We recently had a death in the family. My husband’s grandfather passed away, and having that conversation with kids is always hard. Each of us believes something different, but for our family it is an opportunity to discuss the person we’ll miss, and how we can make the most of our days. It’s a time of reflection on what our priorities should be and how we should treat the people we love. It is a weeks, months, and years long conversation for us.
This has been a tradition for my kids and I since my father passed away 7 years ago. Really great things come out in these conversations. Deep moments with my kids that are meaningful to me. Moments that teach me something about my children and how incredibly smart and aware they are. So, with the death of a very great man, the conversation was no less enlightening in recent days.
My 7 year old, Adrian, is a very curious child. I’ve discovered that even when I think she’s not paying attention, she is always absorbing the world around her. In the last 3 years, her father and I have separated and divorced. This, too, has been a years long conversation in our house. I’m sure it is this way for a lot of divorced households. So with the passing of my husband’s grandfather, a man that the kids all dearly loved, my daughter took it as an opportunity to ask questions about him, my father, and the ending of my marriage to her father. The latter topic being the most difficult in ways because this kid asks some tough questions.
I believe that most parents put in the hot seat have a tendency to struggle with what words to choose in order to answer big questions from little mouths. These freshly hatched ideas from curious minds often catch us off guard. It’s difficult to know the right, or appropriate ways to answer certain things. One such question being, “Why did you and my daddy break up?”
There have been many times through this that I wish I could give my daughter and son a simple answer, but the truth is that there isn’t one. Over the last few years I’ve gotten away with telling them that we just wanted different things, but they have become more specific in their questions, and more skeptical in my simple answers. In these moments, I wish they could stay little forever. It is in these times that I wish I could protect them from all of the hurt in life.
Yesterday, I took my daughter with me to run errands and spend some one-on-one time with her. It was much needed for both of us. We don’t often get the opportunity to do that in a house that is busy and bustling with the lives and activities of children, and 2 adults.
We had the usual conversations about my dad, and great grandpa, and then my daughter got quiet for a few minutes. She seemed to be lost in thought after my response to one of her deeply thoughtful questions about death. I drove quietly and waited for what would likely be another question that had me stumbling through my vocabulary for a simple answer. From the back seat I heard her sweet voice ask me once again, “Mommy, why did you and daddy break up?”
Of course I told her the same things I had said so many times before. I briefly explained that we just wanted different things and that this was better for both of us and all involved. She was quiet again for a moment, but then made a comment that stopped me in my thoughts, and caused a moment of both admiration and panic.
“Mommy, you know how you tell us that we shouldn’t lie? Well, I don’t think adults should lie either.”
Her statement was profound and my mind went into complete panic mode. I fell more in love with her, and wanted to jump out of a moving car all in a single moment. What could I say to that? It was true, I had been lying to my kids. Not outright, or by giving misinformation, but by omitting the truth of any of the questions they had asked.
Over the last few years, they had been quite angry at times, and I suddenly understood why. So many changes, life shifting in drastic ways, and here their parents were offering bullshit diplomacy in the interest of sparing them hardship. Only, the only people we were sparing were ourselves. Maybe our egos.
My son is 10, and I had just gone through this with him a month prior. He nailed me to the wall with his infinite wisdom and I was speechless. How did my children become so smart and so in-tune with what was happening around them? These are the moments that I am both proud, and also wishing I had kids that were maybe a little less sharp. The dull tools…that aren’t so knowing and perceptive.
I know that I feel this way in moments of panic because I am keenly aware that my children have outwitted me and have showcased their superior intellect. It humbles me and puts me in my place as a parent. It reminds me that children are not stupid, and they are always watching.
I sorted through whirring thoughts frantically buzzing around my mind and trying in vain to come up with a way to answer my inquisitive and clever 7 year old. I struggled with which words I should use to answer such a complex question, while also maintaining honesty. I’m positive that I broke some cardinal sin in parenting in the way I chose to answer, but sometimes our kids are just smarter than us.
I took a deep breath and said, “Well, you’re right. Adults shouldn’t lie either. Have you asked your dad this question?”
“Yes, I’ve asked him. He doesn’t really answer. He just says he made a lot of big mistakes. I have asked him what kind of mistakes, but he never answers. That’s why I’m asking you.”
