Friday, February 18, 2011

Sometimes Strength is Restraint

                                                                                     {image from}

I read a heartbreaking, brutally honest article in the Huffington Post this morning.   It is about a divorced woman whose young daughter suffered from emotional issues so severe, she had to be hospitalized. 

"The one who really suffered was my adopted daughter, who, at age seven wound up in a psychiatric hospital diagnosed with a mood disorder. She felt abandoned both by me, since I was too depressed to be there for her emotionally, and also by her father who left me for another woman. He had been her primary caretaker as well, so that compounded the injury. She cried every night for a year, and then became progressively more angry, destructive, violent and even suicidal. The poor kid--whose birth mom had been an addict--really didn't have the inner emotional resources to deal with divorce. She desperately needed to be held together not torn apart.

One day while I was visiting her in the hospital she said, "Mommy, I wouldn't be here if you and daddy hadn't got divorced." My heart about stopped. Her therapist at the hospital concurred, saying that there wasn't a kid there who wasn't a child of divorce, and since our divorce was particularly high-conflict, she had suffered terribly. The hospital shrink virtually ordered us to get along for our daughter's sake. I wish I could report that we've managed to do that, but we haven't. We've managed to reach an uneasy truce, which sometimes blows up into all out war. My daughter, in middle school now, is lot better, but is still very troubled. She has forever lost that exuberance and love for life she had as a toddler, before divorce tore her life to shreds. She will never be the same--and neither will I." (see the entire story by Erica Manfred here)

One of the comments about her post was:
"You've never seen what people who hate each other do to the children they love".

The book Live Through This by Debra Gwartney, is the memoir of another Portland woman who went through a difficult divorce and had a hostile relationship with her ex husband.  Their oldest daughters ran away, and spent a year on the streets.  In the book, she laments the pull between the two camps that she attributes to the series of crises her daughters go through and put her through.  Reading it reminded me of what parents fighting can do to kids as they become teens, and the little signs that they are unhappy and acting out change from small temper tantrums and dipping grades to behavior that can alter their entire lives.

Readers of my book, Illumination - How One Woman Made Light of the Darkness, often ask me "how could you not react with anger?" or "How come you didn't freak out at your ex husband?"  My best friend even said the main character wasn't believable because she never went ballistic after her husband turned out to be such a volcanic asshole.  But even when I've wanted to, I haven't been able to blow up emotionally at anyone.  It's not me.  It's not how I am wired as a person.

In our society, it is almost expected for you to fight viciously after a breakup.  Parents punish each other with their words and actions after divorce.  They argue, they fight in court and out, and the children end up becoming the rope in a tug of war between the adults who are supposed to know better.  In the beginning of my divorced life, I made a conscious decision not to fight.  I didn't want divorce to make me into a bitter woman and more than that, I didn't want it to change my children too much.  I didn't for many years after my divorce, and even though I have lost a lot, I have, I think, salvaged the emotional well-being of my children as much as possible.  They are now emotionally intelligent and well-adjusted children, all of them in or near their teen years. 

Erica Manfred's essay this morning reminded me of exactly why I've done things the way I have.  There are so many very good reasons to be angry and to battle my ex husband and his wife. 
But there are three reasons why I didn't.

Those reasons are my three children.

I know there are times when we should stick up for ourselves and stand our ground.  I've been doing it more and more lately.  My children have been asking me to come to their defense against some of the things going on with their dad and stepmother, so NOW I will.  But I still want to do it my way.  Carefully, selectively, sanely, and consciously.  I'm stocking my arsenal and amassing my troops.  When I stop just deflecting the hits that have started to rain down on me frequently and summon my heavy artillery to the front line, the outcome will be decisive and quick, and will signal a sea change in the environment of their remaining years as children who are deserving of better parenting.  Every day we get closer to that moment, but I have to be patient, because I can't -- I won't -- allow my children into the battlefield of petty spit wad fights.

If I could give only one piece of advice to divorcing or divorced parents, it would simply be to always put your kids first and try to remember what they are going through.  Think about what today's argument or fight might do to them down the road. 

We are creating the blueprint of their future through our actions and words.


  1. I'm so glad the custody tides are turning. I hope people will start to view non-custodial mothers with the same non-judgment as non-custodial mothers. You are a strong mother to buck convention. I look forward to reading more from you.

  2. I meant non-custodial fathers! Oops!

  3. OK, and I also meant strong "woman"...this is what happens when I don't have my coffee int the morning. Anyway, great blog! :)

  4. this is amazing pauline... I am sitting at my kitchen table reading your beautiful/corageous words and practically spitting coffee through my nose because your words ring so close to home for me.

    I love love love your blog. I think you might get a kick out of my book, ILLUMINATION: How One Woman Made Light of the Darkness. It is a "melt your face" sort of documentry about what happened to me, how I became a non custodial mom and how I met my new husband who totally renewed my faith in men and relationships. My kids (2 of them anyway) are the same ages as yours. AND all of the names in my blog and story have been changed. To protect the innocent and not so innocent.