I am a divorce lawyer, a divorce survivor, and once upon a time, I was a child of divorce.
The divorce of my parents was a long time ago; I was seven to be exact, the third child of four. I remember the before, and I remember the after. My little sister was only three, maybe a bit too young to remember the before, she only knew the after. Sometimes I think that is better. I however, am "blessed" to have an excellent memory (my Husband really dislikes it). My parents were really young to be going through this huge thing with a bunch of kids and without the Internet to confirm they were doing it exactly right or exactly wrong. They each had a judgmental family to whom divorce was as foreign as it was morally unacceptable. In the end, they made their way like everyone does, through trial and error, and seemed to have raised some fairly loving and seemingly well-adjusted children. Their divorce is the foundation for much of what I know about how to do it right and how to do it wrong. There are many articles about what not to do, so I think I will just focus on the right stuff. Don't get me wrong, the right stuff is not always easy, or pretty, or most of the time even obviously right. They are the things you do because you are a parent. So thank you both, Mom and Dad, for having the courage to power on and stay parents first in the midst of what was certainly a difficult time. So here are a few of the things Mom and Dad did right, so maybe in the dark of the night, when your self-doubt as a parent awakens you in a cold sweat, you may find comfort knowing it will all turn out okay.
1. My Mom worked like crazy to provide for us.
She never complained. She was gone 50 hours a week commuting to downtown D.C. No matter how tired she was, she managed to make special time for us. Fridays were Chinese carryout sitting around the coffee table. I learned at a very young age to do laundry, feed my little sister and clean house. I am a worker. I learned to be self-reliant, and I have had a job since I was 15 years old. She is the reason I was driven to become a professional and capable of supporting my children (although I am certainly glad I have someone to do it with). Being with your kids is the greatest joy and being away from them is beyond difficult, but there are times when life does not provide us a choice. I know it was hard to be a working Mom (and I certainly empathize now that I am older and working myself). Because of the time she was away, and the way she spent time when she was home, I grew to be someone I would never have been without those experiences. So go ahead and work, knowing your children will be okay in the end and spend special moments when you can, because that is what they will remember.
2. My Dad never gave up on his children.
We were not always easy to love, or even like, quite frankly, after the divorce. We were sad, and sometimes angry, mostly with Dad. There were countless times we would drive the 15 minutes to his house with tears streaming down our faces, banging on the window as Dad pulled away. We wanted our Mommy, and we let him know it. He never wavered in his love for us. He was constant. He had us for the whole summer. He flew back and forth to his office every week so we could have magical summers full of bonfires and extended family. He was Mom and Dad during those summers, back in the day when men simply did not take care of their children the way they do now. He stayed up all night when I had strep throat time after time and nursed me through my tonsillectomy. He taught us to waterski, ride horses, and to drive a stick shift (because you never know when you might need to) and took us on endless adventures, even when we did not want to go. Those are now some of my favorite memories. He was there, really there, when he was with us, even if it wasn't all the time, and called us often to check in when we were apart. Lesson, just show up and be there. In the end, it's really all your kids will need.
3. My Mom never said an unkind word about my Dad.
Really, never, or at least not loud enough so we could hear. This may seem obvious and simple, but I am quite sure it was not easy. The divorce was painful for her, for them. But to this day her elegance in how she handled the situation is the thing I am perhaps most grateful for. My Mom dealt with her pain and disappointment while allowing her children to develop an opinion all their own. Unless, of course, we said anything negative about him, and then my Mom was his staunchest ally. I see the struggle with my clients, the temptation to get the child on "their" side to gain an ally even at the expense of the other parent's relationship. The pain is immeasurable when a child has to choose and really just wants to make each parent happy. So say nice things or say nothing at all.
4. My Dad made special time for each of us and my Mom did fun, crazy, stuff that made us feel like we were lucky to have this life.
For a while, we would have some time just with my Dad, not the whole group of kids. Wednesday, when I was little, was my night for dinner; we would go out and order something very grown up like the Lobster Bisque or French Onion Soup, followed by ice cream. We would talk. When we were older, it was special trips or meeting us for breakfast during College. Now all these years later, it is a trip to see each of us with our children and still every summer by the Lake. I never really felt like I was from a broken family. The pieces were just arranged differently. My Mom did fun, crazy stuff that made us feel like we were lucky to have this life. Picnics and roller-skating in Rock Creek Park, fancy brunches that she could not easily afford. Christmas was always warm, fun, and full of thoughtful presents. She made it fun and made us believe we were lucky to have two Christmas mornings and two parents who loved us. We didn't always feel lucky when we had to pack up and go somewhere we didn't want to but they did their best to make it easier on us.
5. They didn't stop liking each other and encouraged our relationship with the other parent.
Maybe it is not possible for everyone, but in my case, we were lucky. When my Dad remarried, my Mom would babysit my new brothers so my Dad and Stepmom could travel. They have handled graduations, weddings, funerals, the births of grandchildren and the major heart surgery of their eldest daughter side by side. I have known people who had parents who could not sit on the same side of the room for their wedding and people who can't take a picture together for a special event for the children. I can tell you for certain that watching children caught in the middle is perhaps the hardest thing about my job. It is important to remember the only person we know for sure who did nothing to cause the situation is the child. Whatever you can do to keep the child's relationship open and loving with both parents will result in happier children and less busy lawyers and therapists.
6. My Dad and Mom acknowledged the mess that was made along the way.
Ok, I am only writing about the good stuff here, but divorce is messy and this was no exception. It has deep and often lasting implications on why we feel certain ways and how we love. The best way to overcome the negative is to be honest, to admit our shortcomings and learn from these mistakes. My parents have owned the mess, (when we were old enough to discuss it) and the challenges it presented for us and helped us all move forward. Let your kids know you understand it is hard on them and acknowledge you know their life is affected by your choices. Just sometimes listening to them saying they are afraid (afraid one parent or the other will leave them too, afraid to change homes, schools, lose their friends) is helpful.
7. They expanded our definition of family without even trying.
Maybe they forced us into positions, in retrospect, to figure that little gem out ourselves. My article "One Big Happy Family" is really about how we kids figured it out while the parents were worrying "whose kid" was acting up (ok it was me). They showed us, with a few missteps along the way, that family was anyone who loves you, whether they are your blood or not. I got two new brothers in the deal. My parents now all celebrate together the special occasions of this life. We just expect it, and they have never done otherwise. There are no steps, just family. I have said my family includes many people who do not share my blood but share my heart. So I will say my belief that "children never suffer from too much love" comes from all those people who loved me. If you can try to remember that in your own divorce, painful as it might be, I promise you that the end result will be worth it.
Of all the things that have helped me be an empathetic lawyer, perhaps the greatest lessons I learned were unknowingly learned as a child of divorce. The pain of a child in divorce is something I know all too well and eliminate as best I can. I try to do all the things my parents did right and encourage my clients to do the same, even when it really hurts. I often say, you know you are doing the right thing when it is not easy. In the end, remember, as parents we are here to protect the children as best we can, even from our own mistakes. The best lessons this life has given me were always painful to learn but brought me to this day, this place and this life of family and friends. So remember, in the days when it feels all too much, you will be ok and your kids will too.
© Krista Barth, 2015
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