Friday, December 29, 2017

Children of Divorce

Hayley came home the other day and was jealous because a friend of hers had gotten special attention from their teacher.

I'd like to say that 9 is the "age of jealousy" but Hayley has struggled with this her whole life.

Jealousy is such a hard feeling.

I remember being a kid and celebrating my older sister's birthday one year. She was unwrapping presents and opened something that I had been asking for.

So of course, I lost my ever-loving mind! Right there in the middle of her party. I made a huge scene and I'm pretty sure I spent the rest of the party in my room.

And two months later, when my birthday came around, I unwrapped the same gift and sheepishly thanked my parents.

Because what I hadn't known two months prior was that they had bought us both that present but planned to give it to us on our respective birthdays.

Quite honestly, I'm surprised they still chose to give it to me after that episode...

Anyway, as I was listening to Hayley complain and feel hurt that she hadn't gotten any special attention, she gave me the name of the other child and I immediately knew why this girl had gotten that special attention.

And then Hayley yelled, "And it was all because her parents are getting divorced! MY parents are divorced too!!!"

Sigh...

And so I sat down with my sweet and sour little girl and we had a conversation about how divorce affects children, especially in those painful beginning stages.

I explained that four years ago when her dad and I were getting divorced, she got to move her desk to be right next to her Kindergarten teacher. Also during this time, I took her on numerous extra special date nights. And my parents and siblings and friends poured extra time into my children's lives.
And although those things were the most important, my kids were also showered with extra gifts during this time to help them feel loved and remembered.

And then she turned the conversation more personal and asked me why we got divorced---a question I have answered for her many times but that does not make sense to her still.

I think that's why she keeps asking even though she gets some kind of answer every time. 
I have never shied away from this question but I also only answer what is appropriate for her age and understanding.

So we went over it again. How people have their agency and we cannot force them to stay. How sometimes people make decisions that hurt others even when they don't mean to. How these same people can be good, loving people.

I explained that hurt people hurt people. 

And her response to this was, "Well I never hurt anyone when you guys were getting divorced." 

Which wasn't true. 

Because sometimes when you are the safe person, you are the person who takes the brunt of a child's confusing anger and instability.

And I was that person for my kids. 

The instability that Hayley was feeling when she was 5 was very real and scary for her and she would often lose her temper and tell me she hated me and kick me and smack me. And usually, these tantrums would end with us both laying in her bed and me promising that I'd always be there for her.

Of course, as I told her this, she began apologizing for her 5-year-old behavior. And then she asked me why I didn't get angry and hurt her back.

And so I explained that when you love someone as much as I love her, often times you can see beneath their reactions. So when she would kick me, I knew she was reacting to her scared feelings. And I knew what she needed was a mom who would prove to her that I wasn't going anywhere, no matter how many times she screamed.

Sometimes I felt like Hayley was testing me during this time, like she was testing to see what the boundary was where my love for her stopped.

And I'd like to think that I proved myself throughout that first year. I hope I proved to her that nothing can change how much I love her.


This conversation ended like most of them do---I laid next to her in her bed and promised her that I would always be there for her.

But as I sat on her bed and watched her fall asleep, I kept replaying all of the ways that divorce has affected my children.

---Anxiety. The confusion of waking up one day and one parent just being gone. I can't even imagine being 5 and having this happen and trying to make sense of it. Because before August 24th, 2013, I don't believe my children had ever considered their parents NOT living in the same home.
This confusion created anger and sadness and instability. It created attachment anxiety and my kids needing constant affirmation that I wasn't going anywhere. Andersen started to have pretty bad anxiety during our divorce and reverted back to a lot of 'baby behaviors'. He still can be pretty clingy at times and we often lay his schedule out ahead of time so he knows where he is going and what he is doing.

---The negative impacts on extracurricular activities. Scheduling Hayley's dance stuff can be really stressful for me and in turn, she gets stressed out sometimes. There are times she accidentally leaves a dance outfit or dance shoes at her dad's house and we can't go get it before it is needed. Andersen also goes through this when his soccer games are every weekend and he switches houses every weekend so we have to make sure everything is ready to go days ahead of time so he is packed and won't be missing anything.

---Heartache when interacting with children of NON-divorced parents. Sometimes my kids come home from a friends house or from church and they seem to have this reoccurring realization that most families aren't like ours. Most families have a mom and a dad who live at home and go to church together with their children and attend activities together. And every once in a while, my kids will get sad about this realization and will experience a range of emotions that are hard to feel.

---The worry that they are going to lose more family members. This rides alongside the attachment anxiety. My kids used to ask me questions like, "Is grandma going to leave the family?" "Will my cousins always be my cousins?" "When you get remarried, do we still get to see our dad?", etc. because to them, these are valid concerns. If one person can just move out of the house they've always shared, what stops other people from leaving?

---Guilt. My kids have struggled with feeling guilty. This one especially affects Hayley. She is always concerned about her dad's and my feelings. She will retract a sentence if she thinks I'll interpret it as her loving her dad more than me or vice versa. We work on this a lot because I want her to know she can love us both and that saying something good about one of us does not negate her love for the other person.

For me, the hardest part of divorce has been not being able to take away the pain my kids feel. It is so hard to watch your children experience really difficult emotions and not be able to take that from them.

But the good news is that they can still live amazing lives. We can support them and listen to them and show up when they need us.

I don't quite understand what my children have gone through because I did not grow up in the same environment they are but I believe that if I continue to be there and love them and give them as much stability as I'm able to, they will be ok.