Halloween is just around the corner, which means we’re on the cusp of another season of anxiety and misery for too many children of divorce.
For the past few years, I’ve tried to time this column for right before Thanksgiving, but an increasing number of divorce lawyers tell me that’s too late. We should start talking about who comes first — hint: they’re always younger and usually shorter than the squabbling grown-ups — around Halloween, which is often the trigger date for holiday visitation negotiations.
The same two parents who used to argue over which of them would have to traipse through the neighborhood with the kids for trick-or-treating now go to the mat over who gets to deprive whom of even a glimpse of their children’s costumes. Think of it as the warmup round for the all-out war to come over Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year’s.
And as any divorce lawyer can tell you, the more cherished the holiday tradition the more vulnerable it is to revenge parenting.
I am not referring to parents whose primary concerns begin and end with their children’s well-being. Bless them, every last one of them, for they shall know their children’s love and gratitude for the rest of their days.
My concern is for children whose parents tend to be either newly separated or eternally embattled. Aside from the dangerous parent, the only thing worse for a child than a parent reeling from the fresh wounds of a broken vow is one who has chosen to live out the rest of his or her life brandishing old injuries. In either drama, the worst roles always fall to the children.
Primary parents can get territorial, acting as if they are doling out a favor or two rather than abiding by a court order. Non-primary parents can succumb to a bottomless pit of despair, looking for slights that don’t exist. In both instances, the parents make the children feel responsible for the supposed grown-ups’ self-esteem. You know how frustrating it can be to try to calm an adult who doesn’t want to feel better? Now imagine trying to do that when you’re 6.
All the while, children watch and learn. Boy, do they learn. In time, they will figure out who lied and who didn’t — and who was and wasn’t willing to put them first. There’s no redo for that. They also absorb the harshest lessons of the marriage their parents modeled. Good people can fall out of love. Good parents contain the damage so their children can grow into adults with a fighting chance for happiness.
A special request on behalf of all the children too afraid to ask: Please take them holiday shopping for the ex-spouse, who will never be their ex-parent.
I’ve seen this heartbreak play out time and again. Children want to be part of the gift giving, too. If you can’t bring yourself to help them make a present and you can’t be trusted to shop with them unless you travel with your own exorcist, ask a friend or relative to do it.
I’ve lived long enough to know there is yet another good reason to raise your children in a bitter-free zone: One day, you will want to know your children’s children.
There is nothing like falling in love with your grandchildren. Just when you think you’ve seen and felt it all, you discover a whole chunk of your heart that was hibernating until they showed up.
Last weekend, my husband and I welcomed our fourth grandchild. She is perfect because she is ours — you know how that goes — and it would never occur to either of us to distinguish our relationship to her by bloodline. We love her mother and her father, and now we love her.
We married almost 12 years ago, each of us escorted by two grown children. The way we see it, we have four children, four children-in-law and four grandchildren, with a fifth on the way.
The only time we have to consider the particulars is when someone outside our family attempts to sort our children like poker chips. There is no faster route to my bad side than to ask me which grandchildren are “really” mine. Immediately, those offenders’ names go into that file folder in my head titled “What Is Wrong With People?”
Most children want to love everybody in their family, and they rely on us adults to show them how. We are their role models, always.
What kind of role model shall we be?
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. She is the author of two books, including …and His Lovely Wife, which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (email@example.com) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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