A Different Kind of Empty: Half Full?
In my quest to open up discussion on how parents deal with an “Empty Nest,” I discovered that there are many kinds of “empty." This article is for parents whose nest feels empty out of season.
Parents who go through a divorce begin to feel “empty nest” feelings in a season that feels as though it is too soon. Adjustments are difficult for both parents and kids.
This week, I interviewed four parents who have experienced divorce. These men and women, whose stories I am sharing under pseudonyms, have faced getting used to living without their children, at least part of the time, and survived, even when they felt as if they might not be able to.
If you are going through a divorce that includes the adjustment of shared parenting or partial custody, I hope that the stories shared here help you not only to cope with your current situation, but to find hope for the future, for both you and your kids.
I interviewed two Dads and two Moms who have had to adjust to living without their children.
The first question I asked: Are you in the beginning stages of your transition, or has it been years?
David: My boys were 9 and 2 when things started with us. They are 22 and 15 now.
Nathaniel: So much has happened in the past year since my divorce
that it feels like a blur. My kids are with me every other week. We are only
about 1 month into this schedule, but so far, so good.
Marcy: We have lived apart for 3 years. Technically we have been divorced since 2004, but I didn’t leave the home right away.
Jessica: I am not yet divorced and permanent custody has not yet been established, but my husband was awarded temporary custody.
What was/is the hardest aspect of being apart from your children?
D: Things still are very vivid in my mind regarding the day I was forced to move out. My oldest son stood in the middle of our hallway and said to his mother and me: “Can we have another family hug before Dad has to go?” So the four of us embraced, and I can still feel that hug to this day! Then as we (my brother helped me) left, the boys ran to the front bay window of our home, pulled back the sheers and watched and waived as we drove away. It was the kind of thing you see only in the movies, and it was happening to me. All I (we) could do was cry our eyes out after we were out of sight of the boys, because as the "tough dad" you can't let your boys see you cry?!
N: Surprisingly, it's not as bad for me as I expected - the weeks together are great; the weeks apart are tolerable with texting and phone calls. I think the memories of joyous occasions will be somewhat stained with less than pleasant feelings. I guess overall, my hurt is mostly in what hurts my children. Although I realize that I am missing out on the joy of things shared with a spouse and with children, I realize that some of that is my fault. When I see the kids hurting through no fault of their own, that's what hurts me most.
M: Thursdays. I have my kids Saturday night through Thursday every week. My ex comes and gets the kids on Thursdays. It is just starting to get better. They were 7 and 9 when we first started to live apart. Now, they are teenagers, so I admit that sometimes, I’m ready for them to leave. ;-) But for years, Thursdays were horrible.
J: Right now I am not with my children at all and am in the beginning stages of “supervised visitation” which hasn’t really come together because of communication issues and the need for a new supervisor and legal issues surrounding that. I miss my kids every single day, and I can’t believe that my husband has devoted his life to taking them away from me. He has gone to incredible lengths to be sure he never has to be apart from them, even one day. A lot of mornings, I wake up from a sound sleep and I am crying. I catch myself and try to stop. I don’t know how to be without my kids, but it has been nearly five months that I have been separated from them, and frankly, it hurts like hell. Sometimes, I think: what is the point? Why do I get up? Get dressed? Try to hold a job? Live? My kids were my life. Everything. If I don’t have them, why bother with anything? Why even put one foot in front of the other? But then I keep on, for the hope of being reunited with them. For the hope of their future and mine. It is a different future than we had imagined, but it is still there, somewhere, waiting for us, I hope.
What are some general issues/emotions you have dealt with in not living with your children full time or at all?
D: Honestly, I am sorry to say, I don't think the grieving process ever is over for a parent involved in a broken marriage. At least for me it isn't. While my divorce decree says we have 50/50 custody of the boys, and in the beginning it worked out well; a week with me, and then a week with her. She decided to move…and I had to make concessions where I basically became the "non-residential parent."
In the first stages of grieving, there was a lot of crying to relieve the physical pain/loss. I remember crying myself to sleep and waking up with the
imprint of the Cross necklaces I wore that had two little boy charms on it as
well in the palm of my hand. I remember the difficulty in suppressing the
suicidal thoughts by just thinking about my boys. But I also remember the love
and support of family and friends when I was a shell of what I had been.
In my second stage of grieving, I can say it was mostly anger at my ex. We have very different parenting styles, as I was/am the disciplinarian, and she would always back down. I am the coach style of parent I guess, kick you in the butt when needed, and praise you when deserved. I still had and have the
responsibility to raise my boys to be men, so that anger turned to a focus on
that. Any obstacles that my ex threw in my way that focus seem to guide me,
with God's help, to get around those obstacles.
