I wonder if you can help me with my problem. I am 33, married with two children – a boy 9 and a girl 7. My husband and I have decided to divorce – it’s all quite amicable and there’s no-one else involved, we’ve simply grown apart and have nothing in common any more, although we are still good friends.
My problem is the children. I know if asked my son he would want to live with his Dad, and my daughter with me. I don’t want to split them up but it’s tearing me apart what this is going to do to my son. We have talked and talked and decided it’s best if they both live with me, but how on earth do we tell our children. What do I do if my son wants to live with his Dad? I don’t think I can bear it. We’ve tried so hard to make our marriage work and now we’ve finally made the decision to split I’m not sure what to do next. (Incidentally we have already been to Relate).
Can you tell me also where we stand in law? I know courts sometimes ask the children their preference. I’m studying full time right now so we have decided to stay together until I am finished so I will be able to support myself – my son will be 12 then and my daughter 10. Any suggestions would be helpful I’m sure.
The courts now prefer to stay out of custody battles. Parents are encouraged to make their own arrangements as reasonably and amicably as possible. But if it came to a fight, children are asked their opinion because it is their needs which should be uppermost. You’re making several classic mistakes. One is assuming that your kids won’t have already realised their family is in trouble. Another is that a parent’s job is to protect their children from real life, make life carefree and easy and to come up with all the answers.
You also seem to believe that when a family breaks up parents can and should distribute their children to one or other new household, along with the sideboard and sofa. You are treating them like objects you own, must have and hold and fight over. But your most potentially damaging mistake is in not confronting the fact that you and your kids have a very different take on what is happening here.
A divorce is a fresh start for the adults but a drastic, dramatic ending for children. In order to get them through it you have to acknowledge and understand that their viewpoint and feelings are very different to your own. It doesn’t help for you to only see this situation through your own eyes and to try and impose your view on them. Even at seven and nine your children have feelings and opinions of their own. I’m not suggesting you throw into their laps the decision of who to live with. That’s totally inappropriate, I agree. But that is not the question you should be asking.
The question is “We no longer love each other or want to live together but we’ll always love you and be your parents. So, how are we going to arrange our lives round giving you a full-time Mum and Dad?”
You’re thinking about what you may possibly lose – start seeing what they are losing and how you can manage it better. Spread the burden a little. The longer you wrestle with this behind their backs the less reason they will ever have to trust and respect you. By drawing them into the discussion you help your children learn a valuable truth – that life isn’t all sunshine and roses. But you demonstrate they can rely on their parents to love and be there for them, no matter what.
You could also help them recognise that they may have some control over their lives. The greatest unhappiness that children feel in a situation like this is in being utterly powerless. Give them a voice and give them some choices. You’ll find they don’t see it in black and white, only-one-way-to-settle-this terms.
Research has shown that children of divorced parents are no more disadvantaged than those whose family remains intact if they still have easy access to both their Mum and their Dad. You seem to think that the aim is for you to win control, have your children remain firmly with you while your husband goes off into the wilderness. Why assume that your children will only have one residence?
Families who have managed divorce with a good outcome do it by living near enough to each other so that children can make their own way between separate houses, having a base in each. You don’t lose one, other or both. Both of you remain full-time parents, it’s just that some nights one or both your kids sleep at his place and some nights they sleep at yours, some evenings and weekends they’re with him and some with you.
If you’re still friends, than act it; live as near as possible so that you can have your own, new private lives but your kids can continue to spend time with both their parents whenever and however they choose and need.
A parent is a parent for life. The only question is whether it’s to be a parent who is there for you or one that is absent. And the tragedy about absent parents is their absence tells children that they are failures – rejected, abandoned, unloved and unlovable. It’s not that parents divorce that hurts and damages children but how they do it.
You’ve been to Relate so now approach mediation for help. The UK College of Family Mediators or National Family Mediation can tell you of your nearest centre; ring 020 7391 9162 or go to www.ukcfm.co.uk for the former, call 0117 904 2825 or go to http://www.nfm.u-net.com/ for the latter. If you live in Scotland, try Family Mediation Scotland 0131 220 1610. They’ll help the four of you come up with a solution that fits.
Best of wishes, and good luck!