cases, kids already know there's a problem, so be honest with them."
Keep explanations age-appropriate and specific enough for children to understand. For example, try telling them that although Mom and Dad fight, both value the family and are working on the problems.
"Speaking about emotional and relationship concepts the child doesn't necessarily understand won't add clarity," says Jonathan Pochyly, staff psychologist at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "The best-case scenario is when parents are coming together and presenting a united front."
Ease the pain Every family is different, but child experts recommend a number of approaches to help ease the pain of a divorce.
Create moments to talk. Some children ask lots of questions, others go on as if nothing has changed. Create moments to talk if you suspect your child has questions or concerns or if you've noticed changes in your child's behavior.
"Around the end of January, as we were approaching the one-year marker of our separation, Talia became very angry and defiant," says Canter.
"I brought it up at a quiet moment at bedtime and she did know it had been a year. Her biggest hope was that we'd get back together and she was silently harboring the fact that a year had passed and this is the way it's going to be. She burst out crying and if I could have held her all night I would have. As hard as it was, I was glad she had some release." Support a relationship with the other parent. If you have young children, you and your ex will be parenting together for many years after your divorce is final. Set aside your anger and support your child's desire to have a relationship with both parents.
"The best gift you can give your child is your permission to love the other parent," says Jeff Ginsburg, a mediator and social worker based in Chicago. "It's not a mom's right or a dad's right, it's a child's right to have a relationship with both parents."
If you don't agree with the way your ex-spouse parents, support your child's wishes anyway, unless it puts him in harm's way. "You can only be responsible for your life," says RAINBOWS' Marta. "You can't control your former spouse and how he or she chooses to live. Often the relationship might not be at our standard but at least the parent and child have a relationship. Be careful not to judge." Minimize change. Divorce inevitably involves change. Some families move to new homes and children often switch schools and have to make new friends.
Ginsburg cautions parents to be mindful of the changes in a child's life. "If there's a way to minimize the changes and to keep some of the routines, the better the divorce is likely to be on the child," he says. "If you can continue access to an extended family, do it. Just because you are no longer associated with the other side of the family, don't cut your child off. It will only represent another loss." Choose your battles. "The co-parent relationship really is a business relationship and the business is raising happy, healthy children into adulthood," says Carol Patinkin, executive director of The Lilac Tree: Women in Transition, an Evanston-based organization providing support and resources for women going through or considering a divorce.
"A good outcome in a divorce is something both parties can live with," she says. "It's not about winning, it's about being able to move on independently and help your children blossom." Build a support team. Put together a personal and professional team to help your family through the often-long road to divorce. Select people who share your point of view on how you'd like the proceedings to go. On the professional side, this may include a lawyer, mediator, therapist and financial planner.
"The legal system is adversarial by nature and you have to find ways to minimize the impact on you and your family," says Patinkin. "You need a team of people to help you make good choices and hopefully less adversarial choices."
Reach out to other adults, including relatives, teachers, coaches or clergy, for extra support. Family members and friends are often happy to pitch in with babysitting or light chores, or to spend extra time with a child who many be struggling. Take care of yourself. Many parents are so focused on the divorce process that they neglect their own emotional and physical needs. They may find themselves too short-tempered, exhausted or depressed to keep up with childcare, school or household demands.
"It's so paramount in this process to take care of yourself so you are able to do the right things for your children," said Linda Lucatorto, founder of The Oasis Experience, a Westmont-based group serving the west suburbs that offers seminars and support to women going through divorce.
"It's like the instructions from a flight attendant on an airplane. When the oxygen mask comes down, who is supposed to put their mask on first?" she says. "The parents take care of themselves so they can then take care of the children." Try e-mail. Communicate with your former sp.ouse about news or issues relating to your children. Can't talk to each other? Use e-mail, fax or mail. "E-mail is a wonderful tool, especially if you've felt bullied or abused in the former relationship," says Rush University's Kraus, "and you can keep a record of what's transpired."
However, personal e-mails and faxes don't belong at work and both parties have to respect that. And be careful: You're leaving a very clear record of what you're sending back and forth.
"The goal is to foster the healthy development of your child, not to zing the other party," he says.
Don't use your children as messengers if communication attempts fail. "The child's No. 1 wish is that mom and dad stop arguing," says Ginsburg. "The second wish is that mom and dad stop asking questions and talking about the other parent." Let go of anger. "Parents have an obligation to love their children more than they hate their former spouse and that takes work," says Marta.
"It's one thing for kids to hear mom and dad argue. It's another to hear mom and dad argue over them at the front door."
"Divorce is painful for everyone, especially children," says Marta. "But that doesn't mean you can't get through it, heal and go on. It is far better for children to come from a divorced family than to live in an unhappy one."
Resources The Lilac Tree: Women in Transition (847) 328-0313 www.thelilactree.org
The Oasis Experience (630) 585-4189 www.oasisexperience.com
RAINBOWS (800) 266-3206 www.rainbows.org
What kids learn from feuding adults When parents feud, they unwittingly teach their children inappropriate lessons about the way to interact with others.
Among them: Every problem leads to an argument. Disagreeing means calling the other person names and raising your voice. Other people's opinions don't merit respect. It's OK to be dishonest or to withhold information from one or the other parent. People and situations can be manipulated as in: "But, Dad, Mom always lets me watch this show on television," "Mom, Dad said when I turn 16 he'll buy me a car," "Grandma, my parents said I'm old enough to have a later curfew" or "If you don't let me (fill in the blank) I'm going to live with …" Reprinted from Healing the Hurt, Restoring the Hope, How to Guide Children and Teens Through Times of Divorce, Death and Crisis With the Rainbows Approach, by Suzy Yehl Marta (Rodale Press, 2003).
The kids are going to be OK What do the experts say about the effects of divorce on children?
"Most responsible researchers find that when you look at a random sample you are going to have about 20 percent of kids that end up with severe or long-term problems," says Stephanie Coontz, national co-chairman of the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research group.
"But there are two things to take away from that statistic: 80 percent turn out well and that researchers almost all agree on whatever the nuances of differences, divorce is a process and not a one-time event," Coontz says. "How kids turnout is dependent on: how they were parented before the divorce, how the parents handle the divorce, if they drag the conflict on too long, and what parents do afterwards-whether they ask the kids to tell secrets, keep secrets or take sides against the other parent."
The most recent study in the headlines comes from Constance Ahrons' book, We're Still a Family: What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents' Divorce. Ahron's has been researching this issue since 1979 when she got a National Institute of Mental Health grant. Twenty years later, she finds 79 percent of children feel their parents' decision to divorce was a good choice. Susy Schultz
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