N: The most painful part is to see the frustration in my children with the complexity of living two places - two schedules, two routines, two of every item, but never having the right one in the right home at the right time. I feel so bad that their life is much more complicated and contentious than it should have been. It is painful to see the stress and apprehensive expression of emotion on any topic that includes both parents. The kids are reserved and choose words carefully when talking about something that concerns both parents. It's a shame that they can't just share raw emotion/feelings whether good or bad - I hope that will come with time. It's also painful, frustrating, and sad to experience occasions that should be sheer joy, but that are tempered with tension and distractions. This one is probably much more evident to me than to the children.
M: When they were younger, I was a stay-at-home mom. On the days when I did not have them, I felt like I had no purpose. Every time they leave, still even now, I have so many regrets, like, “Oh, I wanted to do this with them, or that.” I also had to deal with some terrible men who knew I was hurting and took advantage of me on days they knew I was really hurting (mainly Thursdays…) I’m better now at isolating myself from those kinds of people.
J: I often wonder how my life ended up this way. I was the parent whose relationship with my kids most people envied. They have told me that.
I was a good parent. A loving parent. The conscientious, involved parent who
didn’t smother her kids but raised them to be independent and well-adjusted.
And they were. Everyone said it. Now, their perception is that I am to blame.
They believe that I abandoned them, because that is what they’ve been told. I
know they are angry and don’t know how to love me right now. I never wanted a
divorce, but their perception is what matters. I don’t know how to deal with
that. Or to not be a part of their lives right now and to not know if/when that
will change. I don’t know how to not be a part of a family. I don’t know how to
live that way. It is beyond me.
What kinds of things did or do you do to cope with the loss you feel?
D: I think the stage of grieving that never goes away is the "what/ifs." What if I was there 100% of the time? Would my boys be more involved in church? Would their grades be better? Would they have been more involved in sports? Would my now 22 year old come around more often, or is it he is just 22? Would my now 15 year old be more driven in life or is he just 15? The list can go on and on... I have no idea how to cope with this, and probably always will be trying to, so I just pray.
N: Sometimes I feel good, sometimes bad, sometimes both compete at the exact same moment, but God is ALWAYS faithful. Ironically, I've also learned a lot about love - not just when it's easy, but even more so when it's not. The number of good days outweighs the number of bad days. There is still much joy, love, and laughter. However, it is tempered now with the things described above. Even so, I am so thankful for what and who the Lord had blessed me with. I know God loves us so deeply…I try to rely on Him each day. He is sufficient.
M: I try not to dwell on the day. I try to focus on the big plan. What I’m trying to reach and attain with my kids. I try to think about the positive things. One good thing is that when the kids are one place, if they get frustrated, they know that they will be leaving soon. I think that they have adjusted fine, because they have variety. Also, when they are with each of their parents, they get 100% attention from me, and when they are with their dad, he is focusing on them 100% during the time they are with him. I also think that maybe “Empty Nest” won’t be as intense because of the transition I’ve made to them being away three days. Maybe the intense pain…I’ve already experienced that, and getting used to not having them every holiday.
J: I pray a lot. For myself and for my kids. For their emotional health. For our current and future relationship. They blame me for the break-up, and I can’t influence them otherwise right now without saying things that they are not ready or willing to hear, and without defaming their father. So I have to remain silent about those things that he has done. I have to take responsibility for my part, and hope that my kids will someday find forgiveness in their hearts and be able to see the Truth.
I attend their activities to show my love and support and give them words of affirmation. In terms of coping with the searing pain of loss, I’m all over the map. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I rant and shake my fist at the air. I cry a lot while I’m driving. I cry out to God. I am living with friends, and that’s hard, but it’s also good to have support.
I often read scripture or listen to music. I sing. I chill out with friends. Sometimes, with friends or alone, I just feel like I need a drink, though I don’t often get drunk. I rarely refuse help or company, and every day, I take in encouraging words from those who express their concern: in person, online, and through texts. I have learned to be real with people about what I’m facing and how I’m feeling, and in turn they are beautiful in their encouragement and support. The ONLY way I am surviving this awful stage of my life is through my faith in God, and I know I’ve found I can “get by with a little help from my friends.” Or a lot of help. I have learned to receive. I guess it is my season for that.
Half Empty or Half Full?
In hearing the stories of these amazingly loving parents, one thing was reaffirmed in me: No parent is perfect. No parenting situation, married or unmarried, is perfect. But it is possible to parent through difficulty and life changes with grace and beauty. If you are going through a similar situation, it is my hope that their words inspire you to keep on.
Your story is uniquely yours, as is your children’s. Even if you can only fill your kids’ lives half of the time, you do fill them. They are your kids, and no one can fill your place in their lives.