Parenting is a Journey
An Adventure of Discovery Not Only of our Children But of Ourselves as Well
By Susan Solomen Yen
This is the story of John and Mary, whose names are not John and Mary.
John and Mary met and married more than twenty years ago. During their early days as a couple, they traveled extensively, attended graduate school and eventually settled in Silicon Valley where both pursued careers that required high intensity and dedication. After close to a decade together they had a son. When that child was six years old, the bonds of matrimony started to fray. Although they continued to share a home for five more years, it was more as roommates than husband and wife. Eventually Mary moved out and after two years of living separately, John and Mary got a divorce. However, they still remain friends—or is it, friendly?
John and Mary talk or text several times a day. They attend their son’s school functions together. They socialize with their common friends and they have not given up family vacations. They do not speak openly about the divorce, and many of their acquaintances are unaware of this change in their marital status.
Best Friends Forever
When I was in high school, divorce was rare in my hometown. Although it seemed odd at the time, the one couple that did end their marriage came to sports events to cheer on their daughters. When they both remarried, the foursome showed up together and really seemed to enjoy each other’s company. It is highly unlikely that my ex-husband and I could socialize together. I’m not even sure we could be in the same room at the same time!
Divorced couples are supposed to be antagonists, not associates. Shouldn’t there be animosity instead of goodwill? Is it a sign of maturity that an ex-husband and ex-wife can be friends? “Ex-spouses may become good friends after some time has passed and they have healed from the loss of the relationship and the family’s reorganization,” says Diana Blank, LCSW, a divorce and separation specialist at Parents Place in San Mateo.
But how does the child interpret the cordial relationship? Does he think Mom and Dad will get back together because they get along so well? “Younger children often maintain a reunification fantasy,” responds Diana, who teaches a workshop called Parenting Young Children through Separation/Divorce and leads a single-parent support group that meets quarterly. “It is important that parents not feed into this fantasy, but rather help the child accept the family’s new reality.”
Shortly after their divorce was finalized, John and Mary took their son on a European vacation. Although they booked separate rooms, they spent all of their time together. They had fun and created some wonderful lasting memories, but did they also sow seeds of a potential reunion? “A family vacation could be a healing experience for a child if there is a clear message that the parents are not getting back together,” explains Diana. “The couple should be far along enough in their post-divorce adjustment process before they plan the trip, though.”
Diana says it can be confusing for kids if the parents don’t talk openly about why they’re traveling together: “They need to discuss the reality of their continued divorce status. If the child is still struggling to accept the divorce, it might be best to postpone the trip.”
Many of John and Mary’s mutual friends are the parents of their son’s friends. This social circle has remained supportive of all and no one appears to be lining up behind either. This seems remarkable to me but actually benefits the children of divorce. As Diana suggests, “It is often very stabilizing for children to maintain the same social connections.”
And it isn’t a bad thing for kids to spend time with other divorced families. This may normalize a somewhat abnormal situation. I am surprised at how many of my own children’s friends come from divorced households. They recognize this as a 21st-century fact of life—not every child grows up with two parents under the same roof.
Making New Matches
Neither John nor Mary is dating. In fact, with work commitments and managing the busy life of an adolescent, making new matches is not a consideration. But when that day comes, Diana recommends they not bring this new adult into their son’s life too soon. “It is highly recommended that parents not introduce their children to dating partners until the relationship is considered solid, a long-term commitment,” she says.
It takes time for exes to move past the pain of the dissolution of their marriage. “Each parent needs to keep working on adjusting to the divorce and a new life,” says Diana. “That can involve many changes and sometimes multiple losses before a friendship can be forged, maintained, and enjoyed.”
Diana encourages divorced parents to work at being friends: “Children can benefit significantly from having cooperative co-parents who get along well and make good parenting decisions together.”
And that’s exactly what John and Mary are doing.
Susan Solomon Yem is singleminded about raising her five children to adulthood. She’d like to hear your stories about single parenting. Contact her at email@example.com