I’d like to start by sharing my personal experience with this.
I am separated from my first two children’s father. Separation is hard. There are usually many feelings involved. Hurt. Blame. Pain. Loss. Anger. Sadness. The list goes on.
Their father and I separated when our children were just under two and four years old. I know that I felt many of the feelings I listed above and I can imagine that he did as well. But I also knew that in order for my children to feel safe and close to both of us, that these were not things that I could share with them. I did not want them to have to divide their loyalties.
I wanted my children to have the best life possible and to be able to feel close to all the people who cared for them in their lives. Eventually, this meant that I also had to support their attachment to their stepmom. This took a whole lot of emotionally growing up on my side. It wasn’t easy at first but what I wanted more than anything was for my children to feel safe and good with their stepmother and for their stepmother to love them. This person was going to be in their life forever and the more people that could love and support my children, the better.
I knew the power I held in this dynamic (I’m their mom and another mom was coming into their lives!) and that I played a key role in whether or not they would feel good and safe in their relationship with their stepmom or not. And so I made it my goal to be on the same side as her, emotionally.
At first, it felt uncomfortable. I helped my kids make their stepmom Mother’s Day cards on Mother’s Day. (That was a hard one and I really had to get over my own counterwill here.) I spoke highly of her to my children. Sometimes my children would share something really awesome that Sherry did with them and if I am being honest, it twinged a little jealousy inside of me at first. But I would take a deep breath and remember that this was about my children, not about me.
Over time, I discovered the incredible gifts of my children being able to hold both of us close. Their stepmom had different gifts than me and was able to be another caring role model in their lives. My children loved her (still do!) and grew from their relationship with her.
This winter, I flew to Ottawa for some work and I decided to visit my children’s father and their stepmom, Sherry. It had been a long time since I had seen them as our children are now 30 and 28 so our interactions as co-parents has really diminished. It was such a wonderful lunch together.
Below you can see a picture of Sherry and I toasting one another and celebrating the wonderful work we did to come together to raise these lovely humans.
After I left their house, Sherry texted me the below text. I screen shot our text conversation as I thought what she said was so beautiful. She texted me … “we have the most beautiful people in common.” And I think that really sums it up.
We need to come together emotionally, whatever ‘side’ we may be on so that children can hold all of us close. And in holding us close, they will be able to more fully discover their best selves.
What happens when a child’s attachments are NOT on the same side?
What might this look like?
It might look like mom putting down dad.
Or dad putting down mom.
Or mom putting down mama.
Or the parents putting down the child’s teacher.
Or the teacher putting down the child’s parents.
You get it.
When a child senses that one of their attachments does not like (maybe even avidly opposes) another attachment the child has, it can cause the child to feel alarmed and anxious. It can evoke in them what is called attachment alarm. Because here’s the thing, attachment is a child’s greatest need; children need their attachments in order to survive both emotionally and physically. And when a child senses that one of their attachments competes with the other, it makes it incredibly hard for them to hold onto both. It can put them in the uncomfortable position (which often happens to them unconsciously) of having to pick sides.
Being on the same side does not mean needing to be the same.
Children can live with different parenting styles, in fact, having different parenting styles is totally normal.
Children will typically adapt quite quickly to different styles of leadership. They can come to know that one thing might be acceptable at school but not at home. Or that mom is ok with something that mama is not. Or that dad doesn’t mind me having a messy room, but it really bothers mom.
What alarms children is when one of their attachments opposes, puts down, or competes with the other one.
Let’s take a look at some examples of what opposing one another might look like:
Example 1 – Teacher to child: Your lunch is not healthy. This is pure sugar; your parents should know better.
As those of us who lead, teach, and care for children we should never put down the child’s attachments. Those are the child’s attachments forever. Even if it is true and the child’s lunch is not healthy (or anything else we may feel that we would do differently than that child’s parents) we should not share this with the child. The child needs their parents and we should never do or say anything that could get in the way of that relationship.
And this is the same for the other way around.
If parents say negative things about their child’s teacher in front of the child, this too can cause stress for the child. We may not agree with something our child’s teacher is or is not doing. But this is a conversation between adults.
Children need to be able to fall into attachment with their teacher all day for a whole year. This is their person during the day when not with you. If they feel that their main attachment (parent) does not like their teacher it will make it harder for them to feel safe with them.
Example 2 – Mom to child: Oh, your dad is so frustrating. Did he let you stay up late again? He should know better.
Once again, regardless of whether or not our frustration is warranted, this is not a discussion to be had with the child. This is a conversation that is between the adults involved.
And for separated parents? Is it really possible to still be on the same side?
Yes, it really is possible. I’ve been there. But honestly? It can be hard and it takes work. (And holy smokes a ton of stretching oneself!)
Raising children takes a village and the more we can come together to do so, the more we make room for the unfolding of human potential.
So, whether we are the child’s teacher or parent, whether we are together as partners or we are separated, we can come together to raise our beautiful people.
Because that is what it is all about. Coming together to raise our beautiful people.