Zara* was in the middle of a lovely bubble bath when she asked, “Mommy, I know I was in your tummy when I was a baby, but how did I get out of your tummy?” I could feel my eyebrows head upwards. It was way too soon for this question, wasn’t it? “Uhh…like this…” I offered, making a gesture that looked like instructions for taking a relaxing yoga breath. Then I quickly changed the subject, and my daughter moved on, likely without any permanent damage.
As a parent, not knowing what to say at times is pretty par for the course, but not knowing what to say during the complete life explosion called divorce is a different story entirely.
On top of my broken heart and my family breaking open at the seams, I felt like the things I said or didn’t say could be a big part of steering my daughter’s heart and mind—intact—through an emotional war zone.
Sometimes, my attempts fell totally flat, like when I made light of moving by saying, “We’re like birdies, moving to another nest!” and my then three-year-old countered with: “But birds don’t have furniture.” Touché, little wise one.
Thankfully, there were a couple of things that did reach her, and when I was able to find the right words to make her hurt less, lighten her burden or just allow her to be a carefree kid, it was truly double-rainbow levels of relief and happiness.
1. Tell me more
Over the past few years, “tell me more” has never failed. It’s like a magical kid-friendly super phrase that welcomes her to explain what things look like in her world. When I say it as a response to something cryptic or important she’s said, I feel my own body shift from wanting to fix, fix, fix to taking a breath and actually being ready to listen.
2. You are so lucky, and so loved
Current research has shown that divorce itself does not do damage to our children. It’s the conflict that hurts them in the long run, and the desire to shield her from unhealthy, unresolvable conflict was a big part of why I no longer lived with her father.
So was she really on the losing side of the family stick? In some ways, yes, but in the grand scheme of things? Not really. She has two parents who love her and live in different houses. And I know we are all still very much among the fortunate.
When I tell her she is so lucky, and so loved, she beams. Result: happy kid, and total mom heart melt.
3. That’s grown-up stuff
Inevitably, kids hear things they shouldn’t, whether indirectly or directly. “Grown-up stuff” is the phrase we use for when those topics have made their way into her world. If there’s something she’s heard that’s bothering her, we can talk about it. But financial matters, custody matters or how parents feel about each other—all of these are just plain stressful to hear about, and using this phrase is how we let her know that it’s not her problem to worry about.
4. Honouring her creation story
How to tell kids about divorce: An age-by-age guide In a time of destruction and chaos, we need to make sure our kid’s story isn’t that because it can’t be that. My ex is the other half of my child’s heart, and her creation story includes both of us, together.
Among other things, I’ve told my daughter about how “On the day you were born, your daddy and I were so very incredibly happy. We were brought together to be your parents and we will always, always love you.”
At a Toronto workshop called Families in Transition, this is the message sent to parents: your kids need their story. Their origin story. So obvious, yet probably often overlooked in the wake of a nasty split.
5. Let’s go on an adventure!
Most days, for the first year after separating, my insides felt like the snake pit in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was alone, but I was also a newly single parent, so alone came with massive responsibility. Finding the new normal felt so out of reach. What would we do on holidays? What did weekends look like now?
But spontaneous adventure? That was attainable. And so we adventured to the beach, public gardens, farmers’ markets and heritage sites. Despite my (private) emotional turmoil, kites and picnics won the day, and we now have a bunch of happy memories and pictures of that time.
6. I’m always with you.
Early on in this dreadful process, I had to learn to let go of my baby. A different kind of letting go than daycare: this one came with Dad’s new girlfriends, adventures I would know nothing about, a world view I probably didn’t agree with and a degree of incommunicado that was tricky to say the least. It was all quite earth-shattering.
My daughter, once she was old enough to express it, wished that seeing Daddy didn’t mean not seeing Mommy, and vice versa. One day I told her that she was a little sailboat and I was the ocean, and I was with her everywhere. And something just clicked, for both of us. It became OK. She didn’t have to leave behind Mom’s love and comfort every time she went to stay with Dad, she just learned to experience it in a different way. She has happily maintained this metaphor for almost three years now.
7. Give me your fear
It was a sad day when I accepted that living separate lives might be the only way forward. But in the years leading to that decision, my child, who I wanted to shield from everything awful, had lived and breathed me at my worst. Afraid. Frustrated. Hopeless. Desperate. Broken. At around age four, I started noticing that she was increasingly feeling afraid at odd times, when there was nothing scary happening. I couldn’t help wondering if she had absorbed it—the fearfulness I had, even during my pregnancy.
One night, when she was scared, I got honest with her. I told her that at times in the past I had been scared too, and that I wasn’t scared anymore, but that she might have felt some of it. And I told her she could give it to me if she wanted to—any of her fear. And so she did. She smacked it right onto my hand with a “good riddance” attitude. I scooped the fear into my hands and gave it a shake. “What do you think we can turn it into?” I asked. “Butterflies!” she said. So I opened my hands and out they flew.
She’s given me her fear many times since, and every time, my iceberg of guilt gets a little smaller, because for us, these little exchanges, these moments when I know I’ve reached her and she’s reached me, I just know they are healing—not just for her but for both of us.