I married and divorced young. In what feels like another life, I walked away from an abusive marriage with a sense of freedom that I had never felt in my young adult life. Now, as an adult in a healthy and happy relationship with two kids, it’s especially important that my kids see me as human and not infallible, someone who makes mistakes and survives them.
If nothing else, the winding road of my life has been a flurry of teaching moments: bad dates, college debt, bad marriage, and wandering the globe, all sprinkled with the perils of Boones Farm. I want to be open with my daughter about my life, but at the appropriate age, of course. Not now. Not when she is 8 years old.
I was faced with the sudden need to be honest with my daughter about my first marriage during my grandfather’s funeral. I wrote a tribute to my grandpa to read during the funeral luncheon. In this tribute I talked about a discussion between my grandpa and I during my divorce, in which he put my troubled mind at ease with simple words that only a man who had seen all the darkest corners of life could give. I knew my daughter would be in the audience, so I intended to talk to her about my ex-husband before the luncheon.
As life would have it, I never had the chance to talk to her. Now I was faced with the real possibility that she would learn that Mommy used to be married to some guy who was not daddy while sitting in a room full of extended family and strangers. Not my finest parenting moment.
For a minute, I thought my family was going to miss my speech, as slushy Michigan roads in November delayed travel for many people. Perfect! I walked up to the stage feeling like I’d dodged a bullet, like I was a responsible parent for not exposing my daughter to information that might be distressing to her. But then in walked my husband and two kids, smiling and excited to see Mommy give a tribute to Great-Papa. Awesome.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous to talk to my daughter about my divorce. What would she think of me, her mother, once she learned I was married to another man who wasn’t her dad? And what do I say to her when she asks the inevitable question: why did you get divorced? I am not ready to explain what an abusive relationship is and she is not ready to hear it. According to a Psych Central article featuring Dr. Anita Gaida-Smith, a Washington D.C. psychiatrist, it is best to share the truth with your child, but not the whole truth. Choose parts of the truth that are appropriate for the child’s age, comprehension level, and personality.
Admittedly, it took me a few days before I was ready to bring up the subject with her. One night as we were snuggling into bed, I asked my daughter what she thought about my tribute. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “It was fine.”
“Do you have any questions?” I asked.
“Nope,” she replied.
I pried a little more and asked what she thought about the part when I said I am divorced. The floodgates opened: Who was he? What was his name? Was he nice to you? Why did you get divorced? What was his family like? My goal with this difficult conversation was to do what the Psych Central article described as “modeling truth-telling,” or showing your child what it looks like when you tell the truth.
I answered all of her questions as honestly and simply as I could. In this careful dance of being honest, but not too honest, I did not want to turn my daughter into a confidant. Dr. Gaida-Smith cautions against this, called “parentification,” or using your child as your support system. Toward the end of our talk, my daughter asked me if I want to be friends with my ex-husband. When I said no, she asked, “Why not?” And there it was: my teaching moment.
“Because you don’t have to be friends with someone who is not nice to you. No matter who they are.”
What did I learn?
I learned that simple explanations were best for my daughter. I also learned to let my daughter guide the conversation. This way I wasn’t telling her too much information that she wasn’t ready to hear. She let me know when she was done talking and I also ended the conversation when I was satisfied that she did not feel confused.
Life is messy and painful, but buried in the ugliness is the beauty that we all cling to to keep going. My daughter and I love each other because we are messy humans, not because of perfection. In the end, she gave me a teaching moment, too.