midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the tag “children of divorce”

Listening

A follow up to my post on Facing the Music (from May 17, 2017, re-posted below), describing my invitation to have an authentic conversation with my young adult daughter Rebecca to hear her perspective on growing up in a family of divorce and the mistakes or oversights I may have made during those crucial years of development:

Time was running short, but I didn’t want to be a typical “all talk, no do” phony dad. I made my overture for an honest conversation just before I went to the beach for three months to teach tennis. Now I had less than two weeks back home until Rebecca traveled to France for a school year to teach English, and she was busy preparing and doing things with friends and family.

There seems never a good time to have difficult, uncomfortable and potentially distressing conversations. They’re easily avoided, and that’s what many people do, DiscussionTimeburying the hurt, anger, disappointment, sadness or other negative emotions until one day they boil over and surface in a torrent, providing release for the emotional-baggage carrier and a knockdown punch for the recipient of the pent-up emotions, unaware of the depth and intensity of feelings. I’ve been on both the unleashing and receiving ends of the bubbling emotional volcanos, and it’s never pretty.

A few days before Rebecca jetted off, we found ourselves together at home, and I broached the topic. Understandably, Rebecca was ambivalent about getting into an emotional conversation about past wounds and frustrations before embarking on an adventure of a lifetime. But she started talking, and I listened and asked questions.

I can’t reveal the content of what we discussed about our relationship and family life, and the complications and challenges Rebecca faced as a child, along with her younger brother, whose parents separated 12 years ago when she was 9 and ultimately divorced. It’s too private.

But I can say that at certain times I could have handled things better, that I was caught up in myself, that I made some mistakes, and that I was sometimes unaware of – or didn’t want to acknowledge – how much the kids observed, heard, knew or perceived, even at relatively young ages. Listening to Rebecca’s perspective and looking back, I can say how challenging it was for me to balance the needs, feelings, happiness, stability and security of my kids with my own needs, desires and emotions, and to try to lean toward selfless rather than selfish.

Divorce and eventual remarriage created some circumstances that ultimately were going to cause some distress for Rebecca individually and in our relationship, no matter what I did or said. The complexities of a marriage breakup and the constantly evolving aftermath can’t be fully grasped by a child, whose experience can be like that of a pinball ricocheting within a constrained environment. I experienced the pinball game as a child, and certainly didn’t understand everything that was going on with my divorced parents, and now so has Rebecca.

The beauty of our conversation was that Rebecca was able to tell me some things about what transpired from her perspective, what she experienced and how she felt honestly, and I was able to listen while squelching the default tendency to be defensive or critical.

We got through it with our relationship intact and expressions of love for each other. I’m hoping our conversation helps set a foundation for our future adult relationship, one in which we can be open and honest with each other without fear that we will be jeopardizing our relationship by revealing our feelings and with knowledge that we love each other unconditionally regardless of any conflicts, hurt feelings or differences that can be addressed and resolved.

So many relationships between fathers and adult children barely break the surface because of the dread of churning what lies beneath and what digging will uncover, or because of an inability, unwillingness or lack of desire to go deeper. Stoicism and emotional avoidance are drilled into males. I don’t want that type of relationship with my kids as they grow into adulthood. I want them to know and understand me, with all my attributes and faults, as I do them. I want us to be able to know and share our emotional selves. The only way to do that is to be emotionally available and vulnerable to them, and to show that I care about and want to know how they feel, and can handle it when they lay it on me.

One takeaway from our conversation is that whatever mistakes I made as Rebecca was growing up, I believe that she accepts my apologies, forgives my transgressions, acknowledges that I have tried to be a good and caring father and doesn’t expect me to be perfect. Our conversation was a good start toward setting the standard and expectation of our relationship for the future. I’m glad we each took the risk of having it instead of avoiding it.

Facing the Music (Midlife Dude Blog Post from May 17, 2017)

As my daughter Rebecca and I were discussing her sociology class on adolescence, she tangentially announced, “You and mom did a good job raising me.”

Surprised by an out-of-the-blue compliment, I asked, “What makes you say that?”

Rebecca explained that she does not view herself as materialistic, implying instead that she values experiences and relationships above things. We provided for her needs and many wants, but we didn’t overindulge, and didn’t replace our caring, attention and presence with materials, she was saying.

