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After the Divorce, Take Care of Yourself First

Excerpt from What About the Kids?: Raising Your Children Before, During, and After Divorce

Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee

After Hurricane Andrew slammed into the Florida coast in 1992, killing twenty-six people and causing more than $30 billion in property damage, stunned residents were slow to pick up the pieces. Whole neighborhoods had been destroyed. Utility lines were knocked out. Businesses failed. Gradually, though, people put their communities back together. Streets still had the same names. Familiar movie theaters reopened. Stores restocked their shelves and opened for business as usual. Everything was the same but everything was different. Everyone who walked down the street was proud of the rebuilding but knew in his or her hearts that it was not the same city as before.

What happened after Hurricane Andrew is equivalent to what happens after you divorce. Divorce is an end and a beginning. From the moment you walk down the courthouse steps, you're going to need new knowledge and new ideas and most of all a new you. Even after the disequilibrium of the breakup is restored and you've found balance in the various spheres of your life, you're a different person. But most of all, you're a different kind of parent.

One of the many things I've learned is that parents can't help their children until they've thought about themselves, about where they're coming from. So let's begin right there. First you need to take control of your own life. I wish I could tell you that it's okay to lie down and pull the covers over your head, but that's not possible. You may feel like you're the only person in the world who could ever feel this bad, but let me assure you, you have plenty of company. Once you've decided that "it's really over," you'll have set into motion the task of becoming a different person and, to your surprise, a different kind of parent. While your decision marks the end of a marriage, it's also the formation of a new kind of family. It's a new play with different characters in strange settings, changes in parent and child relationships, and predictable transitions that most parents fail to anticipate.

Most people don't understand that divorce follows a long trajectory. What you feel today is probably not going to be relevant to your life three, five, or ten years from now. The quick fix that you want to put into place tomorrow won't be of much use down the post-divorce road. You can take steps to ease your immediate pain, but the really hard work comes one day and then one year at a time with changes that ricochet into your life and into the lives of your children.

You're about to undergo a metamorphosis. To succeed for yourself and your children, you're going to have to create a self-image as someone who can cope with the demands set before you. You can't become an effective parent until you've regained your footing and begun to repair the damage done by the failed marriage and the inevitable stresses of the divorce.

How fast or how well this happens depends on how you respond to the challenges and frustrations that lie ahead.

There's no way not to cry. Whether you left the marriage or you were the one left, crying is good for the soul. It doesn't banish the hurt but at least you can get the pain out of your belly. But if you're caught up in the image of having failed in your marriage -- because you were betrayed or you're guilty of breaking your marriage vows or your judgment was just plain lousy -- your parenting will be burdened. Nor can you muster the strength you need if you think of yourself as a victim. It may be grossly unfair if the person you trusted most in the world is the cause of all your pain, but that feeling must yield to the tasks before you. As strange as this sounds, if you find yourself raging at your husband or wife, it really doesn't matter if you're right. What matters is that being enraged will eclipse your ability to be a good parent. It will cloud your judgment and make it harder for you to take care of yourself or see your children as being separate from you, with different needs and priorities in their young lives. Worst of all, it will make it much harder for you to be a compassionate, loving mom or dad.

If your divorce is like most, only one of you wants to end the marriage. Never in my thirty years of working with divorcing couples have I seen two people sit down quietly at the kitchen table and say, "You know, we both made a mistake, let's go our separate ways." There's almost always pain and palpable grief. At this point, the hardest thing you face is the need to avoid getting stuck in your pain. Think of Lot's wife. She was offered escape from Sodom and Gomorrah, which were due to be destroyed by God, on condition that she refrain from looking back. But tragically for her and her children, she did look back and forfeited her only chance for rescue.

The decision to divorce requires that you focus on what lies ahead, unrelated to how or why the divorce happened.

If you are the one who wanted out and are feeling great relief and pride at having, at last, done what seemed impossible, you are to be congratulated. But you're still going to face problems with your children. I assure you that you cannot expect instant support or even understanding, even if they've seen you suffering.

Let's learn about a new kind of parent… see next excerpt

Copyright © 2003 Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee

Excerpted from: What about the Kids? Raising Your Children Before, During, and After Divorce By Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee (Published by Hyperion; ISBN: 0786868651; US$23.95; hardcover)

Judith S. Wallerstein is the founder and executive director of the Center for the Family in Transition. She is senior lecturer emerita at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California at Berkeley, where she has taught for twenty-six years. She has spoken with more divorced families than anyone in the nation, and lectured to thousands of family court judges, attorneys, mental health professionals, mediators, and educators. She has appeared on Oprah, the Today show, and Good Morning America, among others. She is the author, with Sandra Blakeslee, of the national bestsellers The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts and Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce; with Blakeslee and Julia M. Lewis of the bestseller The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, and, with Dr. Joan Berlin Kelly, of Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce.

Sandra Blakeslee is an award-winning science writer who contributes regularly to the New York Times. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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