Deep breaths. “Okay. Well, yes, he did make some big mistakes. That’s true.”
Her response was exasperated, and sounded more like a teenager. “I know mom. What kind of mistakes? That’s what I want to know.”
“Your dad had a lot of girlfriends.”
“While you were still married?”
Deep breaths. Remain calm…”Yes, while we were still married.”
“So, he cheated on you?”
Mind panicking…, “Where did you learn what cheating is?”
She proceeded to explain that she learned all about cheating on Good Luck Charlie. Just then I wanted to gut punch myself for trusting the Disney Channel, and I wanted to throat punch the writers on that show for teaching my 7 year old the warped ways of relationships. Aren’t those kids only teenagers?
Fuck. Frustration. I was a duck on water. All smooth sailing on the surface, but frantic paddling beneath. So much for cool, calm, and collected.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate that they did that on a kids show…”
“So, that’s what my daddy did then. He cheated a bunch of times. Now I know why you broke up with him. Why didn’t he want you?”
And just when I believed the situation couldn’t get worse, a death blow by my lovely, precocious daughter. Yes, good question. Why didn’t he want me? How to explain the human condition and the troubling psychosis of our wrecked relationship to the daughter that we share. I just couldn’t. It wasn’t the time. So I went to my old fall back.
“We just didn’t work well together. We wanted different things.”
“You loved my daddy. I know that.”
“I did. Very much. I still do.”
“Then daddy just gave up on his family.”
“It’s more complicated than that, Adrian.”
“No. It’s not,” she said as she shook her head. “He didn’t want us. He gave up on his family.” She was pointed and firm in her conclusion, and I was more desperate for a wise response than I had ever been.
By this point I had pulled in to our last stop at Walgreens. I sat quietly in the parking lot, forehead resting on the steering wheel, and absorbing the current situation. It was strange listening to my daughter say these things and ask these questions. The truth was that I had felt the same way at times through my marriage. I felt abandoned. I felt like he had given up on his family. And here my 7 year old was dragging my heart out into the open.
Her intentions were innocent. She only wanted to understand. I could not tell her that I only wanted to understand, too. Sometimes things just don’t make sense. So, there we were sitting quietly, both taking in the conversation, both gathering our thoughts. I took a minute or two to compose myself before turning in my seat to face her.
“Adrian, you’re a wise young lady. Your daddy loves you very much. Life is hard, but everything happens as it should. Sometimes it hurts, and sometimes it isn’t fair, but it all works out.”
Even as I said that to her, I couldn’t be sure if it was true. For some, it works out, but not well. Sometimes there is no happy ending. As I looked at my vibrant and hopeful daughter, I was full of hope, too. Maybe being hopeful is allowed even if your words feel uncertain or dishonest.
“Yeah. It does. Mommy, can I get a candy bar in Walgreens?”
The questions had come to an end, and she was satisfied for the moment with the conversation. I was never so excited to buy this kid a candy bar.
Two days later and I’m still wondering if there was another way to handle that situation. Was there a way to outwit my young daughter? Did I answer that the way I should have? Had I done the wrong thing?
That hit me about as hard as the night my son told me that there was nothing wrong with me. That I was the best. It was a conversation much like the one with Adrian. My children both looking for answers in a difficult situation. Both looking to me to guide them through the things they do not understand, but the fact is that both were reaching out and guiding me in ways they may never realize.
“…kids are often wiser than their parents.”
My son in all of his infinite wisdom felt the need to tell me, only a month prior to this, that there was something missing in his dad. He needed to let me know how much he loved me. He reminded me that his dad was missing out on the best people in the world, and I had to agree with his words. Although, I might be a little biased.
My son didn’t have all of the information I did, but I guess he didn’t need it to arrive at his conclusions. I think he was letting out his anger and frustration in the situation, and while I hurt for him during that talk, I was also as proud as I have ever been to be his mom.
As parents, we try to protect our kids from as much as we can. We don’t always give a direct answer in the hopes that we’ll save them some pain, but the thing I’ve realized over the last few years is that kids are often wiser than their parents. We just don’t give them enough credit.