As a 21-year-old sociology major graduating from the University of Maryland in four days, she has learned about inequality, justice, race, poverty, privilege, human development and other similar topics, helping her become more insightful and introspective about her own life, and more astute about distinctions among individuals and communities.

I was happy to hear Rebecca praise our parenting, since her mom and I broke up when she was 9. My biggest fear about our divorce was that it would cause emotional and psychological problems for Rebecca and younger brother Daniel.

“So we did a lot of things right,” I said, fishing for more praise.

“Yeah, but not everything,” she said, adding the inevitable disclaimer.

“What didn’t we do so well?”

“There were things I haven’t talked to you about.”

We were headed to an Easter celebration, so there wasn’t time, and it wasn’t the right time, to get below the surface. But I kept the conversation in my memory, committed to return to it.

I did that last weekend, inviting Rebecca to have an open discussion with me as a young adult, reflecting on her experiences as a pre-teen and teenager, the positive and the negative, the gratifying and the disappointing, the supportive and the hurtful.

That conversation, I recognize, will require certain things of me, to be constructive rather than destructive or dismissive:  I’ll want to approach it as a listener, not a talker, and with an open-minded, non-judgmental, non-defensive attitude. Because I know my temptation, like any parent told in retrospect they weren’t as magnificent as they believed, will be to explain or justify or rationalize or correct the record, which would only serve to shut down Rebecca, diminish openness, trust and honesty and invalidate her experiences and feelings. My current training in counseling should help me control such urges.

I would like to give Rebecca the chance to have an open forum with me without fear of reprisal or disengagement. I believe it’s important to transition into our adult relationship with everything in the open, past issues revealed and understood, nothing left unsaid, as the foundation for our future interactions and communications.  It’s the key to an emotionally healthy, genuine father-daughter relationship.

I don’t know what she will say to me. I don’t know if I’ll be surprised. I don’t know what emotions it will trigger. But I want to hear it. I know I had good intentions throughout her childhood, and did my best as a father. But I also know I made mistakes. And I know the fact of divorce created situations and triggered emotions that were difficult, or perhaps impossible, to manage without having an impact on the kids. 

Facing the music about my role and impact as a divorced (and remarried) father in my daughter’s life will increase my awareness and, I hope, strengthen my ability to relate to Rebecca. It’s worth whatever discomfort or ego deflation it may cause me.

Overcoming Perils of Divorce

I’m a child of divorce who has wound up raising two children of divorce of my own.

Children of divorce face many more challenges in their development as kids and in adjustments to adult life and adult relationships than children from intact families, as found in Judith Wallerstein’s landmark 25-year study, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce.familyatthanksgiving2016

But so far, at least from what I can observe on the surface and by traditional markers of success, my kids Rebecca and Daniel are showing strong signs of overcoming the perils of divorce.

[Disclaimer: Father’s unabashed bragging on kids to follow.] Rebecca, 21, is set to graduate from the University of Maryland in May, with a 3.7 GPA and multiple honor roll appearances. She’s run marathons. She’s ventured into the world, spending a semester in France and traveling extensively throughout Europe. She has loads of friends, and has formed and maintained an intimate relationship, dating a solid young man for four years. She has an internship with the French Embassy and is planning to teach English in France after graduation.

Daniel, 18, earned straight As in his first semester at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC), taking advanced courses in computer science, biology and math that would have pummeled me as a freshman. He earned multiple Advanced Placement (AP) college credits while in high school, setting him up to graduate college within three years. He has maintained and thrived in a job while attending college and just celebrated six months in a relationship with a lovely girlfriend.

Psychological, social or emotional problems connected to growing up in a divorced family could surface as they advance into young adulthood, progress deeper into their own relationships and reflect more on their childhood experiences. But to this point, I’m thrilled and grateful for their demonstrated resilience and ability to adapt, thrive and make good decisions.

I will also take some credit for their positive adjustments, and give a good deal to their mother Theresa (not the Mother Theresa), for making a commitment to positive, caring and mutually respectful and cooperative parenting, despite the challenges we each faced due to the dissolution of our marriage. Both step-parents, Amy and Bernard, also deserve credit for being consistent, stable and positive influences, in roles often fraught with conflict that can become destructive and divisive.

