“It’s just dinner”, I told my mom this past Thanksgiving.
I wanted to believe it, I wanted to truly convince myself that it wasn’t that big of a deal, and that every divorced family does this. And it’s fine. Really.
But deep down, in my heart, I couldn’t. I know that it was what we had agreed upon, during all of the negotiations while writing up our parenting agreement, but putting it into practice makes it much more real. Brings it all into clear focus, almost magnified sometimes.
And so begins the division of holidays for my children. The bonus round of divorce.
It seems like a simple thing, something that most people take for granted, that you just divide up the holidays and assign weekends once you’re divorced. The kids will adapt, living out of two homes with two lives to balance, to make the divorcing couple “happy”. It’s for the best for everyone! But it’s not really that simple when you’re kids are older, no longer toddlers or young children.
They have lives, they have expectations, they make plans…and they have opinions.
The terms agreed upon for children in a divorce are archaic at best. They are no longer individual human beings, instead they become property that needs to be divided or shared, much like the house, the bank accounts and other personal belongings.
No rights, no opinions asked, no consent.
And we go along with that outline, because that’s just the way the system works. Over the course of time, the many years of judicial experience with this type of dissolution, this has become the blueprint for co-parenting/child custody. It’s supposedly fair and just, and addresses everyone’s needs and expectations. But does it really?
It makes me wonder, why hasn’t anyone else looked at it this way? Or have they?
Why aren’t we asking different questions, looking at the existing family dynamic and what developmental stages and ages they are in? Why aren’t we addressing each divorce as an individual experience?
Divorces are like snowflakes, no two are alike. The same goes for children.
Usually when you are going through a divorce, you’ve never done it before (with a few exceptions, of course) and your knowledge of what to expect is somewhat limited. It’s new territory, that is most likely out of your comfort zone and skill set, so we hire professionals who do this for a living, and have most likely experienced so many divorce situations that they have just about seen and heard it all.
They are the professionals that we rely upon throughout this entire process, to not only have our best financial interest in mind, but also the mental well-being and stability of the children involved. Whether they know it or not. The lawyers, mediators, financial advisors, judges, etc. all have a voice or opinion that will directly affect you – and your family.
And for their services they get paid very well, for the most part, and they should because they are the ones with the knowledge and experience in this scenario. They are the people that help you design the new outline of your life after divorce. Based upon what is presented to them by either side, of course.
But sometimes, what needs to be considered isn’t necessarily presented during those discussions. Sometimes, there are surprises that nobody could account for, or expect. People change their mind, or agree to the arrangements being laid out just to get through it as quickly as possible without any real intent of following through. People sometimes put themselves and their needs/desires first, with no regard for their children or of the possible fallout, and not just while divorcing but in general.
And people lie. Even if only by omission, but they still lie.
So tell me, how do these professionals not realize that telling almost grown teenagers that they must spend time/holidays somewhere else – even with their own parent – instead of their normally expected traditional practices, is not going to be an easy sell? After everything that they trusted to be their intact family has now been blown to bits.
They are still shell-shocked, reeling from the intense changes most likely, but we’re going to tell them to keep quiet and go along with the program that the adults decided upon.
How can anyone be so confident that what you are all agreeing to in that room, at that time, is exactly what it looks like on the surface and how it will truly work? How can they be so confident that there aren’t any hidden surprises, that we’re all being up front and honest and doing what is truly best for our family and not just our own personal agenda?
Why are we not giving our ‘old enough to know what they want’ kids a voice? Or even a chance to be a part of the conversation?
I know, it’s an adult decision, right? This idea is too big to burden our children with that type of discussion, or to expect them to make those types of decisions, you may think. And I would agree, if your children are under the age of ten maybe. But after you’ve been married for over twenty years, and you have children that are close enough in age to that number, it’s no longer too big for them to handle.
Not including them in the conversation is more disturbing, and disruptive, at that point. Completely disregarding them as individual people is insulting.
During the divorce process, we’re sold this fantasy of cooperation on all fronts, presented with the ideas of shared parenting with butterflies and rainbows. You can now make an agreement regarding the future for yourselves and your children and stick to it. Now you will be thinking of each other’s best interest, be totally honest about your future intentions, and work together as a team to make this transition as easy and painless as possible, right?
Sure, your marriage didn’t work out, actually it kind of imploded, but now you’ll be the best of friends going forward while raising your children under two roofs. Because that’s the best thing for everyone, and who doesn’t want that?
You want to be amicable, to get along for the sake of the children, they keep telling you.
Nobody ever mentions the “what if” scenarios, because it’s too messy and abstract, and you just don’t know until you get there. But you should have some idea that it could, and most likely will, happen and have a backup plan of some sort.
Or at least lower your expectations and be realistic.
During all of those mediation meetings, we put things on the flipchart of how we wanted it all to work, much like a project or a new job. We listed our “goals” and our “challenges” and when they didn’t align we “discussed” it – amongst the group in the room, of course – to get us all on the same page and in agreement.
Very professional, formal and detailed. Everyone saying the right things the right way – because isn’t that the most amicable and grown up way to do it? Presenting our opinions and desires for discussion, not raising our voices or getting emotional, eventually agreeing to what sounds like a collaboration for the blueprint of our future relationship.
All for our kids “best interest”, right?
But is it? Did we really take into account what their best interest was, or what would make them feel the most comfortable and able to adapt to this new lifestyle? Not really.
Instead, we ignored the possibility that they may have had another idea of how this will all work in the end. Or if they would need time to digest it all first, to be able to get on board with this new world order. We didn’t even ask them. They’re our children, technically still minors for the most part, so only the adults in the room – behind a closed door – are able to make those decisions for them.
Not only have we thrust them into a newly designed family unit, without any say so, but now we are telling them that they really don’t have a choice but to go along with what everyone else agreed upon in their absence. Because that’s just how it works.
Let the grown ups handle it, because they’ve done such a bang up job of it so far.
Maybe their best interest was to be given the consideration of choosing how and when to spend their time with the parents involved. Maybe, instead of us looking at a calendar and splitting weekends and holidays with a swift decision based upon “fairness”, we should have asked them what they wanted to do? What would make them most comfortable and feel in control?
Try telling a teenager that they are now shuttling between homes, every other weekend and on major holidays, because that’s what was agreed upon without them.
This is one of the most difficult situations for any child to be in, traumatic and upsetting for the most part, and yet we leave them out of the discussion.
You would think in this age of ‘safe space’ and ‘using your words’ at least one professional in the room would have some idea of how this may play out, and what corners to look around. Especially someone with a degree in family psychology, who is supposedly guiding us in our mediation to best serve our family. Flipcharts and all.
As the divorcing parents, we don’t think of any of this during the stressful time of just trying to get through it all, trying to survive the process without losing our minds. We are so focused on what is fair, what is equitable, that we slot our children into the balance sheets instead of having them sit at the table, even just once, and giving them a choice. Asking them, “What do you want to do? What makes you more comfortable?”
Because nothing about this is comfortable. We don’t even want to think of it, or we ignore the possibility that they may have another idea, for fear that it will only make it more messy. And this is already messy enough.
It’s time that we look at the whole picture in a divorce, not just the assets to be divided, but the people that it affects. Especially now with the supposed increase in “gray divorce”, couples divorcing after twenty or more years of marriage, which equates to almost grown – but still dependent – children in the picture. No longer babies or toddlers that are still adaptable and easily accepting of a new arrangement, but children with a clear idea of what they think is fair and reasonable. Children with an opinion.
It’s not just dinner.