When my husband and I split up, I felt especially fortunate that my son was really too young to notice.
It was especially easy because my husband worked away from home, and F wasn’t used to him being there full time. For a few months, I left our photos up. I guess I was hoping he’d come around, but as my toddler pointed at the photos and said “Daddy”, I eventually took them down. The “D” word hurt, and it was time to move on. He stopped saying Daddy. When he saw his father again, months later, he called him “guy” and referred to him as “Mommy’s friend”. It was hard to hear, but I let it go. I didn’t want to confuse him. His father made his decision to not be involved, so why push it?
My greatest fear in dating as a parent was the inevitable relationship between my son and my boyfriend. What if they didn’t get along? What if they did, but our relationship went South? It was an endless list of what ifs, so I packed it away.
My greatest fear came to life last week and while grieving the loss of the relationship has been hard, explaining to F why my partner isn’t here has been a lot harder.
Depending on the age of the child and the state of the relationship, your message will need to be tailored. In the case of a long-term, serious relationship where the child is a little older it may be necessary to try to maintain some sense of normalcy. In the case of shorter term relationships, it might be best to have a clean break. Less confusion, less heartache.
F had taken to asking my partner if he could “be the Daddy”, and called him his “best friend”. Now that he’s gone, F asks where his “best friend” is, and why he doesn’t want to be here any more.
It’s hard to answer. So far, I’ve used:
“He is still our friend, and we still love him, but he had to go away for a little while.” – This answer works for F because we will probably see my ex again, based solely on the fact our parents have homes next to each other.
“Right now, he needs to be somewhere else to be happy, and we want him to be happy.” – This works because at any age, we understand and appreciate the importance of happiness.
“No matter what happens, I will always be here for you. I love you.” – Stability and reassurance helps.
An older child might respond better to the hard and fast, but F just isn’t old enough to understand what a “break up” is. The idea of someone never coming back is too big for him to accept. So I’ve been gently explaining that sometimes, people we love have to go away and sometimes they come back. Sometimes, I’m not sure who I’m trying to convince – him, or me.
No matter the age, being open and honest is key. Kids have an amazing ability to know more than they let on and far more than we want them to. Don’t be surprised if your child’s behaviour or attitude seems out of character – whether you realize it or not, yours likely is too. Change is hard for all of us, and the absence of a loved one or friend can be as hard or harder on the wee ones as it is on yourself.
My advice? Take a day. Relax. And then move on. Maintain your regular routine. You will find a new normal soon. When your emotions threaten to overflow (read: you need a good ugly cry), have a shower. Put the kid(s) to bed early. Get it out, and get on with it. The longer you hold on, the harder it is to let go. Trust me, I know. This is round two.
Be strong, stay positive, and focus your energy on the next chapter of your lives. Nothing is ever as bad as it seems.