With Mother’s Day this week, my heart is telling me to write about daughters. Specifically, my own.
I worried how both of the kids would fare upon getting the news of our divorce. My son N., who has Asperger’s and gets flustered by disruption in his routine, had just turned 13. He adjusted surprisingly well (he was more concerned that it meant we’d have to move, which we didn’t). But my daughter D. was at a precarious age. At 16, she was “not a girl, not yet a woman,” as Britney famously put it – and I feared the irreparable damage that our breakup might have on her.
I was anxious about the potential fallout when D.’s dad told her that he was moving out that same day. The first male object of love in our lives, our fathers set the standard of how a relationship with man should be. The way dad loves shapes and colors our perceptions of love and commitment, and as a result, that has a big influence on our expectations of our future intimate relationships.
It broke my heart that this devastation was not something I could prepare her for or protect her from. Despite her age, she was still our strong-willed yet sensitive little girl, the same one who used to write little notes and slide them under our door.
At first, D. was angry at her dad, and it didn’t help matters that his only reassurance was that she’d get over it with time. As I was grappling with my own rage and resentment, it would have been very easy for me to feed into her teenage angst and attempt to punish my ex by driving a bigger wedge between them – but I didn’t.
Instead, I saw my role as one of peacemaker. Strange, I know. But I believe that wounded girls can become wounded women with trust issues unless they have an opportunity to heal that all-important relationship with their fathers. I couldn’t do the healing for them, but I wouldn’t stand in their way. Heaven knows it wasn’t always easy, but I tried my best to encourage D.’s connection with her dad.
The main reason I chose to take the high road is because I understand how much daughters need their daddies. I am fortunate to have a strong bond with my father, who has been married to my mother for nearly 50 years and in love with her for 55 years. So, yes, I do know how important that relationship is to building healthy self-esteem and having the confidence to love and be loved.
They say that the two best gifts a mother can give her daughter is 1) the opportunity to have a relationship with her father and 2) encouraging her independence. I honor the fact that D. has her own identity; that she must make her own decisions and learn from her own mistakes, but at the same time, I hope that she has learned from my mistakes too. That includes embracing her right to recognize what she will not tolerate in a relationship and finding the courage to speak up when faced with unacceptable behavior. In other words, believing in her own strength and truth.
Looking back on the past five years, I may have made a few missteps, but I’m glad I was able to get these six things right especially for D.’s benefit:
1. Be honest with her from the start. There is heated debate over telling the kids why the marriage ended. In my case, I not only believed they were old enough to handle a carefully-worded version of the truth, but that they deserved to know why our once “unbreakable” family had been suddenly smashed into a thousand pieces. Psychiatrist and author Scott Haltzman says: “When an affair happens, it cheats the spouse and the family of the love and commitment of a partner and parent. Telling the child may put an ugly name on why a parent has pulled away from the family, but it is, ultimately, naming a truth. And if there is one thing that affairs teach us, it is how devastating lies can be.”
2. Not prolonging the “Pick Me Dance.” A natural response to discovering infidelity in your marriage is attempting to salvage the relationship. Wanting to bargain, to fix it, to try harder, to seek counselling, to take up the other person’s hobbies, to have more frequent, non-vanilla sex, and to otherwise turn your life upside down to “win” a partner back is a process known as the “Pick Me Dance.” This is a very painful and humiliating stage that can cause confusion and false expectations in a family situation. While it can go on for months, I mercifully ripped off that Band-Aid in less than a week, thus saving my kids from harboring false hope of a reconciliation or from having D. see me devalue my personal worth.
3. Not badmouthing her father (or man-bashing anyone else). I tried to be careful in how I talked about their dad in front of them because I didn’t want them to feel guilty for continuing to love him, nor to feel conflicted in their loyalties. Children of divorce can struggle with their own identities (if someone says mom/dad is bad, does that mean I’m bad too?) and I wouldn’t want them to think they are genetically predispositioned to disappoint. I also didn’t bash men in front of D. It would have been grossly unfair to cynically reduce the entire male population to a handful of negative stereotypes.
4. Continue to offer her stability and consistency. After the shake-up of divorce, I wanted to quickly upright our world so that D. and her brother could feel surefooted again. We were all stressed, but I reassured them that we would be fine, and that they would continue to be provided with all the love and basic necessities they needed. With help from my immediate family, I re-established our home as a refuge of stability and consistency and more importantly, did my best to assure the kids that they could always count on me to be there for them.
5. Be an example of what love looks like. D. is in a long-term relationship; she and her boyfriend were together two years before her father and I split up and they are engaged to be married next year. I am grateful that she had someone to help her through this traumatic time and was already in a committed relationship with a foundation strong enough to withstand the impact of her parents’ divorce. All the same, I’m glad that D. is still living at home so that she can witness how happy I am in my new relationship. Psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington, who studied 1,400 divorced and remarried families, found that a successful remarriage, competent parenting and low conflict in the home can counteract the negative effects of parental divorce. I hope my partner and I model a healthy and respectful relationship and that D. sees us as an example of why it is important to never close your heart to the possibility of love.
6. Show her what a strong woman can do. Actress Valerie Bertinelli said that one of the keys to a happy life after divorce is to “Love your children more than you hate your ex.” While I have been far from perfect in my divorce recovery, one thing I have always been good at is putting my kids above everything else – even how I felt about their father.
Two years ago, my ex got engaged. That Christmas, I sent him a card expressing my best wishes. This did not come easily, considering that this summer he is marrying the woman he was seeing when our marriage ended, but I thought it was an important gesture to make in front of the kids. I was proud of myself for displaying that level of generosity and for making a move to start bridging the great divide, a gap that hurts no one more than it does our children.
Then last fall, I took it one step further by initiating a family dinner for the six of us at a local restaurant while the kids’ father and his fiancée were in town. It was the first time she and I met face to face, and I knew D. and N. were apprehensive about potential fireworks (believe me, I was a nervous wreck inside). By putting the kids’ best interests first, it assured that the atmosphere around the table was not only civil but friendly. That dinner paved the way for our family’s future by forging a cordial relationship with the kids’ father and soon-to-be stepmother, regardless of our past history.
I think that evening went a long way in showing D., and the rest of us, that even after something as ugly as divorce, love always wins.