Ritual, routine, and predictability help build a new normal.
When my daughter was a toddler, her dad would carry her downstairs to bed in the evening, and they had a nightly ritual: my daughter would say about being put to bed, “And Blankie, too?” and he would answer, “‘Of course!’ said the horse.” These simple routines allow children to build trust and mastery over an ever-changing self and world.
So, consider how you can retain these comforting routines as you settle into a two-home family and, over time, create new ones together that become part of the fabric of your new sense of home.
How much time does it take to stabilize after divorce/separation? It depends; it really varies from family to family. Most experts would suggest about a year, maybe two.
What Does it Depend On?
For parents, we know that emotional adjustment is often the primary focus. Maintaining physical health (eating well, sleeping enough) is basic to a secure future. A sense of confidence in or mastery over an adequately secure financial present and future goes a long way to stabilizing homes and creating security post-divorce/separation. And dramatic shifts in day-to-day life post-divorce/separation will increase adjustment time. For example, is the once stay-at-home-parent now returning to school or workforce full-time resulting in daycare or dramatic schedule changes? Is a new partner being integrated into one parent’s life simultaneously?
For kids, along with things like a) age, b) temperament, and c) other concurrent loss, change, or stress the child may be experiencing, factors include:
- Level of conflict (if any) in each home and between households/between coParents—the longer open conflict persists, the longer it will take to build stability.
- Change in familiarity — did they move? Is there a new adult, additional children that are part of the family now?
- Sense of control — does each child have an age-appropriate amount of input about simple things like choosing bedding, or deciding what photos he/she can have by the bed, where the toys will be stored or homework done?
- Relationship with each parent—are both parents still physically and emotionally available to be concerned about the child and his/her feelings? Can they emotionally support the child?
Looking at the whole picture of your child’s adjustment supports his/her development. Children may appear to be adjusting better in one home over the other, or with one parent over the other. When both parents commit to a healthily adjusted child not only in his/her house, at school, with peers, in extra-curriculars, but also in the other parent’s household, they fully support their child. Keep in mind, that children go through rough times with one parent and then the other depending on age, gender, issue, etc., as part of normal growth and development — and in divorce/separation we simply need to scaffold and support those rough patches across two homes.
The parent who remains in the family home is faced with assisting him or herself and the children in dealing with “what is not there anymore”— the absence of the familiar whole family, a loss of the way things were. Although this can be easier than starting over, staying in the family home is not without challenges. The sadness and loss may be more disguised but not less important. Having simple, occasional check-ins with the kids on how they are feeling opens the door for sharing feelings and acknowledging the loss and change.
For the parent who moves out, his/her first new living situation is often less than ideal, temporary, or makeshift in some way — and is often followed by a second transition later, when finances are more stable. This can be challenging in the first six to 12 months when trying to establish routines with your children and a sense of home. For the kids, everything from their favorite toys to their special pillow becomes a focus of their ‘OK-ness’ and comfort, especially when someone may be sleeping on the couch at Aunt Anne’s, where a parent is staying, or the breakfast room table seconds as a fort where sleeping bags get tucked for adventurous overnights in a parent’s first living space.
The more we can honor a reasonable amount of recreating the familiar in the face of building a new future, the better. Patience, understanding, involving the children (age appropriately) in establishing their new digs can bring some enthusiasm and freshness to an otherwise uncertain situation. Reassuring the children that you feel the newness, too, that creating memories and a sense of home takes time, that you’re aware that it’s a big change. Appreciating their efforts at adjusting and accepting the changes can go a long way.
When both parents move into new living situations, the children are simultaneously saying goodbye to their family home while creating a new sense of home with each parent. Our hope is that both parents consider the comfort and well-being of their children in each home when planning to launch their two-home family.
Until both parents settle into permanent housing, and while co-owning the family home during your separation/divorce process, respect the boundaries of the parent who remains living in the home. Sometimes the parent who is living outside the family home feels entitled to enter the home at will: “I pay the mortgage; this is still my home.” is is a very tough time; you co-own the home, but it’s now occupied by your soon-to-be ex partner. Respecting his/her boundaries, just as you would a renter, with due notice and receiving permission to enter, are essential guidelines for civility.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Karen Bonnell’s book, THE CO-PARENTS’ HANDBOOK. For more information on Karen or her book, visit http://coachmediateconsult.com/co-parents-handbook/