I’ve given much thought to this shackle of regret that exists between divorce and parenthood, predictably missing in childless couples, trying to pinpoint what exactly causes so much grief and sorrow. Is it anguish at our kids missing the Normal Rockwell childhood? Or remorse of a Ping-Pong lifestyle we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy? Maybe it’s the simple embarrassment at our children needing to explain why mommy and daddy are no longer married. Or perhaps, it’s a medley of each emotion producing a belief that, as divorced parents, we have miserably failed our children.
From the first ultrasound, parents envision the type of mom and dad they will become and the life their children might have. The foundation for these dreams is our own childhood. We look through the lens of our experience towards the future we long to create. Using our childhood memories as road markers directing us along certain paths or guardrails urging us towards a different course. This often manifests in such declarations; as “I will not become THAT parent!”, primarily because that was the type of parent we had.
We begin the journey of parenthood full of inspiration, looking at our newborn child as an artist does blank canvas upon which she will fashion her masterpiece. The brush strokes are taken with extreme care; we understand the ripple effect of parenthood and are mindful of how our actions today are revealed in their behaviors tomorrow. We feel the weight of responsibility parenting demands. We grasp the burden of bringing new life into the world wholly trusting and entirely dependent on us, and how their future will be shaped by our hands.
That was the place from which I looked at my own divorce. It led to a guilt that was summed up in the belief ‘I did this to my children.’ I, along with their mother, helped to create a childhood they would not fondly remember and a family they’d be embarrassed to call their own. Because of their parents’ divorce they would have a biased opinion of romantic relationships and a distorted view of marriage. I felt a failure, not because I couldn’t make my marriage last like everyone in my family had been able to do, I was a disappointment because I would never become the father I expected. With my divorce I had legally surrendered those dreams. No longer could I be that dad who made waffles every morning and tucked them into bed every night. Instead of a childhood they would cleave to when the storms of life raged, theirs would be as a cinder block keeping them from fully taking in the sweet air of life.
And it was all because, through my divorce, I had failed them – or so I believed.
Feeling that we have failed our children is understandable, the data is conclusive, divorce can and often does have lasting consequences on our children. Divorce is also an easy target and a ready made scapegoat for any number of societal ills. It’s easy to become overly sensitive as others look to relieve their own fears by hanging every childhood problem on marital status. The first time our children bring home a bad grade or note from the principle we immediately wonder if it would have been the different had we remained married.
But we must understand this way of thought is self-defeating. Once we’re caught in this black hole of belief it can become impossible to escape. And any attempts at freedom often distract us from being the parent our children need as we try to be the parent we think they want – all in hopes of medicating the wounds of guilt and remorse. As with any broken promise, we can seek to restore the relationship the easiest way – by keeping our children happy - or we can pursue the more difficult path and work to mend the lost trust. It is impossible to simultaneously be a child’s parent – while trying to be their friend.
Divorce is regretful, few couples walk down an isle taking the over/under. We all have the lofty dream our marriage will be the exception, ours will last a lifetime, and our intentions are no less pure as we become parents. But when those hopes get dashed and our dreams turn to nightmares we can either remain caught in the mists of despair or look for a break in the clouds and seek the silver lining divorce can provide. The truth of our divorce is this; it’s a failure to our children only if we allow it. The choice is ours; we can sink in the quicksand of what could have been or reach for the firm ground of what might be. We can let regret darken our outlook on life, infect our future happiness, and poison how we parent, or we can use our divorce as the motivation to learn from mistakes, strike out on new paths, and commit to living anew.
Regret is a natural, albeit temporary, response to divorce. It’s an appropriate emotion along the path of healing, something has died and we are right to mourn the loss. But there must come a time when we accept reality, look to our future with anticipation, and seek to dream once again. It’s for us to decide, we must choose to either embrace this new opportunity and become the parent that might have otherwise remained hidden behind a veil of marriage or we can wallow in the regret of our divorce and assuredly fail our children.