If you have kids, you are bound together even if your relationship dissolves or breaks down irretrievably. The question is:
“If you’re no longer living with your kid’s other parent, is it still possible to be a family?”
From where I stand, 14 years after separating from the father of my two kids, I know this is possible. My family is living proof.
We share family meals together for birthdays, breakfast together on Christmas Day, attend school and sporting events together, and check in with one another regularly. And not only about our kids, but about life in general as well as our extended families and shared friends. We’ve even been on holiday together.
Does that mean it’s easy? And is it possible or even desirable for every separated family?
That would be a bl@@dy great big NO, to both!
And if I’m totally honest, there have been a handful of days where I wish we’d chosen otherwise. But it is possible if both you and your ex are open to trying.
Here are the important things that have supported my family to remain “a family” after our divorce.
CAN YOU STILL BE A FAMILY AFTER SEPARATION OR DIVORCE?
THE FAMILY COMES FIRST
By this I mean you continue to honour your family unit. You, your ex-partner/co-parent and your kids as a unit. You’re ALL on the same team, you just live in different places and share time and space differently.
For special events such as birthdays, Christmas, school concerts, sporting events, the family gets the first invitation. Always. This has meant, at times, some sticky conversations with new partners (mine included) and with others who think our commitment to maintaining our “family” is strange.
Be mindful of those who would rather fuel the disconnect than support something that challenges their own view of what a “family” looks like.
In the early days, your kids are going to crave and need stability. Honour this as a family by doing important things and attending important events together.
SHARE TIME TOGETHER
As well as the bigger events, share time together as a family regularly.
Once a month, share a meal together. If you need to keep it short and sweet, make it coffee and cake, or an ice-cream rather than a full dinner. It’s also easier in a neutral space such as a restaurant or café, rather than at home, but absolutely do home if you can.
We often share a coffee and a catch-up chat at hand over. This allows our kids to see that we are still friendly and on the same team as co-parents. It also shows we genuinely care about each other and can share space without angst.
If you can’t quite manage a shared meal, an hour’s play date in the park, bike ride together or a walk with the dog works well too.
If there’s a special sporting event or movie you would all enjoy, go together. A movie is a great family option if you’d rather not share space with your ex for long. It’s dark. You don’t have to talk about anything other than who wants popcorn, and your kids still get a positive experience of family time.
Can you still be a family after separation or divorce? (cont.)
BE A UNITED FORCE
Choose to be a united force, a team for your kids. Be on the same page. Share and show up with the same values you wanted to instil in your kids when you were together.
School: Be there as a co-parenting team for first/last days, special assemblies or awards, meetings with teachers and especially if problems arise.
Homework and screen time: These are issues that can divide parents, whether together or divorced. Don’t allow your kids to play you off against one another. Now is not the time to be the “best” parent; it’s not about winning your kids’ love. It’s about being a united team and offering them stability and certainty when they are experiencing so much change.
Extra-curricular activities: Being there to cheer your kids on at their sporting or music events sends them a powerful message that you are united in your love and support for them. Even though your intimate relationship has changed, you are still their biggest cheerleaders.
Social activities: If you have teenagers, ensure the lines of communication are open between the two of you and with your teen. This is vital to their safety and will help them to make sensible decisions.
Being a united force really boils down to:
- Sharing the same values as co-parents, and
- Open communication about what your kids are doing, where, how and with whom they are spending their time.
KEEP YOUR PRIVATE STUFF PRIVATE
Whether that’s what you’re arguing about with your ex, or your new partner, or what your MIL thinks or feels about you, keep it to yourself. Don’t share it with your kids.
Your relationship with your ex ended for good reasons. Conflict will arise, things will come up, buttons will be pushed, and tempers will flare. However, be mindful not to bring it up in front of the kids.
Allow your children to have a relationship with your ex (and your ex MIL) that isn’t filled with the adult conflict. Remember, they are a part of both of you. Openly sharing your adult conflict in front of them forces them to choose sides … which is like asking them to choose only one half of themselves.
Every relationship, every marriage, every family is different. Everyone’s triggers, fears, struggles and reasons for ending their relationship are different.
This is not a one-sized fits all solution, but this is how we did it. It is how we remained a “family” albeit one that looked a whole lot different to what we’d hoped and dreamed it would – and this is how I coach and support my clients to do it.
You don’t have to be best friends with your ex. Even so, sharing time as a family shows your kids that they are important to both of you. And that, as the grown-ups, you’re willing to hold a space with grace so they can share time with both of you. In fact, shows them that they are more important to you than any conflict or disagreement between you and your ex.
As Esther Perel says:
“Divorce is not the end of a family; it’s a reorganisation.”
As co-parents YOU get to choose how you most want that reorganisation to look.