Parents always wonder about the children when they get divorced. Will they be okay? Will they understand? What will they remember? My parents divorced when I was eight years old. My father told me he would have stayed, if my mother would have tried. My mother told me all she ever did was try. And for many years, finding out “the truth” mattered to me. I wanted someone to blame. Sometimes that person was my father. Sometimes that person was my mother. Other times it wasn’t a person at all but the very idea of love itself.
For half my childhood, my single, divorced mom raised me and my three siblings. We survived on her bookkeeper salary and the child support check my father sent (mostly) every month. As a teenager, it was easy to believe in the way most teenagers do that I knew best. That if I were my mother I would do it all differently. Now, only a couple years older than my mother was when she married my father, I’m not so sure. Her shoes fit more comfortably. So, what do I wish my divorced mom would have known? From the practical to the personal, here I go.
It’s better to lean into your pain together than hide it away.
My mother’s optimism has always impressed me, but her optimism is something that I now, as an adult, see in myself as something else: a mask. In other words, my mother was good at faking it. When I was growing up, we both faked it for the same reasons. I was a good student who read books, stayed out of trouble, and faded into the background. I said “fine” when she asked how I was doing, instead of saying how sad or lost I felt. I developed a sort of apathy and tried to unburden my mother. To take one more thing—raising me—off her plate, so, in many ways, my siblings and I raised each other. In doing so, I’m afraid we may have made my mother feel like we didn’t need her, which could not have been further from the truth.
I’m afraid we may have made my mother feel like we didn’t need her, which could not have been further from the truth.
Optimism is a mask that’s hard to keep on forever. Hiding becomes a habit that’s hard to break, further isolating you from your loved ones, and turning to substances like alcohol to cope is all too easy. That’s why it’s so important to find a support group outside of your usual social circles—women who understand your situation because they are going through it too or have already been there. Wanting to “be strong” for your children is understandable, but needing help is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, knowing when to ask for help is a great lesson for your children to learn.
As a divorced mom, your relationship with money will change, and that’s okay.
Because my mother never remarried and had no college degree, finances were often a struggle. Little luxuries, like attending ballet classes, disappeared. We stopped bringing lunch to school and instead began typing our ID numbers into keypads in the cafeteria while women wearing hair nets discreetly pointed out what food the government would pay for and what food they would not. Then it got worse—my mother explained how we were losing the house. The car went missing from the driveway one night, and again, my mother explained, only this time we learned what a repo man was.
My mother was drowning. If I mentioned anything to my father, he’d mumble something about child support and the conversation would quickly shift to a diatribe of all the ways my mother was failing us.
My mother was not failing us. She was not alone, and neither are you. According to the US Census Bureau, nearly 40 percent of households led by single moms are living below the poverty line. Even today, when articles rethinking the value of a college degree seem prevalent, the impact having a bachelor’s degree makes on your earning potential can’t be ignored. In 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median biweekly paycheck of someone with a bachelor’s degree was $928 more than a person with a high school diploma.
But if you’re drowning in debt and stretched thin, like my mother was, then attending college likely seems out of reach. Single mothers might be surprised to find out there are often more resources available to them than they think. If you’re a divorced mom, you can also take advantage of online finance classes geared toward women where you can learn about budgeting, paying off debt, and saving.
There’s a line between honesty and therapy.
I grew up in a house full of women (and one little brother, poor him) who loved to talk. We prided ourselves on our ability to be honest with each other. Even so, as a child, if I overheard my mother or anyone else speak poorly of my father, I took it upon myself to personally defend his honor. I didn’t condone his actions, I said, but he was my father and I loved him and that was that as far as I was concerned.
After the divorce, I saw my father often. He took us to see movies and let me wander libraries and bookstores while he distracted my little brother. He listened to me, and I could tell he thought I was smart. That kind of thing mattered to me. But I wasn’t going to stay little forever. Sometimes I’d come home to my mother and vent, and it was then the floodgates would open. We became co-victims of my father’s transgressions.
The phrase “talk it out” exists for a reason.
The phrase “talk it out” exists for a reason. Many of us feel better after a good talk with someone who just gets it. But after divorce, relationships with friends and family can feel strained. Because children usually deeply understand the events that led to a divorce, even if they can’t articulate everything they heard and saw, it’s easy for parents to overshare.
A common complaint I’ve heard from other children of divorce is how their parents treated them (and often still treat them) as messengers or, even, as therapists. But your children’s father will always be a part of their lives, even if he ceases being part of yours. Instead of creating a wedge between your children and their father, use divorce as a lesson in setting personal boundaries, forgiving others, and loving someone despite their imperfections. If you find yourself venting to your children, do your best to bite your tongue and speak to a friend or professional instead. Let your children form their own opinions about who their father is or isn’t.
Your children need a parent, not a friend.
As I got older, I became my mother’s confidant. The person she could talk to without judgment. Children who find themselves in this position often begin to see their parents as their equal. This dynamic grows worse if you struggle to discipline or provide structure for your children. Do they have chores? Do they have a curfew? Do you ask about their day at school, or review homework assignments together? And when mistakes are made and tantrums are thrown, how do you teach your children?
After divorce, the instinct to “do it all yourself” can be so tempting. You come home tired after a long work day. The thought of barking orders at your children or ticking domestic tasks off your to-do list seems just about impossible. So you let things slide.
When your kids start to think of you as the parent “who lets things slide,” that’s when you have a problem. You become the cool adult friend they just happen to live with instead of their parent.
But when your kids start to think of you as the parent “who lets things slide,” that’s when you have a problem. You become the cool adult friend they just happen to live with instead of their parent.
The importance of creating family moments.
I have so many happy memories, even after the divorce, but I also remember how, as we grew older, our daily lives grew more fragmented. My mother was (and still is) fun. She liked to garden and do DIY projects, anything from rehabbing furniture to making lotions and lip balms from scratch. She cooked constantly and never from a recipe. I loved helping her. I’d ask her how much seasoning to put in a dish and the reply was always the same: “Trust your gut.” These things brought us together. Later, we often retreated to our own bedrooms after school, where I’d read a book or my brother would play video games. I found myself feeling nostalgic for a past I knew I couldn’t get back to.
It’s important to continue traditions and begin new ones—to have family dinners, to host game or movie nights. To remind your children that the end of a marriage isn’t the end of their world.
As a divorced mom, it’s important to continue traditions and begin new ones—to have family dinners, to host game or movie nights. To remind your children that the end of a marriage isn’t the end of their world.
You can’t control everything that happens after divorce. What your children will remember more than anything is that you were there for them and that you did your best for them. Show your children that you can fail and keep going. How what’s worse than making a mistake is not learning your lesson. I remember how much my mother tried more than I remember her failures. More than anything, this is what I’d tell her—it’s what I do tell her.
This article was authored for SAS for Women by Melanie Figueroa, a freelance writer and content editor who loves discussing women’s issues and creativity. Melanie helps authors and small businesses improve their writing and solve their editorial needs.
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