Taking turns

Taking turns

Helping children through the ebb and flow of divorce

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 02/07/2013

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Dear Patti,
I’m 10 and smart, and my grandma said I should write to you. My parents broke up, but I know they still love me and my little brother, Max, who is 4. I have really close girlfriends and a grandma who’d do anything for Max and me. My parents fought so much, I wished they’d divorce. Now that they have, I don’t like it. Max and I take turns staying with each of them. Dad gets sad and upset because Max always cries for our mom. This makes me miss her, too. If I want to call her, Dad gets mad because she has more time with us. He doesn’t want her to take his time away because he loves and misses us, too. I’d like a picture of her by my bed or to be able to say goodnight on the phone, but Dad would get upset if I ever asked him. He works hard to take care of us. I don’t want him to know I miss Mom more than I miss him when he’s not with us. Grandma says I can call her, and I do, but it’s not the same.
— Emily

Dear Emily,
What a thoughtful, insightful young lady you are! And you’re correct, you are smart. But sometimes, honey, just because you understand other people’s feelings doesn’t mean their feelings are more important than yours. Your feelings are real and shouldn’t be dismissed. Give yourself permission to love your mom completely, with no regrets. You have nothing to feel guilty or disloyal about because you miss her so much; it’s normal to need her attention and reassurance. In six months, though, you may find you miss your dad more than you miss your mom. Feelings ebb and flow, and that’s OK. I admire and appreciate your ability to understand and care about the feelings of those you love, but right now try not to worry so much about hurting the grownups in your life. Yes, it hurts your dad to be away from you and your brother and, at times, he’ll be preoccupied with his own pain. Right now, however, you and your brother’s feelings need to be valued above all else. 
If it helps you to say goodnight to your mom, then do so. If your dad gets a little hurt, let him know you’ll try to call him more when you’re at her house. While it’s important to not deliberately hurt his feelings, his feelings are an adult problem you shouldn’t have to worry too much about. Could you possibly talk this over with your grandma? Maybe she can help you explain — or explain for you to your dad — that you’re trying your hardest to adapt to this change but it needs to be OK to do whatever helps you feel safe, secure and happy and lessen the feelings of homesickness, uncertainty and sadness. What if you put two pictures, one of each of your family by both your beds? I don’t think your father will object. If he does, tell him it makes you feel better at bedtime to have the faces of all your family nearby. Let him know you’re doing the same thing at your mom’s house. 
While Max isn’t your responsibility, I understand you feel sad and protective. Maybe Grandma can help your dad understand this issue, too. The divorce is probably confusing him, making him feeling vulnerable. Some children have more difficulty than others adjusting to a new situation or separating from a parent. When Max is sad, the last thing he needs is anybody getting irritated or withdrawing from him. At those times he needs to be held, rocked and consoled. He also needs to learn it’s OK to miss his mom. 
It takes time to learn to live in two homes. The best way to learn to cope is to speak up. At your age it’s normal to be an independent thinker but still want to just be a child. It’s normal to want the security of a home-base, stable caretaking and regular contact with each parent. It’s also common at your age to want to spend individual time with the same-sex parent. Max is at an age where he’ll want his mom, too, a fact that can distress your dad.
Take care of you! They’re the parents, and you and Max are the children; your feelings are their responsibility, not the other way around. It’s clear they love you very much, but neither you nor Max asked to be in this situation. It’s not your fault. n

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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