Being a parent can be a tough gig, especially when your children are young. It’s easy to see why mothers can resort to envy and judgement of those in different circumstances. For separated parents who share custody with their ex-partner, this envy and judgement can come thick and fast. But it’s often misplaced and only adds to the stress of parenting after separation or divorce.
Simply grieving the end of a relationship with a huge bucket of ice-cream and a new haircut before moving on in life is not an option for people with kids. In Australia, close to 50% of divorcing couples have one or more children together and many heterosexual and same-sex de-facto couples also have children at the time that the relationships end. In many cases, children can be well supported in shared custody arrangements and well-managed co-parenting is vastly preferable to exposing kids to ongoing conflict. But even co-operative exes can be difficult to deal with because of the emotionally charged territory. There is no question that sharing custody is more complicated than simply having regular time off from the kids.
First of all, we didn’t choose to be away from our kids.
Despite this, it’s not uncommon for divorced mothers to find that friends who haven’t been through a separation are insensitive or even hostile after their change in circumstances. This is counter-productive because mothers, whatever their situation, need support and solidarity from other parents. So, what do divorced mothers want you to know?
First of all, we didn’t choose to be away from our kids. My friend Martha* said to me, “I had [my son] because I wanted kids. I hate them for thinking I left my marriage for time off from my child.” Most separated mothers try to make partnerships work for a long time before finally ending the relationship, and it can be hurtful to have those who still enjoy married life suggesting that you have it easy. Another mother, Chloe*, confided “I do feel sometimes like saying, if my life's so great why don't you dump your partner and then you’ll get a break as well!” Whilst it’s true that after separation there might be more opportunities to go out without children or pursue creative pastimes, mothers are not always happy about this. New free time comes at a cost; sensitive friends remember this and honour the ongoing grieving process.
Along with adjusting to new expectations of the future, separated mums might suffer from severe anxiety. One mother confided in me: “I do worry about my son when he's with his father. His father has anger problems and when we were together was addicted to pot, porn and drank a lot.” It can be very painful to say goodbye to your kid before access visits; the complete inability to be present and protective is psychologically devastating for some.
It is a sad fact that abusive relationships are common and co-parenting with former abusers is an everyday reality in Australia. Not all abuse is physical: according to ABS research, one in five (21%) women and one in eight (12%) men experienced emotional abuse by a previous partner. Even low-level controlling behaviour can erode trust and make co-parenting relationships fraught. As Chloe says, “it is especially hard when the ex does something that manipulates the child, that controls them, in the same way the ex controlled you. You find yourself wishing your child could stand up to your ex but you also know that you never could, and you were an adult.”
I hate not even being able to share worry about the bills or my kid’s reading problems. I wish my married friends would realise how much those tiny things help.
Of course, many ex partners are loving parents who provide safe homes, but even in that case, sharing custody can be stressful. In fact, it’s the added emotional labour of helping their children deal with changed circumstances which the divorced mothers I talked to most often identified as being underestimated by their friends. Mothers who did the bulk of the decision-making and care work around their child’s health and emotional needs before separation find they suddenly have reduced time and resources in which to provide this care. After the end of the relationship, emotional labour increases rather than decreases, even in situations where the ex partner is caring and responsible. “I hate not even being able to share worry about the bills or my kid’s reading problems. I wish my married friends would realise how much those tiny things help,” explains Martha.
Solidarity with other parents is one way to alleviate the stress of having kids, and accentuate the joys that parenting offers. Go easy on your separated friends and provide them with a sounding board when their kids are away. This can be vital in helping them to process their stress and anxiety in a way that shields the children.
Whatever our life brings, mothers could all do with a bit more empathy. As my friend Amelia says, “I see the envy around me but I understand how challenging single parenting and my life is. I am not going to feel guilty for enjoying some perks in a less than ideal situation.” Some mums might have more ‘kid free time’ than others, but we could all do with more guilt-free time, and supporting each other is one way to get it.
*Some names have been changed for privacy reasons.
Elizabeth Sutherland is a writer, teacher and mother based in Melbourne. Her hobbies include feminist snark and waiting impatiently for marriage equality. Follow her on Twitter @MsElizabethEDU.