I’ve faced many difficult moments in my life. Who hasn’t? But preparing to tell my son that I will be divorcing his father was absolutely one of the worst. Thinking about breaking the news filled me with dread, not to mention gut-wrenching fear … anxiety … incredible guilt … and the oppressive weight of shame.
My son, after all, was innocent. A sweet, dear soul who loved his father and mother both. He certainly didn’t deserve this.
I struggled with the anxiety for weeks in advance. When should I tell him? How should I tell him? Should we tell him together? And most frightening of all, WHAT SHOULD WE SAY?
How do you explain to your child that the life he has known, the comfort he has felt in his family setting, is about to be disrupted – changed – forever?
How do you explain to your child that none of this is his fault?
How do you reassure him that life will go on, that he will be safe, cared for and loved, even after his parents divorce?
And, even more intimidating, how do you prepare him for all the unknowns looming ahead when you’re not sure yourself how it will all turn out?
I needed a plan. A strategy. A way of conveying all that I wanted to say to him at a level of understanding that he could grasp.
My son was eleven at the time. He was still a child, yet old enough to feel the tension in our home that had been escalating for several years. He heard the frequent irritation in our voices when his father and I spoke. He heard the arguments that would flair up suddenly in the midst of routine conversations. He heard the sarcastic inflections in our communication as well as the deafening silence when we were beyond words and engulfed in our frustration and anger.
Silently, internally, my son was experiencing it all and, not surprisingly, be began to show signs of stress. Sometimes it came in the form of headaches which had been increasing in frequency over the past two years. Other times it was his tears that revealed the pain he felt at hearing what he heard and being helpless to stop it. Many times he acted out, showing us his escalating temper, taking attention away from our drama and placing it on him. We watched as our son quietly filled up with rage about controlling a situation that was certainly beyond his control!
The most frustrating part of it all is that we knew better, his father and I. We knew better than to fight in front of our son, to allow him to be caught up in our difficulties. But as our unhappiness together grew over time, we lost a handle on what we knew and gave in to what we felt. It was a terrible mistake, one which I will always regret because my innocent child, the being I loved more than anyone in the universe, was paying the price.
I wrote a list for myself of what was most important for me to convey to my son when I — or both his father and I — spoke to him. Six points stood out as most essential:
- THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT.
- YOU ARE AND WILL ALWAYS REMAIN SAFE.
- MOM AND DAD WILL ALWAYS BE YOUR PARENTS.
- MOM AND DAD WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU.
- THIS IS ABOUT CHANGE, NOT ABOUT BLAME.
- THINGS WILL WORK OUT OKAY.
I knew this was vital information I had to get across. But how do I say it? I rehearsed dozens of conversations in my head during those weeks. They seemed awkward. Rehearsed. Insincere. Nothing felt right or did justice to the importance of this conversation.
Everything I tried brought up more questions than answers. How do I begin? How do I prepare myself to answer all his questions? How do I cope with the inevitable tears? With his anger and pain? And then what?
One night at 4 a.m., while my troubled mind rehashed my insecurities in bed, a thought came to me that resonated in a powerful way. I remembered that my son always enjoyed looking through the family photo albums, primarily because they were filled with photos of him. He liked seeing his baby pictures and watching himself change as he grew. The albums were like a story book of his life. They kept his attention for long periods of time. They also brought out his curiosity and questions which opened the door to many relaxed family conversations.
What if I prepared a photo album for my son that told the story of our family in pictures and words? And what if it spanned from before he was born right up to the present, preparing him for the new changes ahead?
The storybook concept gave him something tangible he could hold on to and read over again and again to help him grasp what was about to transpire. It would explain, in language he could understand, why this was happening and what to expect. Most important of all, it would be a format that allowed me to make sure I emphasized the six crucial points I knew I had to get across to him.
And, rather than rehearsing a conversation that felt like a mine-field of possible mistakes and detours, the storybook would give me a written, pre-planned script that was well thought through in advance. Thankfully, it worked.
When the storybook was completed I showed it to my husband. It was important to me that we both agreed upon the message we were conveying to our child. What I said was not controversial, judgmental or accusatory. On the contrary. The story in the book told the truth while focusing on areas of mutual agreement, the six crucial points that most every parent would want to get across.
While my husband was angry with me for initiating our divorce, he understood that the point of our storybook was not to air our differences but to show as much support to our son, during this difficult time, as was possible. He agreed the book was well done.
On the evening we set aside, my husband and I sat down with my son and told him we had put together a storybook photo album about our family. He was immediately interested. I started reading aloud. At times I stopped for a moment as we reminisced about a birthday party, vacation or other memorable event mentioned in our story. It felt good to laugh together, even if only briefly, sitting on the sofa as a family for, perhaps, one of the very last times.
As I started reading about changes in the family — the tensions, disagreements, and sad times — I watched as tears pooled up in my son’s eyes. By the time I reached the end of the story he was weeping uncontrollably and holding on to both of us as tightly as he could.
Then came the inevitable anticipated responses. “NO! You’re not getting a divorce. I don’t want you to. You can’t. It isn’t fair.” And then, as a family, we talked, cried, hugged, answered questions, repeated answers, reread passages in the book and consoled one another.
The deed was done. It was dreadful to go through. But somehow having the book as an anchor, something to reread, hold on to and keep was helpful for my son. We had the conversation about the impending divorce many, many times in the following weeks and even after the divorce itself. Sometimes we’d refer back to a page or two in the book as a reminder that Mom and Dad will still love him forever and that everything will be okay.
The book also helped me and my husband to keep a perspective about our son. To remember that this was not about good guys and bad guys, judgments and accusations. People and situations change. Life evolves. And beyond our differences, our frustrations and disappointments, we were still both his Mom and Dad and always will be. Therefore we needed to treat each other with dignity and respect.
It has been more than a decade since I prepared that storybook about our family. I have since remarried and my son has graduated college and embarked on an exciting career as a veterinarian. As a grown young man in his twenties he is very close to both his father and me. And he tells us, much as he hated our decision at the time, he now believes we were wise to get a divorce and move on with our lives, both of us choosing more suitable mates. When I approached him with my idea about sharing our family storybook with others who are facing divorce and emotionally torn up about how to tell their children, he enthusiastically agreed that it was a great idea.
Whether you use the storybook template in my new book, or create one yourself from the concepts I’ve shared in this article, I know it will be a resource you can turn to when expressing your love for your children as you move through divorce and beyond.
At this difficult time in the life of your family, I send you my heartfelt compassion and my very best wishes for the most positive and peaceful resolution for everyone involved.
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Rosalind Sedacca, CDC, has been facilitating relationship seminars and workshops for more than fifteen years. As a Certified Corporate Trainer and professional speaker, she now focuses her attention on coaching troubled families on how to create a “child-centered divorce.” For other free articles on this subject, to receive her free ezine, and/or to order her book, How Do I Tell the Kids About the DIVORCE? A Create-a-Storybook Guide To Preparing Your Children –With Love, Rosalind invites you to visit her website, www.childcentereddivorce.com.
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