The road leading to mine and my ex-partner’s separation was a long and very complicated one. I’ve got a list as long as all of your arms of horrible memories associated with it, but if there’s one moment that hurt the most, it was telling my daughter.
She was only seven at the time. I collected her from school, sat her on the sofa and said that mummy wouldn’t be living with us anymore. The thing I remember most starkly is her face contorting. In silence, initially, before the sobbing started. She asked me why. I don’t remember how I replied. I held her, I told her that I was sad too and I explained that she had done nothing wrong. I reassured her that she would see her mum soon and I told her over and over again that she was always going to have me, that she was always going to be the most important person in the world to me and that everything was going to be fine.
It was the end of the world. For about half an hour, at which point her stomach started to rumble and attentions shifted to what we were going to have for dinner. After that, she showed little sign of upset, really, aside from some struggles when her mum would leave having come to visit. I told the school what had happened and they monitored her carefully for a few weeks. Luckily, there was no noticeable change in behaviour. I asked parents of her friends what she had said to them and those she had discussed it with seemed to suggest she’d been quite matter of fact. Which is very much my girl.
It was only years later – perhaps earlier this year, when she would have been 10 – that she eventually told me that she did sometimes lay in bed and wonder if her mum had left because she’d done something wrong. The admission shattered my heart, but she was also quick to point out that everything was OK throughout the whole thing because she had me and she still saw her mum. While I know there will be scarring and I expect whatever is buried deep down to surface in some form at some point, I actually do think she came through it all OK.
If you’re in the same situation, here’s some suggestions to help you figure out how you’re going to break the news. Obviously, this is all age and maturity dependent. A toddler will need fewer details and more simplification than a teenager, obviously, but many of the fundamental ideas remain the same.
SHOULD YOU TELL THEM?
Yes, of course. I was staggered recently to speak to a vague acquaintance who had separated from his long-term partner. They had decided not to tell their three kids. An excuse was conjured up to explain away his prolonged absence. “We’ll deal with it later,” he told me. Which is crazy. Starting this process off with a deception that will later have to be admitted to is madness. You have to be open with your kids, to a point.
The exception to this could be if you’re having a trial separation and there’s a very real possibility that you may get back together, and a willingness on both sides to try. This can be hard to ascertain in the early days and is a tricky call to make, however.
DO IT TOGETHER
If at all possible tell your children what is happening together, as a united front. This was not possible for me as my ex-partner had left when my child was at school, but we both later conceded that it shouldn’t have been done in this way. No matter how acrimonious your split, it’s vital that you continue to present a united parenting front. And breaking the news as a partnership is the first step toward that – and something you’re going to have to force yourselves to become really good at.
IT’S NOT THEIR FAULT
This a point you really can’t hammer home enough. Despite my best efforts, my daughter still wondered if she was in any way to blame for what happened, which just makes me think I should have rammed the point home even more. Of course, it’s possibly sensible to acknowledge that this thought is likely to occur to most kids affected by separation at some stage, regardless of your efforts, and your attentions will be required to address this.
TELL THEM IN THE RIGHT PLACE
Don’t break news as breakfast is being polished off before school or you head out to work. Do it at a time when you’re going to have plenty of time together afterwards, whether that be to console and answer questions or instead to do something fun together. Following the news with a family outing or activity may be gut-wrenchingly tough and emotionally demanding, but there’s likely no better way to handle it. We had booked our first foreign family holiday for just two weeks after we split, and we went. I found it horrific, but we held it together for our girl and I’m sure it was a tremendous help to her. Things had changed, but here we all were, together regardless.
SPARE THE DETAILS
With perhaps the exception of older teenagers, kids do not need to know about infidelity, lies, financial woes or any of the details about why you’re separating. Younger kids, in particular, don’t need to hear the words “we don’t love each other any more” as the realisation that their parents have fallen out of love with each other opens the door to the possibility that they could fall out of love with them.
