'Where's daddy gone?': how I survived the first 12 months after my divorce

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock 

There's no way to sugar coat this: leaving the relationship with the father of my two children was the most painful decision I've ever had to make. Nobody wants to put their kids through a divorce.

For months I fought tooth and nail, desperately trying to find a way I could stay in marriage that was long over, hoping to avoid a family break-up.

I tried therapy, couples counselling, a trial separation, months of agonising and soul-searching. None of it worked. 

By New Year's Day 2018 when I finally told my partner I wanted to separate, the strain of forcing down my unhappiness and the tension in our house was starting to affect our children. Staying together for their sake was not even working, and it became clear that moving on was going to be more healthy. 

And so, we tentatively stepped into the world of 'co-parenting.' 

I don't come from a broken home myself and so had zero experience of any of the repercussions that come with divorce. While I hated the thought of our babies (aged 3 and 1) having to spend weekends at different parent's houses or dealing with new partners or any of that stuff, I also knew that thousands of other families had got through it. So maybe we could too? 

Initially, after my ex-partner moved out, all I felt was relief. The exhausting arguing and my internal panic stopped. I could wake up in the morning and finally soak in the bliss of my children's little sleepy faces and fluffy bed hair, without the pain of my failing marriage getting in the way. 

It was only a few days before my son started to ask me, repeatedly, in the way that young children do, 'Where's Daddy gone?' He would sit by the window for long periods waiting for his dad's car to appear in the driveway. My heart broke daily for him. My daughter started to cry every time her father left the house after visiting, something she'd not done previously.

Some days the weight of the responsibility of trying to comfort my grieving children – on top of dealing with my own sadness and exhaustion – would knock the breath out of me and I'd have to hold on to the bathroom sink to steady myself. It was a long, lonely summer. 

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Late at night I Googled: how to help children deal with separation. How to co-parent. How to be a single mum. I listened to podcasts, went to parenting classes, read blogs and books, trying to soften the blow for my children and help them through this. It was such unfamiliar territory.

There's not a huge amount of information available for dealing with separation when you have very young children. I read some obvious stuff about not fighting in front of the kids and giving them age-appropriate explanations but nothing very specific about how to do these things.  

And so, I set about finding ways to navigate this split in a way that would cause our children as little damage as possible. 12 months on since we separated, here is what I've learnt: 

Put your own healing at the top of the list

That saying about how you must fill your own cup in order to be able to give to your children – it applies tenfold in the aftermath of a separation. It's hard enough getting up day after day to fix breakfast on broken sleep, change pre-school bags and soothe teething and tantrums.

Trying to do it while crying and ruminating in your head about what went wrong is just madness. I couldn't hop on a plane to a yoga retreat in Bali or have a one-night-stand like I'd done to get over previous relationship breakups. 

My options now were: therapy, exercise, hot baths, teary late-night phone calls to friends, and gritting my teeth and getting on with things. I had to do these things over and over and I'm still doing them, and for the most part they are all helpful. (Still think some a casual post-break up sex would speed things up a little…).

Create a parenting plan

It was my psychologist who suggested that my ex and I attend family mediation, to help us navigate our separation and minimise the damage it would have on our children. This is definitely the most useful and valuable thing we did. We did ours through Interrelate and spent a few months going to co-parenting seminars separately and talking to our mediator before coming together to agree on a plan that's in the best interests of our kids.

It covers things like where they will live, days spent with each parent, sleepovers, holidays and birthdays etc The idea is that a plan minimises conflict between you and your ex as you've already agreed on what's going to happen – and it's conflict between parents that hurts children the most, not the separation as such. 

Give everyone time to adjust  

Including yourself. You will have to get used to new terminology like 'co-parenting' and 'child support' and having a bare finger on your left hand. Your children will take time to adapt to different routines, goodbyes, a lot more Facetime

​ calls. And as much as you may be angry at your ex, remember that a separation with children involved is really painful for him, too. You need to be fair and share access to the children. Some days you will be filled with sadness about all of this, other days you will realise you are all beginning to adapt.   

Comfort your children through stories

'Mummy and daddy don't live together anymore because that's what happens in some families' just didn't seem to cut it for my three-year-old. He didn't need to know the details, yet he was struggling and feeling sad and anxious.

I was recommended two books to help young children cope with separation: 'The Kissing Hand' by Audrey Penn and 'The Invisible String' by Patrice Karst. Reading these gave me and my son the ability to navigate his feelings together. Some nights I try not to cry reading them to him, but he will often ask to read them twice, so I know they hit home. 

Try to heal your relationship with your Ex

Lol, I hear you say. Before kids come along, you don't need to heal any relationship with an ex, you just delete their number, block them on social media etc, at least for a while, and move on. It's different when you share little people. It's a hell of a lot harder trying to move on from your ex while also having to see them almost every day (in our case). Our relationship has to weather this separation and develop into something better in the future so that we do this important job of raising our children together. 

It's still early days but I can see that this will take time and patience, and a willingness to keep trying. A phrase I heard a lot this year is: "You have to love your kids more than you hate your ex." While I don't hate my ex-partner, there are certainly days when I don't want to be around him or when we have disagreements about things and I want to just yell at him.

But the co-parenting course taught me that it is every child's right after separation, to have the opportunity to love and see both parents equally, and also to be protected from any bad-mouthing of the other parent. I find it helpful to always come back to this when I am tempted to snark at my ex or get stuck in my head arguing about our same old issues (which don't simply vanish when you separate, by the way). It won't happen overnight, or even next month but I'll do the work because he and I need to be team mates, not opposing forces.

In the past 12 months I have cried more tears than I have in my whole life. I have had to show my children, my closest friends and my family that I am vulnerable. That I am flawed. And resilient and honest and hopeful. I've had to ask for help from all sorts of places. It does get better. You do begin to adapt and hope – and help – starts to come in. 

There are days when my kids get really sad about mum and dad not living together and those are the hardest as I feel they are too young and did not ask for any of this. But I am lucky that my ex-partner and I can, for the most part, put aside our differences and focus on what they need.

Our relationship is becoming more business-like. I ask for space when I need it. I use email or text to bring up difficult issues and delete the emotion out of them, a tip I heard from a podcast with Dawn French when talking about co-parenting with Lenny Henry. 

My wish is that our children will know that although their father and I separated, we were once very much in love and that they were created out of that love. And that we will honour our commitment to raising them together, as best we can, in this ever-changing and unpredictable thing called life.