For half or more of their childhoods, the kids split their time – week on and week off – with each parent. There was unavoidable upheaval – my ex-wife and I each moved twice and sold the kids’ primary childhood home. But we never lived more than 10 minutes apart (until last year when Theresa moved to Texas), and the kids were able to continue attending school in their same district without disruption.

As parents, we cooperated in financial matters, and though we were weaker financially as separate entities, the kids weren’t deprived of things they wanted to do and didn’t suffer materially. We were each committed to continue saving for the kids’ college educations despite the split, and now that is paying off big-time.

I’m sure I said things I shouldn’t have and made mistakes, especially early in the breakup. Challenges arose throughout our co-parenting in relation to family gatherings, which became emotional and tense. We weathered them, though it may have left a mark on the kids. Overall, however, I strived to be respectful and positive about Theresa, and not pollute the kids’ minds or attempt to influence them negatively or turn them against their mother with whatever hard feelings I might have had. And for good reason, because I knew Theresa was a good mother, and the kids knew the same, and anything I did to tear her down would reflect badly upon me and prompt the kids to resent me. To my knowledge, Theresa behaved the same toward me, and I’m grateful for that.

I believe these efforts, which had to be conscious, thoughtful, consistent and enduring, have helped ameliorate the effects of divorce for Rebecca and Daniel. And those potential effects, according to Wallerstein’s 25-year study, are considerable and lasting:

  • A harder, unhappier and diminished childhood, including adjustments in contact with each parent, relocations, losses of friendships and activities, decreased influence of parenting, higher anxiety, and worry about one or both parents
  • More acting out and less protection during adolescence, a result largely of inconsistent and unenforced rules and standards, and assuming greater responsibilities for themselves
  • Higher chances of sexual promiscuity among female adolescents
  • A belief that personal relationships are unreliable, and even the closest family relationships can’t be expected to last
  • Observations of second parental marriages that typically proved less stable and enduring than the first
  • Feelings of loneliness, bewilderment and anger at parents
  • Scarring memories of witnessing violence during the breakup and aftermath, and repercussions of abandonment
  • Less planning for and lower chances of college enrollment, and inadequate financial support from parents once enrolled
  • Diminished capacity to love and to be loved within a lasting, committed relationship in adulthood, a fear of failure and feelings of pessimism based on their childhood experiences, and a desire to avoid the emotional pain

Though impacts are inevitable, I am hopeful that my kids will avoid or minimize these impacts through their own strengths and abilities to deal with their childhood divorce experience in healthy ways, and through the knowledge that their parents – all four of us now – care about them greatly and always will be there to support them. So far, it looks like that’s the track they are traveling, and I am confident that they have the tools and fortitude to stay that course. Hopefully, they will break the familial pattern both my ex-wife and I experienced as kids, and bestowed on our own.

Going, Going, Gone!

A week ago I lugged my son Daniel’s mini-refrigerator and cartful of computer equipment to a cramped dorm room at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) and officially became an empty nester. My daughter Rebecca left home for good later the same weekend to move into her new apartment at the University of Maryland.DanAdam2_PotomacHall

Since I’ve been gone all summer scraping together income to fuel my midlife career transition odyssey – except for one-day-per-month visits back home – teaching tennis at the Sea Colony Tennis resort in Bethany Beach, DE, the kids’ flight hasn’t fully registered with me yet. But when I return home for good on Labor Day night, I’ll be faced with the fact that my role as a parent has changed.

My kids have become so much more independent in the last year. Rebecca spent a semester in France and traveled throughout Europe. Daniel became more social, broadened his circle of friends, with whom he traveled to Ocean City, MD for Senior Week and California over the summer, connected with a steady girlfriend, got his first job at which he is advancing and earned college scholarship funds.

They’re becoming young adults, and our relationships will change. I am curious what those relationships will be like.

Since they are attending colleges nearby, they’ll be around on occasion, but now their college residences are their primary addresses. I am going to miss having one or both kids around the house on a regular basis.

I’m thinking the transition may be easier for me than for parents in an intact family. My kids lived with me only half the time for about half of their childhoods, since they were 9 and 7, because of my divorce. I always felt sad when I brought the kids back to their mom’s on Sunday evenings after a week with me, knowing I was going back to an emptier house and that I would likely only see them one time over the next week for dinner. The necessity to adjust to the back and forth, every other week arrangement I hope will help me adapt to this new transitional scenario.