At the same time, a level of openness is required. “You know how mummy and daddy have been arguing a lot recently? Well we’ve decided that mummy’s going to go and live somewhere else nearby so that doesn’t happen anymore.” That’s probably the kind of level you want to be aiming at.
KIDS WANT TO UNDERSTAND THE LOGISTICS
Younger kids, especially, will struggle to formulate any sort of structured emotional reasoning to contend with the news. Instead, their concerns will be more mechanical. Where will I sleep? Will we have to move? Can I still do ballet? How often will I see mum or dad?
Ideally, you should want to have planned all of this out and be ready to answer all of these questions before you tell them. Really, you want to be able to assure them that the changes will be little, and most importantly specify exactly when they’ll next see the departed parent. None of this was possible for me and it’s maybe the biggest mistake we made.
FOCUS ON THE POSITIVES
Whatever you do, there will be some change, so do the best you can to make it sound as good as possible. A new school is a chance to make new friends, time normally spent with mum can instead be extra cool time with dad. If they’re going to be staying somewhere else every other weekend then they’re getting a whole new second bedroom to decorate! It doesn’t take much to transform the intimidating into the exciting, and you’ve got to sell every bit of it with your soul. Kids should generally be taught that change is exciting and this, despite it all, is a good chance to make that point.
TRY TO LIMIT ROUTINE CHANGES
At the same time, wherever possible, try and limit the day-to-day disruption that your kids will have to undergo. It may be that housing or schooling will have to change for logistical reasons, but if you possibly can, try to make sure their day to day lives are disrupted as little as possible. If schools, clubs, friends and routines stay as they were, coping with whatever has changed will be significantly easier.
DON’T PLAY THE BLAME GAME
One of the worst things you can do is let your anger spill over. Bad-mouthing your ex, or even worse trying to turn your kids against them, is inexcusable. As is asking them to spy. Whatever led to the separation, your ex remains your child’s parent and will hopefully always be a part of their lives. Even though your relationship has ended, theirs has not. Over the course of time your children will most likely discover the details of whatever happened, but it will be up to them to decide how they feel about it. If you make sure you’ve acted with good intentions you should be OK when that time arrives.
KIDS WILL PROBABLY BE FAMILIAR WITH IT ALL ALREADY
The strong likelihood is that your children probably already have friends whose parents have divorced, or perhaps only ever had one parent to begin with. This may all be very alien to you at the moment but the chances are that there aren’t alien concepts to them. They’ll also have these friends to talk to about it all.
KIDS ARE RESILIENT
Never underestimate just how strong kids can be. It’s certainly the case that my daughter coped with everything better than I did. We all want to wrap our children up in cotton wool but the reality is that the young mind is able to cope with disruption and change far better than we are. If you handle things properly your kids will most likely get through this just fine, even though it’s the last thing you ever wanted for them.
KEEP TALKING, AND BE HONEST
Telling your kids that you are separating isn’t the end of the story. You have to keep talking, and encourage them to do the same. You want them to feel comfortable enough to tell you if they’re sad or worried, and that is possibly helped by opening up a bit yourself too. While you must ensure they remain convinced that everything is and will be OK, showing them that you’re hurting a little as well will give them something to relate to. You don’t want sadness to be demonised. Also, you don’t want your kids to feel that they have to put on a brave face to protect your feelings. Being upset must be OK for them, including when it happens in front of you. At the same time, don’t force the subject on them unnecessarily. If they’re not worrying about it, don’t give them reason to.
SMOTHER THEM WITH LOVE
I still believe that the most fundamentally important thing throughout this whole process was making sure my daughter knew just how much she was loved. If there was one thing I succeeded in, it was making sure my girl truly knew how much I loved her and completely believed that I would always be there for her, and that no-one or nothing else would ever be more important to me. That really is the thing that underpinned everything else.
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Image (cropped) by Guian Bolisay under a creative commons licence