I’ve pondered whether being honest in these situations is the same thing as putting my children into adult situations. Then I have to consider that if they’re mindful enough to ask, then it must be something they have put a lot of thought into. There are no life instruction manuals, and I’ve always stood by the belief that honesty is the best policy. I’d like to protect my kids from the harder things in this world, but I also know that just isn’t possible. I can’t save them from everything, and this has been a tough and pivotal part of their very own lives.
So, I answer. I have the conversations. After all of it, though I know there will likely be plenty more to come, I am appreciative of how resilient and wise my children are. I am proud of their keen minds. I am honored to be entrusted to guide them. Life is for learning, and I’ve never learned so much, or had a lesson impact me as deeply as those my children have imprinted in my heart and mind.
Little eyes and ears are always open. Listening. Watching. Absorbing. Sometimes, it’s possible that their take on situations are more honest, clear, and pure than the adults who believe they are shielding these children from the difficulties in life. We only have to listen. We only have to be paying attention. Parents can learn from their children’s innocence and unconditional love.
Here’s what I’m learning: If your child asks you a direct question, I think it is best not to lie to them. Even if it’s a hard question to answer. This will require you to remove your personal emotions from the situation at times. There will be difficult questions abound. The truth is uncomfortable at times, but it can be given in graceful ways. Becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable is our best bet as parents.
Honesty in divorce can be a tricky thing, because we first have to acknowledge that in most situations there are two people to blame.
To my surprise, the truth has been easy enough for my kids to understand. They understand that both of their parents love them deeply, and that we can love people even when they make mistakes. Even if they are not perfect because no one is. There will be many times to come when I will desperately search for the right words, but I will have those conversations with them no matter how difficult they may be.
Life is as confusing to kids as it is for adults sometimes. Sometimes their confusion stems from how complicated they believe adults make situations. I believe the open lines of communication have made things easier in a hard circumstance. I believe the burden is lighter because our kids are watching us work together to raise them. Doing activities together with them has helped a lot. It was not always this way, but 3 years after our divorce and separation process, we are finally there.
I will admit that it is really hard to get to point where you can have a working relationship with someone who hurt you so deeply. It is a painful process through the trenches to arrive at a place where you can love that person, and accept the things they’ve done without holding a grudge. It is possible. I have done it. It was worth it to me in order to keep things from being unnecessarily complicated for our kids, but it certainly was not easy to arrive in that emotional place. I have seen the effects of bad post-divorce behavior in children, and it is not something I ever want my kids to go through.
Sometimes we have a hard time analyzing how our behavior impacts our kids. Especially in divorce situations. I completely understand that. However, when we become parents we have accepted the job of being their guide through life. We have accepted the task of setting an example.
This does not mean burying our pain and putting on a brave face. I do not believe that teaches our children how to maneuver tough situations in life. This means that we will be required to discuss the hurtful things, and to be honest with our kids. That does not mean we dump our heavy load of emotional burden on them, or bad mouth a person they love.
“It has never been my children’s job to carry my emotional baggage in life.”
Even through our own pain, we have to remember that our kids still deeply love and adore their other parent. They should feel that way. No parent, no matter how angry, has the right to destroy that love in them. When we do this, we are essentially telling our children that they should not love half of who they are.
No matter what happened between the father of my children and I, my kids still love him. There will be a part of me that will always love him, too. I do not have to agree with his choices in life to love him, or to respect the love that our kids have for him. I chose him in life for however long I did, and he will always be an equal half of who my children are.
I know that we can hurt so profoundly sometimes that we forget these things. I know we can become so trapped in our anger that we do not remember that we made the choice to be a co-parent. We chose that, and shit happens in life. This is our responsibility no matter what happens, or how badly we are hurting. It has never been my children’s job to carry my emotional baggage in life.
I do not believe it is ever a good idea to underestimate the depth at which little minds operate. I certainly have at times, and my carbon copies snuck in and sucker punched me. They really are wise and sneaky little creatures. More importantly, they are two halves, one each of their mom and dad, that form a beautifully whole person. They are half of what used to be a whole family. In their little minds, that family still exists. While it may be harder to hold things together after a divorce, we should do our very best to work through our own feelings and not saddle our children with them.
Any good and loving parent knows that the best interest of the child does not mean what serves the parent best. We are molding little minds, and that responsibility should far outweigh our own hurt and anger. Sometimes that requires us to hold our tongues. Other times it requires us to speak honestly while restraining our hearts.