Parenting beyond separation

“There is a newness and freshness to being a parent when you work constructively with your Ex to provide the best of both worlds,” says author of Parenting with the Ex Factor, Jill Darcey.

There’s camaraderie even between strangers when you mention ‘the Ex’. Without another word said, there’s a tone, a movement of the eyes, and a certain tilt of the head that says, “I know what you mean.” There’s a recognition that we have walked through unchartered terrain and survived – even if we do carry some battle scars. Although yelling matches, flying objects, packed suitcases, threats, bribes, lies, courtrooms, lawyers’ offices, financial loss, shattered dreams, and children left in tatters is normal, it doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to adopt strategies, make other choices, break free from the statistics, and have both parents and family thrive.

Successful parenting, once you move beyond the relationship your children were born into, has more to do with attitudes and choices than it does with luck. As difficult as it is to believe, it even has little to do with your Ex or the situations that cross your paths. What it does have to do with are your own attitudes and choices, and the people you allow to influence you. There are no magic wands to wave or quick fixes to take to guarantee smooth sailing ahead, but there are some real principles, tools, tips ‘n tricks that will make the path considerably more gentle and worthwhile for everyone.

Here are Jill’s answers to some of those difficult, frequently-asked questions and concerns.

What is the best routine?

This is the million-dollar question for which there is no one answer, but the best routine is the one that works for the entire family, not just the children – and not just the parents. Some professionals lead us to believe we need to choose whether our parenting is child-centric or parent-centric. I would rather say that to form a great routine, parenting needs to be family-centric, otherwise someone is losing, and it will be the quieter person or the first to buckle under pressure.

The reason no one routine is the best, becomes apparent when we consider the number of aspects involved in formulating a great routine – geographical challenges, schooling requirements, after-school activities, and naturally, parents’ commitments. When deciding on a routine, be aware that the requirements will change as the children grow. While the children are preschool age, frequent contact with both mum and dad is preferable because three days is a long time in their world. Once they reach their teen years, three days becomes comparatively short. If you live close by to your Ex, the routine can often be a bit more flexible. If you live far away, changes to the routine can add hours of travel time and increased expenses.

In ‘alternating week routines’, younger children sometimes find the gap too long between visits, but there is a nice simplicity with them being settled for a week in one place. One of the main considerations with this routine is the times things are forgotten. This can particularly affect the child regarding their classroom activities. While many ‘forgotten’ items can be done without for a week, it becomes quite a disruption to teachers if they constantly have to compensate for the child’s forgetfulness, while trying to be supportive of their home life. One way to resolve this is to work out a way to remind your children of all they need before leaving for the week. If you need a checklist, make one. It is a balance between growing awareness of their own responsibility and your understanding and acceptance of the complexity in their home scenario.

Establishing a good routine is not about holding to an ideal, but rather doing the best we can while allowing for flexibility. A good routine has some key characteristics –

  • Reasonable time in each place – not sleeping in a different bed every night.
  • Not too long between change-overs – able to survive when something is forgotten so it ceases to become a calamity.
  • Consistency – easy to remember and able to book time for future dates, working out who has who when.
  • Flexibility – when the unforeseen happens, we can call upon our Ex’s support.

All this being said and done, the greatest routine will provide both benefits and perhaps an element of inconvenience for all involved. It is about focusing on what works and continuing to refine the parts that do not flow as well.

My teen wants to move in with the ex

Many ‘complex families’ go through this time where a teen stipulates they want to move in permanently with one parent, stepping out of the alternating routine between homes. Again, this answer is not black and white.

The motive behind the request is where the answer is found. Sometimes your teen will act out of rebellion towards you. Maybe they think they will benefit with financial gain or perceived freedom. Maybe the youngster wants to avoid their siblings or perhaps they are simply sick of moving between homes. The intention of the request will give you the clue for the appropriate action.

In short, if this decision is motivated by discord between parent, sibling and/or teen, it only postpones the inevitable. That is to say, if the key reason for this move is to avoid resolving interpersonal relationships, the issues will still need to be addressed. Teens generally believe they know what is best for their lives, and given their perspective of the world, they do. However, as parents, our job is to guide and to add balance to their view of the world through the addition of our longer-term perspective. So, should they be in a place of avoidance, it is better to deal with the issue than to ignore it by allowing them to move in with the Ex.

