When a couple is in a committed relationship, and one of them is contemplating leaving, he or she may ask him or herself questions such as, “Is this bad enough for me to leave or good enough for me to stay?” However, when that same couple is in a committed relationship with children, there is a much more disconcerting thought that may enter his or her mind: “What would leaving do to my children?”
I am 41 years old. I am divorced. I am clearly not a psychologist or a relationship expert. I am not going to furl data or research at you. However, I have had the privilege of witnessing profound personal growth in people who were willing to dig deeper into the layers of this aforementioned question: What would leaving my children’s father or mother do to my children?
When I hear people ask this question, I also hear the following underlying/interconnected questions:
- What would it do to me to see my children suffer through this pain?
- What would it mean for my children to come from a broken home?
- What will happen to me as I explain this to other people?
- What will people think of me for leaving a marriage or partnership that doesn’t look “that bad?”
- Shouldn’t I be able to tolerate it, at least until the children get older, so that I can give them a “stable” home life?
These are really hard questions that I am sure many a therapist has heard in their offices. These are questions that have been written into journals and secretly tucked under people’s mattresses where no one else can find them. These are questions that are whispered in quiet corridors where lovers meet to have affairs that feel more comfortable to them than leaving the status quo. These are questions that people ask themselves as they drink a bottle of wine every night in order to go to sleep, because numbing out is easier than answering these questions.
While I️ don’t know the answers to these specific underlying questions, what I️ do know is this: OUR CHILDREN NEED US, NOW MORE THAN EVER BEFORE. And when I say “need us,” I mean need US–the real, most true version of ourselves. If we are in a relationship that does not offer us the opportunity to be the most REAL and TRUE version of ourselves, then staying in that relationship CANNOT be what’s best for our children.
When a mother walks into her home, and feels like she can’t be herself, that has a negative effect on the little people in her home. When a girl looks into her daddy’s eyes and sees a person who does not love himself, that actually has a negative impact on that little girl’s mental health. When anyone walks into his or her own home, feeling broken-hearted because love doesn’t live in his or her marriage, his or her children will FEEL the effects of this sadness.
I know kids. When I come to school to teach, and I seem frazzled for whatever reason, one of these insightful little people will come up to me and say, “Have you had your coffee yet?” BECAUSE THEY KNOW THINGS. I don’t really wear makeup much anymore to work, but the first day I stopped wearing it, a five year old asked me the minute I stepped into the building, “What happened to you and where did your pretty eyes go?”
These are children–some of the most curiously perceptive people on our planet. They FEEL things in the air and see between the lines. They know when we are trying to distract ourselves from our lives in order to avoid living it. And they definitely know when we don’t love ourselves.
They can also sense when our lives are unfulfilled. They can feel when there is an emptiness in our hearts. Our children know when we are pretending, and if we continue to show them that pretending is okay, they will begin to start pretending and stuffing their feelings down, too.
And one of my mantras for this year has been: there is no power in pretending. We do not want our children to believe it is okay to behave like someone they are not. When we push down who we are and what we want, in order to avoid causing other people to experience pain, we aren’t actually LIVING, and are in fact, BETRAYING our truest, highest selves.
We must start to understand that there is a way of being that is authentic. And in this space of authentic living, we will find that what is good and true and right for us (and I got this line from Glennon Doyle, because she’s a genius) is going to be what is good and true and right for “our people.” And our people include, but are not limited to, our children. Now, this does not mean our children will not suffer pain. Divorce is painful. Painnnnnnnful. Heartbreaking, in fact, for adults, children, and members of the extended family. But–and I️ cannot ask this question enough-is it our job to protect our children from ever experiencing pain and heartbreak? Is that truly what being a parent means? Or, does being a parent mean to hold our child’s hand and show them how to be their truest selves, even when it’s hard and not popular or right?
Could it mean that we are actually doing our best parenting when we teach them that they can walk through pain and come out stronger and more resilient?
I️ don’t know about you, but for as much as I️ hate seeing my daughter in pain, what I️ would hate even more would be for her to never know the lessons that pain can teach. That grief can teach. That heartbreak can teach.
Perhaps if our children can learn to withstand heartbreak and grief and pain, they can learn to sit with others and have empathy for them, too, when they see them walking through the same. And when our children can learn to hold space for each other and practice empathy and compassion, they can change this very world.