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What My Son Needed Me to Say About My Divorce

When I got divorced, learning how to talk about it with my son did not come easily. 

When I first told my 10-year-old son about becoming a contributing writer for BVTMB, he immediately told me “Mom! You should write about helping kids handle divorce. You’re really good at it.” Walking to our car from his after school program at the time, I literally stopped in my tracks. It struck me in that moment how much progress the two of us have made together over the last few years.

Before I got divorced, I thought of parenting as a hierarchical relationship. I am the parent; you are the child. I make the rules; you follow them. I am your mother, not your friend. What I learned is that divorce levels the playing field between parents and kids. We are suddenly in uncharted territory together, making it up as we go along, relying on each other in ways we never had to before.  

Divorce doesn't mean losing a family; it means reshaping what it means to be a family.

Photo credit to Stephanie Brigan Photography, August 2015

No one wants to put their kids through a divorce. It’s not a choice any of us make willingly.

For me, divorce came about when I reached the point where I felt like I wasn’t really living at all, dwelling, instead, in a state of almost constant, suffocating despair. I didn’t even know who I was anymore. My ex-husband criticized me every day. Everything I did, everything I said, everything about me was wrong.  He just didn’t like who I was. For ten years, I did my best to please him, but, eventually, if someone is impossible to please, you just stop trying. There is no other option, if you want to be happy. I wanted to feel happy again. I wanted to be me again.  I wanted to be a mother my children could look up to and respect.

So one cold February afternoon, I put my daughter down for a nap, asked my son to play in his room, and then quietly and firmly asked my ex-husband for a divorce. I stated, quite simply and honestly, “I don’t want to be married to you anymore. I’m not happy.”

During my separation, the song “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys became my anthem.  I pictured myself wearing a fireproof suit with a plastic visor. I could see and hear, but no one could touch me. The suit protected me against anyone who tried to talk me out of the divorce. It deflected everything. I couldn’t feel anything. I set a match to life as I knew it and walked through the flames without looking back.

Divorce can be like setting fire to your life.

Photo credit to Heather Nielsen, September 2016

Since my ex didn’t want the divorce, breaking the news to the children fell to me.

I read every article I could find on what to say to them since I had no real frame of reference. My parents have been married for 46 years, and no one close to me has ever gotten divorced. I was on my own. At the time, my daughter was too young to understand. To my son, I said “Dad and I are getting divorced. He’s moving out at the end of the month. He isn’t going to live here anymore, and we aren’t going to be married anymore. Here are the days and times when you will see him.”

Looking back, I’m sure I sounded cruel and robotic, even though I repeated the script from the articles I read almost verbatim. From behind my fireproof mask, I watched his little face crumple, watched the tears come, and saw his mouth form the word “No”. Somewhere inside of that fireproof suit my mother heart broke, but I couldn’t let myself feel it.

When my ex moved out of the house, the relief I felt cannot be measured. I was free. I could breathe again. I could be me again. I could make my own decisions, great and small, without fear of constant criticism and derision. I bought our favorite foods at the grocery store, played the music I loved at home, sang (badly) at the top of my lungs, and had dance parties with my kids every night.  Most of the time, happiness and fun pervaded our new life and our calm and peaceful home. Cracks in our collective happiness started appearing, however, when my son’s questions implied that he thought the separation was only temporary.  

I felt baffled every time my son asked, “when are you and Dad getting back together?”

My answer was always the same: “Never.”  In the face of similar inquiries, I took a firm stance of “this is the way our life is now. Get used to it.” I was utterly unapologetic. I wasn’t wrong to divorce his father. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t get it and why he was resisting our new and improved reality. Didn’t he see how much happier I was? Didn’t he remember how his father would disagree with everything I said and argue with me almost nightly? How we used to constantly tiptoe around the house in case his Dad, an insomniac, was finally sleeping? Things were better this way, just the three of us. We had the house all to ourselves, and we could do whatever we wanted.

Ultimately, I just didn’t know how to talk to my son about the divorce.

I knew I wasn’t supposed to say anything bad about his Dad, so I said nothing at all. The topic also seemed too adult for him. I wanted to preserve some measure of his childhood. I knew the divorce meant a loss of innocence for him, and I didn’t want him to worry more than any child should. I kept him in the dark, when he needed to know more. Plus, on some level, I just couldn’t face what I had done. Talking to him about it dredged up too many complicated emotions. Returning to my “Girl on Fire” anthem, as a mother, how did I live with setting fire to life as my children knew it? I shut down emotionally, refused to talk about it, and stubbornly denied the hurt I had caused them. Acknowledging their sadness would tear me apart and force me to rethink my decision, and I couldn’t go back.

As a result, my son and I continued our battle of wills – he resented me for taking away his normal, and I resented him for wanting to go back to it – and for wanting to take me with him.

I wasn’t able to do anything to make our relationship better until after my divorce was final. I couldn’t meet my son’s needs until I had taken care of myself. It’s one of the few times as a mother that I had to be totally selfish. I took the long view and did what was best for all of us. Only then could I focus on my son, though making peace with my decision never came easily.   

Mom, Son, back-to-back, at an impasse. Children do not always understand the reasons for divorce.

Finally, one day, I came across “An Open Apology to My Kids on the Subject of My Divorce” by Abby M. King on Scary Mommy. She repeatedly apologizes to her children for the difficult new reality she forced on them by getting divorced, while simultaneously defending her decision to divorce their father. Suddenly, I got it – how my son must feel about the divorce, how it impacts his day-to-day life, how it turned his world upside down, how it makes him different from many of his friends.

I knew then what I needed to say to him, the one thing that, through it all, I could never bring myself to say: “I’m sorry.” Deep down, I guess I always knew he wanted an apology from me, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it before. I’m not sorry I divorced his father. I wasn’t wrong, so apologizing seemed disingenuous. King’s article helped me see why my son needed an apology from me for the divorce – because my choice made his life harder.

I realized saying “I’m sorry” wasn’t the same thing as saying “I was wrong.” My apology would acknowledge and honor my son’s grief, his discomfort, his life change – all of which I caused by divorcing his father.

King sums it up best when she says “My love for you is greater than my guilt. While I am so very sorry for all the… things that divorce means for you, I have the knowledge of what our collective alternative was and am unwavering in my decision that this was the best path for all of us. But I’m still sorry.”

I went home that night, put my daughter to bed, walked into my son’s room holding my laptop, and said, “there’s something I want to read to you.” I read him the parts of King’s article that related to us. He listened with emotion, starting to cry, and at the end said, “oh, thank you, Mom, you finally get it.” I then apologized to him, twice, saying “I’m sorry I never said I was sorry for how the divorce affected you.” To me, that’s the first day I started helping my kids handle my divorce, and our relationship has gotten better ever since.

Mom, son, hug

Do you apologize to your kids? For what? How do you talk to your kids about adult topics?

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One Response to What My Son Needed Me to Say About My Divorce

  1. D August 11, 2017 at 1:46 pm #

    I am going through a divorce right now and have an awesome 7-year-old son whom I adore. I’ve searched for info about how I can talk to him about all of the changes we are about to experience together. Thank you so very much for sharing your story – you give me hope and words for a situation that often feels overwhelming and hopeless.

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