By Lisa Gabardi P.h.D.
In a few short weeks my youngest child will graduate high school. It will mark the end of an era. As he transitions off to college I will transition to an “empty nest.” At this same time in the life of our big, blended two-home family, my eldest step-daughter is engaged to be married. These transitions are both bitter sweet and have me looking ahead with excited anticipation. It is the season of graduations and weddings; perhaps one of your children is having a major life event coming up soon as well.
This has me thinking about a question I usually ask parents that are divorcing: “imagine some years from now, when your son or daughter is graduating high school, or college, or getting married…how do you want them to experience their special day?” I often also ask: “how do you want them to look back on how you handled the divorce and their two-home family?” I wish someone has asked me to imagine these days that I am now experiencing. I wonder what changes I might have made that could have helped our children navigate those first few major events we experienced as a two-home and then blended families.
I was divorced 13 years ago and I can tell you, if someone had said to me “Lisa, when your youngest graduates high school, you’ll be sitting together in the bleachers with your husband, your step-daughter, your co-parent, his wife, her children all cheering, clapping, and crying when your son gets his diploma”, I would have told them they were crazy; that just will NEVER happen. I NEVER intended to remarry, nor did I EVER plan to sit and enjoy our children’s events together with my children’s father. My hurt and anger at the time blinded me from the possibilities of healing, forgiveness, new love, and expanding families. How fortunate I feel that my son can look up in the stands on graduation day with calm and ease and see all of us, sitting together, sharing our pride and love for him.
How do you want your child to experience a special event in their life? Consider these possible scenarios.
Imagine your child’s high school graduation. They are feeling stressed and irritable. They only have six tickets to the event. Your grad is preoccupied by pressures from both Mom and Dad about who gets tickets. If Dad’s new wife goes, Mom will be upset. Your grad doesn’t want to be in the middle and doesn’t want either parent upset. They lie to Dad about not having enough tickets to include new step-mom. At the graduation, your grad is stressed out about who to waive to first after receiving the diploma…Mom is on one side of the auditorium and Dad is on the other. Some one’s going to be hurt and angry either way. After graduation, your grad lingers in the bathroom changing out of their cap and gown to avoid figuring out who to approach first. Instead, they linger with friends waiting for parents to find them.
Now imagine this scene from your child’s high school graduation. They are excited and nervous. The end of high school! Your grad is preoccupied with what to wear on grad night, what parties to attend, and details about heading off to college. They only have six tickets to the event and you and your co-parent both tell your grad to think about who they most want at the event and they will support their decision. They will send a video link to any relative that isn’t able to attend, with apologies for the limitation. You and your co-parent agree to meet early to take pictures with your grad together in front of the school. Dad agrees to go save Mom seats while Mom follows your grad around taking pictures of them with their friends. At graduation, your grad looks up into the stands after receiving the diploma and sees the whole family cheering and smiling and waving at them. After the ceremony, you had arranged a place for the whole family to meet so the new grad knew where to find everyone for quick hugs and kisses, a few more photos, dropping off the diploma, cap and gown, and running off to senior grad night with friends.
It’s easy to lose sight of the big events in the distant future and how your actions as co-parents, day by day, year by year prepare your two-home family for how you will navigate those events with your child. Do you heal your relationship with your co-parent enough that you are able to keep your child out of the middle? Enough to avoid the subtle and not so subtle competition for your child’s attention and affection? Do you want your child to relax and be focused on their event and not stressed by loyalty conflicts?
Most parents tell me they want their children to be happy and not have the divorce cause major problems for them. What can you do today, tomorrow, and the next day to help create a peaceful and supportive family environment for your child as they celebrate the events in their life?
Try sitting near your co-parent at your child’s next event. All you need to do is smile, say hello, perhaps “how are you?” and sit and enjoy the play, game, ceremony, etc. If you are focused on your child and your positive feelings about them and what they are doing, you and your co-parent will have something in common to share and discuss….your love for and pride in your child. There is nothing else you need to discuss and no other reason for being there. You are there for your child. The event is about your child. Ultimately, it’s not about you. Try this at the next small event that could bring you and your co-parent together on behalf of your child. Start the process now of making it easier for your child when they’re older and the events are more important.
Don’t let your divorce be the dark cloud that hangs over your child’s important life events. Help your child enjoy his or her life events and have the support of family! Remember, it’s their life and not about you!
Lisa Gabardi, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist with over twenty years of experience helping
people with their relationships, marriages, and divorces. Dr. Gabardi maintains a private
practice in Beaverton, Oregon providing psychotherapy, mediation, and divorce consultation.
She is also author of The Quick Guide to Co-Parenting After Divorce http://amzn.to/T0Yy9w