Truth and consequences: facing painful realities helps create resilient kids

At several junctures over the years, my father has told me a story about my first pet. It was a turtle about the size of a silver-dollar pancake, and in his story, despite his best efforts to caution me, it died from my overhandling. He tears up at the memory, which tends to surface when we’re struggling to get past some misunderstanding rooted in the past.

I can remember the turtle’s ersatz tabletop wetland, the terraced plastic that rose from the water, leading to an island of dyed rocks. I remember the yellow stripes on the creature’s delicate head and its impossibly teeny claws. But I don’t remember its demise. Dad can’t get through the story without choking up, so I must have been crushed. Yet all I recall is that sometime after it was gone, the practice of keeping its kind was outlawed. My grubby fingers might have poisoned my pet, but turtles carry Salmonella.

When I was younger, I thought Dad’s story was about watching me make painful mistakes. Later, when I had my own kids, I concluded the point was remorse over not being able to protect me from the inevitability of loss. Recently I’ve begun to think that, in all likelihood, the person in the story who suffered the biggest loss was my father. Like all parents, he sometimes made choices that hurt my brother and me. He had his reasons, I’m sure, but on one big, important level it really didn’t matter whether they were noble or selfish: Pain was often the result, and he had to live with that.

It’s been two years since my kids’ father and I parted ways. In that time, no matter how much I’ve tried to insulate my boys from the grownups’ messiness, and how confident I am about the good things in their future, from their perspective that time has meant loss after loss. Certainly the misery their father and I generated together was bad for them. We may rightly conclude that their two new households are happier than the old one — but they didn’t want two new households, they wanted one happy one.

I wish I could say that as a result of this experience I have a shelf of books about easing the transition to recommend, but I don’t. Most of what I’ve read suggests that the key to getting along with your ex is for both of you to act graciously, like rational adults, and not like the protagonists in The War of the Roses. Suggestions like, “Try to put the hurt and the anger aside and focus on becoming effective co-parents.” D’oh! — why didn’t that occur to me?

The only volume I’ve encountered that offers realistic, concrete suggestions for how to manage that tricky little waltz with someone who’s intent on dancing a different step is The Truth about Children and Divorce: Dealing with the Emotions so You and Your Children Can Thrive, by Robert Emery. Divorce is unavoidably incredibly painful to children, he says, but with the right kind of support most of them adjust quickly and go on to do just fine.

“The opposing sides of the great divorce debate are both completely right and completely wrong,” writes Emery. “Many children are pained greatly by divorce, and at the same time most of the same children are resilient. So-called children of divorce are not children ‘of divorce’ — they are children of parents, of families, of communities. They are children first, and no more children of divorce than they are children of any other life stress or trauma.”

A professor of psychology and director of the Center for Children, Families, and the Law at the University of Virginia, Emery believes that most angry divorces are plagued by unrecognized, unresolved, or unequal grief. Until you can tease it all out — your grief, your ex’s, and your children’s — there isn’t much you can truly work out. You certainly can’t take responsibility for your adult decisions, which complicates being the parent your children really need in the face of trauma.

It makes sense: If you’re mired in your own pain (or, alas, your bliss) you’re not capable of distinguishing between what you wish your kids were feeling — “Hey look, it’s a shiny new home with a shiny new stepparent who makes Mom or Dad feel renewed!” — and what they’re really feeling: “Why can’t my parents see that for me, their new life is a consolation prize at best?” You may not want to hear how hurt and angry you’ve made little Jacob and Emily, but if you can tolerate listening, Emery insists, it will go a long ways toward helping your kids become resilient.

(So, your ex doesn’t want to hear any of this Kumbaya garbage coming from someone she or he fervently wishes would spontaneously combust, preferably in the Badlands, while being stoned by trolls who are chanting an endless loop of his or her faults? Mine either. Emery can help with this, too, but this column is waxing long so you’re going to have to take me at my word and read his book.)

When I consider my dad’s story about the turtle now, I wonder whether its real meaning is that sometimes, in our desire to be good parents, we have a harder time coming to terms with painful decisions than our kids. But if we can’t learn to tolerate our own mixed emotions, how can we help little people manage their own king-sized feelings?

“You will never get over your grief, and you would not want to,” Emery writes. “To get over your grief would mean abandoning your history, your love, your life. To get over your grief would mean losing the emotions that created your children as well as the feelings that ended your marriage. You do not want to get over you grief. Instead, you want your love, anger, and sadness to grow small enough to fit into a drawer in your heart, a place where you can put away your feelings instead of throwing them out.”

Beth Hawkins is a Minneapolis writer.

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