On the other hand, if you can see that your teen will benefit from being with your Ex, be willing to let them experience it. Any form of control over such a change may be more a reflection of your unwillingness to let them go rather than any feared damage to their development. After all, you know who they will be living with, and they may well be back before long.

If your teen is in a toxic space, isolation is not usually of greatest benefit. Instead, practising good communication and firm boundaries often helps. If there are unique circumstances where siblings need to be protected and kept safe, separation may be the obvious choice.

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I dread the hand-overs – what can we do?

It is quite possible your Ex dreads them too, so here are a couple of pointers to help. Stay focused on what the hand-over is – it’s a time when all attention and focus should be on the leaving and greeting of the children. This includes the natural excitement, the hurried organisation, attempts to collect belongings, and the beautiful heartfelt embrace as they say hello or goodbye.

Regardless of location, as parents, we need to get past the emotional negativity. This detrimental mindset is absorbed by the children when either parent (or both) displays unfavourable emotions in the presence of their Ex. Your Ex is your child’s other parent, and it is unhealthy for them to be around toxic interactions like these. To make these times workable, return the focus to the purpose of the hand-over and establish some boundaries for yourself. These will eventually flow across the relationship, although it may take some time.

1. Appropriate timing of conversations

It is unfair to your Ex, yourself, but most of all your children, to begin discussing differences, opinions, schedules, or next steps at hand-over times. If something is important, arrange a time before or after the hand-over to deal with the topic (this may include the topic of not arranging meeting times during  hand-overs).

2. Be courteous and friendly

Always be respectful. This is not unreasonable, regardless of how difficult your Ex is. The children already know that you do not like each other – but there is a level of respect that is deserved just because you made babies together, and your children need to see this respect in action. If your Ex becomes rude, threatening or intimidating, stay calm and remove yourself promptly. If the children are with the Ex, falling apart in floods of tears in the car is okay, but keep out of sight of the children. If they are with you, do your best to keep yourself together by focusing on them until you are alone. Practise, practise, practise.

3. Constructive comments only

If you are expecting shoes to arrive with your children at pick-ups and they’re a no-show, it’s disappointing, sure, but catch yourself before a comment is passed. It is frustrating, but when trying to parent constructively with an Ex, it is inappropriate to criticise or judge whilst in the presence of your children. This also relates to age-appropriateness as older children are quite capable of getting their own things together. However, if they are young, protection from negative comments is all the more important.

My in-laws are my friends – what happens here?

This is just one reason why divorce is so incredibly life-changing for most of us. There are some who remain close to the Ex’s family post-divorce. However, for the vast majority, the family dynamics change so significantly that connections with the Ex’s family become centred only on the children.

Consideration of the reasons for separation and levels of acceptance towards the decisions ahead will all contribute to the quality of the relationship with your Ex’s family. Although you may not want to lose the bond, maintaining it usually results in prolonged anguish for everyone. Whilst you can enjoy the opportunities to catch up when you join in the time they share with your children, you are wise to also allow the Ex’s family time to adjust to the changes.

If you graciously lead by example in such situations, it will give the Ex’s family permission to be free from judgement as you gift them a great act of authentic love. Although you may feel the vacuum for a while, it will not remain long if you have the courage to fully release.

When home from the ex’s, the children take ages to settle

This is very normal and it’s not necessarily because things are wildly wrong at your Ex’s place either. It is because two homes are different, and it can take some time for your children to transition between them.

A few tips to help

Debrief

Spend some time genuinely showing interest by talking about the fun and positive things they did.

Transition

Arrange your schedules to do something that will assist with the transition. For example, you get the kids on Friday afternoon, so perhaps you could go for a long beach walk after school and have ice cream on the way home.

Reminders

Remind the kids that in your home, some things are a little different and repeat the core expectations again – avoid lectures.

Accept it

As much as you may find it frustrating, your frustration will only fuel the issue further. Accept that there is nothing wrong. It is normal when living between two homes. Hold a reasonable expectation that your children will need some time to settle back into your routine and environment.

A little practise in transitioning your children from the Ex’s place, and a focus on the positives you share will assist enormously. As you grow in your acceptance of your uniqueness, and embrace the differences you know exist between your two homes, a strong family culture can develop where your children thrive. The inconvenience of the differences dissolves, and is replaced with a celebration of diversity they fully enjoy.

Extracted with permission from Parenting with the Ex Factor by Jill Darcey. To purchase a copy or to find out more about Jill and her work, go to her website – click here.

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