My parents didn’t get divorced until I was 11, but I have been the child of a single mother for far longer. Both my parents worked through my adolescence, but it was my mom who planned my birthdays, who volunteered at school, who took care of me. She was the one who always felt the pressure of my childhood needs, and the guilt that came from her inability to balance all of my requests and a full time job. The divorce was a long time coming, but that didn’t stop it from being one of the hardest years of my life. Not for the reasons that most would assume, but because it made me realize how lonely the prior years before the divorce had been.
Divorce guilt is increasingly common in mothers, especially as divorce becomes more accessible to households with cultures that don’t condone it. My mom spent years raising me alongside my dad because of her fear about how a divorce would affect me. The truth is that my parents’ divorce was the beginning of so much happiness in my life. And since that time, my relationships with my family, friends, and myself have been filled with so much personal fulfillment. I know how to set boundaries, how to put myself first, and how to recognize a draining connection. The divorce taught me the difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship. If my parents had continued to be together, I would have grown up thinking that marriage and love are synonymous with arguments and isolation.
The stigma behind divorce comes from a place of misogyny. Society generally assumes that depriving a child of a father and a united home is a burden that the mother must bear. That her wish for divorce is selfish. In reality, divorce is putting your children first. It’s taking them out of a toxic household. It’s teaching them that they can leave bad relationships and be happy. It’s showing them how to take charge of their own lives, and never put someone else’s happiness above their own.
If there is one thing that a parent must do in the face of a divorce, it is to disassociate the marital problems from the children on any and every level. The only time my parents’ divorce felt like a negative aspect of my life was when relatives in India — culturally unaccustomed to divorce — looked down on my family because of the separation. The whispers are still going strong seven years later, but I know that they have nothing to do with me or my relationship with either of my parents. This is because my mom explained my extended family’s likely disapproval the second the divorce happened. Giving your children the knowledge they need to adjust to this new dynamic is crucial to their achieving and maintaining happiness.
Overarchingly, communication is the key factor in every stage of the divorce. From the second it has been brought up between partners, the children should be involved to some extent. You may think that it can remain a secret, but children will pick up on any shift within the household. It is critical to explain or educate them about the situation, rather than allow them to speculate and come to the common conclusion that they caused the problems. Furthermore, when the divorce happens, children need to be part of the decisions that come along with it. The first few weeks after the divorce, I felt lost because so many things were left unclear to me. Vacations, my extracurriculars, Christmas, and my birthday all felt like my responsibility because neither parent had told me what the schedule was. I began to spiral because choosing the house where I’d spend Christmas morning felt like choosing which of my parents I liked best. It is never the child’s responsibility to be in charge of schedules. However, a communicative environment where they have the choice to make requests is just as important.
Divorces and their aftermath are messy and complicated. That doesn’t mean that we as a society should shy away from them or view them as anything other than improving an unhappy situation. Making the choice to become a single parent is one of the hardest and bravest things a person can do. Your children will be okay in a divorced environment (probably far better off than in an acrimonious household), as long as you provide them with the tools they need to be happy.
Laya Karthik, Liftery intern, is a senior at Mountain View High School, president of the Mountain View High School chapter of March for Our Lives, and the child of a single mom. You can find her on Instagram at @laya.karthik.