Family Breakdown

By Penelope Leach

Childcare expert Penelope Leach shows that we can make the divorce process better for children

Section 2 – Separating Better and Worse

Chapter 5 – Keeping Parenting and Partnership Apart

The very best way to manage the break-up of a family with minimal long-term harm to children is to set yourselves to support the relationships each of you has with each of your children, and protect them from the failure of the relationship between the two of you. That’s not an easy thing to do, and if you are a mother or father reading this when you are almost overwhelmed with hurt and fury at the children’s other parent, it may seem downright impossible. Some people do manage it, though, and it is the most important effort you can make for your children right now because it will affect every aspect of their lives both during and after your separation and divorce.

To you, your soon-to-be-ex may be a complete let-down as a husband or partner: a hopeless provider; a faithless lover, an insensitive man, a right bastard. But what is he as your child’s father? Not ‘ex’ to begin with (the two of you may be getting divorced but he’s not divorcing the child) and very likely not a let-down, a hopeless provider or all those other things, either. And even if he is a bit rubbish as a dad, your child doesn’t know it. He’s just Daddy. He’s the only father she knows and, bitter though it may be for you to acknowledge it right now, she loves him as she loves you. One child, two beloved parents. You’re going to be a lone parent but that need not and should not mean that your child is going to be motherless or fatherless.

Feeling motherless or fatherless is—literally—terrible for a child of any age (see Chapter 2), but watching a parent struggling with the sadness, anger and depression of separation is also miserable for him or her. Many people believe that children don’t notice or care what is happening to adults, that they are too self-centred and selfish to be concerned with anyone’s feelings but their own. But the egocentricity of children is a misapprehension and an important one. Young children don’t go on playing noisy games when you’ve told them you have a headache because they don’t care about you, but because they haven’t yet developed the empathy which lets them put themselves in your shoes and realise that lots of noise will make your headache worse. With any luck they don’t even really know what ‘headache’ means. As children get older their demands for your attention, even when you are on the phone or watching something on TV, are not because they are spoiled and care only about themselves, but because you are so much the centre of their lives that they find it hard to believe that they are not the entire centre of yours.

Children of all ages are extremely sensitive to parent’s moods and feelings. The cues a baby uses are not the same as an older child’s, of course, and the understanding a 4 year-old brings to what is going on is not the same as an adolescent’s, but whatever his age your child will sense it when either or both of you are unhappy and distracted or irritated and enraged with each other, and will worry about you both. Just as bereaved children mourn differently from adults and are sometimes thought to be heartless, children show this kind of worry in different ways from adults—yours are more likely to bring you an extra-large beetle to stroke as to stroke your arm—but it’s important to recognise it so that you do what you can to reassure them that you are basically OK. You won’t be able to conceal your feelings altogether, and you can’t reassure children by trying to pretend that everything about the family is fine when it is not; nothing will confuse them more than having you tell them one thing when they clearly sense another. So while taking the trouble not to say nasty disparaging things about each other in a child’s hearing (on the phone or to a friend as well as face to face) will be a good start, it isn’t enough.

To make the best of what is inevitably a bad situation for the child, each of you needs to set yourself to make a clear separation in your mind and in your behaviour between the adult-to-adult and the adult-to-child relationships in the family. Managing to keep partner and parent relationships separate means that when you are with a child you won’t say (or even look) the hurt, angry feelings that belong to your relationship as woman-to-man but don’t belong to her relationship as child-to-father. If (and when) you can manage that, your child will know that the unhappiness she sees and senses is only adult business; the parenting business that is central to her life is still intact.

Father of girl, aged 4

Yes, I know she loves her too. And Izzie loves her mum come to that. But she can’t love her the way I do or she wouldn’t have walked out would she? They say it’s really rare for mothers to scarper and if one parent walks out it’s usually the dad, but I’d never, never have done that. Never.

