I'm sitting at the bar of a local cantina with my mother, moments after she has signed her divorce papers. She's crying as she sips on her blended margarita, no salt, and I'm rubbing her back while promising her that divorce was the right thing to do, while simultaneously and subtly motioning to the bartender for two shots of tequila. Emotional, physical and financial abuse, coupled with an extensive amount of guilt, kept my mom from seeing all the reasons why going through a divorce doesn't make you a bad mom; reasons that would have saved her, and my brother and I, from years of torment; reasons that could have given my mother the freedom to be herself, without the looming threat of a violent spouse. Still, even after she found the courage to leave and even after she signed the necessary paperwork, I can see those reasons slipping through her shaking fingers, as she's contemplating her decision and wondering if divorce is a reflection of herself as an individual, a lover, a partner and, perhaps most importantly to her in this moment, as a mother.
I spent a significant part of my childhood begging my mother to leave my father, only to hear numerous excuses (some very valid, some not-so-much) as to why she couldn't. Truth be told, she didn't have the financial ability to file for divorce; she didn't have a supportive network of friends and family close by, to help her with her children or provide her with a place to live; she couldn't let go of the idea that divorce was "bad," and her children would suffer because she chose to "split up the family." My abusive father fed her many of those ideas, manipulating my mother into thinking that choosing divorce would make her a bad mom. He knew what to say, and how to say it, in order to get my mother to focus on the potential future of her children, and not her own.
I look back now, and now that my mother is happy and healthy and a single woman free to be herself without fear of abuse or violence, and cringe at the thought of how many years my mother lost, all because she was taught that divorce was "bad" or "wrong" or anything other than necessary, because sometimes (hell, most of the time) it is. I cringe remembering how she looked (so sad) and how she acted (so hopeless) and how her overall demeanor was something my brother and I not only noticed, but couldn't ignore. I cringe when she, now, apologizes for not leaving sooner and calls herself a bad mother for not getting a divorce, quick to rub her back the same way I did all those years ago at a cantina bar, and remind her that she is an incredible mother, divorce or not. How great my mother, or any mother, is at parenting doesn't hinge on their romantic relationships "succeeding" or "failing," so when my incredible mom begins to doubt her abilities and points to divorce as a reason why, I remind her of the following:
Your Happiness Matters, Too
Just because you have chosen and were successful at procreating (or adopting) doesn't mean that your needs and wants and dreams and desires and potential, future happiness all cease to exist, or be of any importance, or are no longer worth your time and effort and attention. Do you find yourself sacrificing certain things when you're a parent? Absolutely. The frequent, weekly happy hour comes to mind. However, you do not (or should not) sacrifice your long-term happiness, especially when doing so means staying in an unhealthy, abusive or unfulfilling relationship.
An Unhealthy Environment Is Detrimental To Children
There are numerous studies that confirm that staying in an unhealthy, abusive or toxic environment is detrimental to kids. Children who witness unhealthy and often abusive interactions between parents are at a higher risk for experiencing depression, anxiety, fear, guilt, insomnia, bedwetting, headaches, stomachaches, and short attention spans. Whether you're simply no longer in love with your partner or your partner is abusing you, the environment created between two people who either don't want to be together, or shouldn't be together, does effect children in a negative, and potentially devastating, way. Honestly, divorce can be a wonderful thing for children, and takes them out of a potentially unhealthy environment while simultaneously giving them the opportunity to see either both, or just one, parent happy.
Your Kid Will Benefit From Seeing You Happy
Just like a kid will hurt when they see a parent or parents hurt, a kid will benefit from seeing a parent or parents happy. The CDC says, "Children benefit when parents have safe, stable, nurturing relationships." You can be an example of what to do, even if what to do is difficult and painful and scary. When you demand better for yourself, and continually seek happiness, even if that means ending a relationship with someone you thought you'd be with forever, your kid will see that it's OK to admit things no longer work, or that you were wrong, or that you made a mistake, or that you simply deserve to spend your life with someone who makes you happy and keeps you safe and supports you. If you want all of those things for your child, you need to show them how they can have it by finding it for yourself, too.
The Idea Of What Makes A Family "Normal" Is Changing
Currently, 50% of all North American children will watch their parents go through a divorce, and almost half of that 50% will see one or more parent get divorced for a second time. Gone are the days when divorce was somewhat strange or uncommon. There are so many ways to grow and nurture and sustain a family, and it doesn't require two married parents. You're "normal" if you're providing for your kid and ensuring that the environment they're growing up in is safe and happy and healthy. What that looks like, whether it's never getting married or being happily married or going through a divorce and having multiple co-parents, really and truly, doesn't matter.
Your Kid Can See You Co-Parent Without You Being In A Romantic Relationship With That Parent...
You don't have to be in a romantic relationship with a co-parent to make a parenting team successful. You just, well, don't.
...And Can (Eventually, If You Want) Even Expand Their Family When You Meet Someone New
Plus, when you get divorced and give yourself a chance to find someone who does help fulfill you romantically and bring you happiness (if you want), you give your kid an opportunity to have even more parents to nurture them and love them and care for them and help guide them. Honestly, there is absolutely nothing bad about having as many positive role models in your kids life as humanly possible.
Let's Face It, Double Holidays And Birthday Parties Are (Or Can Be) Awesome For Kids
While my primary goal in attempting to talk my mother into getting a divorce was getting away from an abusive father, I would be lying if I didn't say the thought of double holidays and double birthday parties didn't, you know, cross my mind. I wasn't sure how custody would go, and honestly still wanted my father's love and approval to the point that I probably would have been willing to live with him too, but I saw my friends with divorced parents get double everything and it looked like the best thing ever.
Kids Are Smart, And Know When Something Is Wrong
No matter how great you think your super sneaky parenting skills are at hiding your true feelings, your kids know. They just, know. I knew something was wrong when I was five years old, and while I was unable to understand the many dynamics at play or just how bad it was for my mother, I knew she wasn't happy and she spent the majority of her day being scared for herself, and strong for her children. You shouldn't be forced to pretend to be happy, first and foremost, but you should also know that pretending won't get you very far. Kids know it all.
There Are Numerous Ways To Have A Co-Parenting Relationship
Whether you split weeks or someone has every other weekend or they only see their kid every few months out of the year or the divorce was necessary for everyone's safety, and there is no co-parenting situation, how you work out your new parenting situation when you're not romantically involved with your kid's other parent is entirely up to you. You get to decide what works and what doesn't, and that gives you the freedom to design your own life and how parenting fits within it. You can customize co-parenting (just like you can customize parenthood itself) to work best for you and your family, so your child isn't struggling with any substantial changes.
Your Kid Will See You Demand Happiness And, One Day, They'll Do The Same
Changing the course of your life by doing something as time-consuming, exhausting and difficult as divorce (if divorce is all those things for you, because sometimes it isn't) shows your kid that you won't settle. I honestly think that is one of the best lessons you can give a child, and one that I was able to learn from my own mother. It may have happened later in life than I would have wanted (for her, and myself) but I saw her rise up from a seemingly impossible situation, and demand happiness for herself. That strength and courage has given me the silent permission to do the same, and I know my life would be incredibly different if my mother didn't do what was best for her, and get a divorce.