The Dirty Little Secret Of Divorced Parents


Kids have fuller schedules today than they did in their parents' generation. These parents juggle to fit sports games, play dates, music lessons and other activities into their family's weekly schedule. As a result, parents are more stressed than ever and it is taking a toll on their relationships with their spouses. So, how on earth do moms and dads take the time to relax and recharge? 

When it comes to this question, married parents may have something to learn from divorced parents. While most of what I hear as a therapist relates to the trauma and pain associated with divorce, a number of clients have disclosed a surprising sentiment: they secretly like the time off from parenting.

One of my clients — a divorcée and mother — put it this way: "I feel terrible admitting this, but I cherish my down-time each week. It rejuvenates me and leads to a great amount of patience and positivity when I am with my kids. I totally lacked this in the past. I sometimes wonder if what my ex and I really needed was more help with the kids, more down time and more romance." 

Another client — a divorced dad — said the same, admitting: "It wasn't until we separated that I truly invested in quality time with my kids. When we were married, it was as if we were stuck on this gruesome, endless treadmill of chores, meals and obligations. I was just trying to get through the day. I'd read books to my kids and have no idea of the plot, because I was thinking about what I would say in the emails I needed to send when I finished. Now, my time with the kids is limited and precious and I make the most of it. I listen to them and I'm totally in the moment."

Many divorced couples admit that they recharge during their time away from their children and become — albeit in time-limited doses — the parents they always wanted to be.

Obviously, many divorces occur for reasons far more complicated than a lack of down-time, and divorces in which one parent fears for the child's well-being are fundamentally different. But for a divorced parent who respects his/her ex's parenting abilities, it is remarkably common how frequently they view their weekly break from the children as a little slice of heaven within the hellish pie of divorce.

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I call this phenomenon "divorce's dirty little secret", and it has tremendous implications for married parents. Down time is essential. Without it, parents are vulnerable to exhaustion, stress and impatience. Parents must take deliberate steps to take a break from their parenting duties. It is equally important that they create psychological space from the challenges they face in order to keep perspective. While I do not have a simple, catch-all solution to this challenge, consider the following tips. The first two steps will ensure that you get necessary physical down time. The second two steps will infuse humor and will help you recharge on an emotional level. 

1. Create a babysitting exchange with neighbors you trust. Ideally, reach out to someone whose children are relatively close in age to your own, and work out a way that each couple could take every other Saturday night for themselves and for date night.

2. Encourage your spouse to take personal time. It is relatively common to take the divide and conquer approach to parenting with each parent shepherding a child to where they need to be while the other parent navigates the schedule of the other. However, if you encourage your spouse to take an extended break while you take over on a given weekend afternoon, this can generate positive energy and momentum. If the day goes reasonably well, suggest that you take turns and make this alternative afternoon off a regular part of your weekend routine.

3. Read I'd Listen to My Parents if They'd Just Shut Up by Anthony E. Wolf, PhD. This a hilarious and psychologically astute perspective on parenting adolescents by encouraging parents to set clear limits, but use humor and take a "less is more" approach to parenting. While this book is about adolescence, it offers insights, wisdom and perspective that is relevant for all stages of parenthood.

4. Watch the film Parental Guidance. If your children are old enough to watch a PG film, watch with them. If your parents are local, invite them for the viewing as well. The film is absurd and extreme, but some of its observations about modern day parenting are downright hysterical and its emphasis on the importance of enlisting grandparents is — at times — touching.

Force yourselves to take these four steps and you will notice a change for the better. Full disclosure: after watching the above film with my family, my 11-year-old daughter suggested that my parents watch the film as well. The next thing I knew, my parents scheduled an extended visit and my husband and I planned our first getaway in years!

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