Divorced parents need to help children view them separately

Your mother is not your father. Your father is not your mother. That’s obvious, right?

Not for a child. Strictly speaking, in a child’s worldview, there is no such thing as “my mom and my dad.” For a child, it’s my “mom’ndad.” It’s one entity. It’s a symbiotic set. Even if Dad takes the kids camping for the weekend, for the kids, Mom is there by implication. Even if Dad is traveling for a few days, he is there by implication. That’s my mom’ndad.

For children, the marriage symbol is foundational. It’s a fundamental grounding of their worldview. It’s the source. The context from which they shape their essential trust in the order of things, and upon which they find secure footing to reach out into the world. The “mom’ndadness” of life is the one constant, especially when everything else is uncertain, overwhelming, or really scary.

Later in life, something really wonderful often happens for these children, now adults. It’s a natural step in both their own psychological development, and the development of their relationship with their parents: Children suddenly, spontaneously become acquainted with their parents separately, as individual people.

The window of time for this “meeting of the individual parent” is wide and variable. Usually it doesn’t — frankly, can’t — happen much earlier than when the child is 18-plus years old. More commonly for children this evolution occurs between the ages of, say, 25 and 45. In some cases, children don’t really behold their mother or father separately until one or the other is widowed.

But, sooner or later, it happens. Perhaps your father comes through town to visit you in college. You’re at some local eatery, and suddenly, in a quiet moment, this radical intimacy erupts. Your father begins talking about his days in the military before he even met your mother. His combat service, perhaps.

Now, you knew he’d been in the military. Probably also knew that he had served in a forward area. From your earliest conscious memory, you knew about the Purple Heart in the shadow box on the wall in his study. But, for the first time, your father is telling you this story not as narrative, but as personal drama. And suddenly you see him. Really see him. The man. The individual. And you have this sense that something has forever changed between you and your father.

It has. And it’s a good thing. A beautiful thing.

Now I said all that to say something really important to divorced parents …

An obvious consequence of divorce for children is the way divorce changes — and in most cases shatters — a child’s worldview. The “mom’ndadness” of life is no longer the constant. No longer the archetypal symbol of all that is good and right with the world. Conscientious divorced parents are intentional to surround their children with empathy and support for the grieving that children must do in response to this significant loss.

But there is another consequence, much less obvious: In most cases, divorce must unnaturally accelerate the necessity of the children developing quite separate relationships with their mother and father, respectively. Instead of a natural evolution of separateness emerging in later adulthood, divorce abruptly confronts children with it.

Put crudely, it’s painful, confusing and ultimately impossible to hold on to the picture of mom’ndad when one or both of your parental units is dating, cohabitating or married to a third party. But that’s just an illustration. Even if neither parent is in a new relationship, the very fact of two households necessitates this new world of separateness.

I’m not inviting divorced parents to guilt; rather, readiness. Like I said, seeing our parents as separate individuals would have happened eventually anyway. It’s supposed to happen. It’s healthy. Even if your marriage had continued as a lifelong love affair.

My encouragement to divorced parents is to stand ready to make that separateness symbolically overt. Daddy calls before he comes over. He knocks on the front door before he comes in. No, I won’t be going to Disneyland with you and your mom, but I’ll be so excited to hear about it when you come home. Sounds like that rule is a little different at your mom’s house than here, but I expect you to respect your mom’s rules.

It evolves from “We both love you very much” to “I love you. … Your father/mother loves you.”

Because, notwithstanding financial responsibilities and the logistics of shared custody and co-parenting, the “we-ness” of things is no more. And we help our children most by letting that reality be overt. The sooner, then, that children of divorce can integrate this loss and be on about shaping a new way of seeing the goodness of the world.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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