Still, there’s nothing like your kids branching out on their own and establishing their independent lives to let you know you are advancing to new and later stages of life. I taught many kids tennis this summer and met their parents. I couldn’t help thinking those parents were me a decade ago, enjoying family vacations at the beach and doing fun kid things like walking the boardwalk at night and sliding the water park during the day. When I told tennis parent clients that I had kids also, though older at 20 and 18 and in college, I had a hard time believing it myself.

Rebecca has talked about becoming a teacher recently and of possibly following her boyfriend, a chemical engineering major, to some yet to be determined destination after college. Daniel will be pursuing studies in the computer science field at a university known for its strength in that area. They both have promising futures. I’m proud of how they have developed and the people they are. I hope I have had a positive influence on them and will remember some of dad’s “pearls of wisdom” that they probably didn’t want to hear when I offered. I implored both kids to take Spanish; they each took French. I think Daniel already may be happy that I highly recommended dorm life to him when he was considering other college living arrangements.

I look forward to developing and nurturing close and warm adult relationships with both kids. I hope it happens. It will be a two-way street from here on out. Both kids will have to desire that too and give our relationship love and care to help it grow as we all mature.

The kids are gone and one long and crucial part of my parenting journey is over. It’s been a challenge, a great learning experience, an honor and a joy, but also tinged with some tumult, sorrow and readjustment resulting from the family breakup and my second marriage. I am eager to see what the next phase will bring and know I will need to work at staying connected.

The kids are gone. In the coming weeks, I’ll learn how prepared I am to accept it.

It’s So Funny How We Don’t Talk Anymore (Ode to Cliff Richard)

My ex-wife got remarried two weeks ago. It hardly registered, good, bad or indifferent. Our past time together is so distant now.

We’ll be forever connected by our two kids, 19 and 16. Other than that, I can’t say I know her at all anymore. It’s strange how someone once so important can become so inconsequential – her to me and me to her – except for the perpetual link. That’s just the way it is.

I briefly sensed caring from my ex-wife when my mother died in October 2013 and she attended the memorial. That’s the last time. It’s strange to feel like you don’t matter much to someone when at one time you mattered a lot.

We met at college when we were 19, and dated senior year. She was editor of the college newspaper, the overachiever. I was a writer, not as driven or intense. It was kind of always like that. We went separate ways after college, and after a year, the relationship flamed out.

We rekindled a long-distance relationship at 29, and got married at 30, at our alma mater. It was a pretty cool, lost-and-found love story. It didn’t last.

We split up after 11 years in 2005, when the kids were still in elementary school. Eerily, the kids were about exactly the same age as my brother and I when my parents split up. The protracted end was awful. The final break up was a relief.

As the kids have gotten older, we’ve communicated less and less. I’ve barely talked to her the last several years. When I do try to discuss something concerning the kids, she usually has somewhere to go, something else to do, another call to make. I’m accustomed to squeezing any conversation into three minutes or less.

Over beers on a trip to Florida with my good friend, when we talk openly about jobs, marriage, kids, sex, and old girlfriends, the topic of my relationship with my ex-wife came up and how well we communicate for the sake of the kids. I told him we’ve done a really good job. The kids are well-adjusted – one is in college, and the other is on track. Neither has suffered any manifest big problems due to the divorce. We must be communicating well, I told him.

“No, you don’t. You don’t communicate at all,” he assessed. It hit me. He was right. We talk the bare minimum — the occasional money or scheduling issue. Maybe that’s all there should be between divorced parents. Maybe that’s more than a lot of divorced couples. Regardless, it still strikes me as sad that as the parents of two kids, forever joined by that bond, I know so little about how she parents and her thoughts about the kids’ futures, their current challenges, how they’ve changed and adjusted as teenagers, how they can develop their potentials, whether she has any concerns, and if so, how to address them.

I’ve grown weary of trying to engage. It’s easier not to, though it doesn’t strike me as the best approach.  But maybe this is the way divorce should be. Leave it to history. Everyone moves on. We don’t talk anymore.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C1wdAoSulm8DivorceCake

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