That brief quote makes it tragically clear that this father has not managed to separate his relationship with his wife from his child’s relationship with her. At that point in the family upheaval he felt that he and his little daughter had been equally ‘left’ and that the loss of love for himself that led to the separation included the child. ‘She can’t love her the way I do’ is not a good starting point for mutual parenting. In contrast, the next quote is:

Mother of girl, aged 5

We both love her to death. Always have. Always will, I guess. But we couldn’t go on living and fighting together and if one of us had to move out it was better for Emily that it was him.

Even those few words suggest a fundamental difference between the relationships of the two couples. The father who is quoted first feels that he and his little daughter are both victims in the separation: both were ‘left’. The mother who is quoted second, on the other hand, sees the marital breakup as separate business and being left in the home as the next step both parents thought best for the child.

Keeping parenting apart from partnership is somewhat easier when you realise that children, whatever their ages, don’t want to share or even hear about parents’ man-to-woman relationships. They may love to hear stories about how you met, or the drive to hospital the night they were born, but they will resist and resent being made to recognise and think about your emotional and especially your sexual life with each other. That relationship is adults’ business, not children’s. The feelings that go with a breaking marriage are not something they are ready for themselves and hearing too much about it can splash embarrassment around the parental relationships also. Using a child as a confidante is at best inappropriate, at worst sometimes close to abusive:

Girl, aged 12

When we were at his house dad did talk—would talk—about him and mum and how much he missed her and how she’d betrayed him. It didn’t make me sorry for him, it made me embarrassed, especially when it looked as if he was going to cry. One time he’d been drinking whisky and he got all emotional and started talking about getting lonely for her in bed. Yuck. That put me off both of them.

The disintegration of your marriage or committed partnership will certainly be bad for your children whatever you do, but if you want to protect them from the very worst of it, you’ll do all you can to keep your hurt, sense of betrayal, loneliness and fury private from them, and keep the arguments and fights that belong to your woman-to-man relationship, not to their relationship as child-to-father, as quiet as you can.

Almost as difficult and even more important, you’ll struggle to prevent what you feel about him now as a partner from changing what you’ve always felt about him as a father. If he was an OK dad before your adult relationship blew up, he still will be if circumstances (and you) allow him. If he’s always been an active parent, loving and hands on, you need to manage to go on believing in his absolute reliability as a father, respecting his input into every aspect of the child’s upbringing and enjoying their pleasure in each other. It isn’t easy, but it is possible, especially if both of you feel at least some degree of joint responsibility for the separation and if there isn’t a third party closely involved. It’s difficult enough to be positive about your child spending the weekend with the other parent, much more difficult if there’s a substitute-you there too (see Chapter 3).

When separating parents do manage to salvage intact not only their own but each other’s parenting, they sometimes find that part of the lonely space left by the broken partnership has been filled with mutual parenting. That’s the best possible gift they can make to their children.

Mother of two boys, aged 4 and 8

His second affair threw up a lot or crap between us but even before it had settled I realised that he was still the only person in the world I could trust with the boys, the only person who’d drop everything for them in any kind of emergency and handle it, whatever it was, just the way I’d want. I had other people supporting me as a lone mum, but I’d think about dying, and what would happen to Luke and Larry if I did, and the thought of them going to live with their grandmother or one of their aunts gave me the absolute shudders. Their father is the only other person they 100% love and who would bring them up the way we’d planned. So I didn’t want him for me—let’s face it, didn’t want him in my bed any more—but I did want him for our children and that’s dictated all our arrangements ever since.

Father of girl, aged 2 during the divorce and now aged 5

If Diane had been older maybe we’d have tried separate flats close by so she could pop in and out. But with her so little we weren’t going to divide her up, so we divided ourselves up: split the house. We have half each, she has it all. Lots of people, like neighbours who aren’t real friends, don’t even know we’re divorced. Diane knows of course but it really doesn’t bother her. Why should it? There’s always a parent at home and there’re always supper in one of two kitchens and her own precious bed waiting in her room.

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