During the first few months after a divorce or separation, it’s critical to take whatever time you need to get through the kaleidoscope of crap that boomerangs back every time you feel like you’ve come far enough to let it go.
Then, when your kids return, hug them and tell them how glad you are to see them—and how glad you are they got to see their other parent (this part gets easier).
After those first months have passed, you’re going to find yourself in a strange place: sad to see the kids go, but … well, kind of glad too. Almost relieved. Because guess what?
When you’re sure they’re safe and happy, you no longer feel so guilty for the time apart. And when you happily shrug off the mantle of “parent,” you start to remember yourself.
I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of the time my son spent with his dad until his dad spent a month away clear across the country. Because my son is scared of flying, it wasn’t possible for him to visit his dad (although the option was offered). I was therefore left to solo parent for 30 days straight.
At my most wistful, I used to dream about weeks of uninterrupted time with my son. I love him, he loves me, and being around him is one of my favorite things in the world.
The reality, however, is a bit different.
30 days. Straight.
Two breaks. Two.
My son stayed with his grandparents overnight twice, which gave me just enough time to run errands and get groceries. Then? Back to the grindstone.
That’s what it felt like—for me and for him—and by the end of the 30 days, we were both at our breaking point, bickering far more than we ever had in the past, partly because he was missing his dad so much and partly because we were sick of each other.
Our patience was gone, and every little slight (real or imagined) got blown out of proportion. That’s when I finally, finally started to understand how important the every-other-weekend time apart is. For both of us.
After that, I started approaching my alone time a little differently, though there were some growing pains. The truth is I was so used to having my day mapped out (raising kids will do that to you) that when I became kid-less, I was lost.
I had no idea what to do with myself. What did I even want to do?
Again, no idea. So the first year, I hid behind work, spending my time alone catching up on every chore I possibly could—to the point of exhaustion. I don’t regret it, though; it helped me survive those first few separations.
Fast-forward two years, however, and things have changed. Yes, I still work hard. Catching up on work, chores, and errands means I have more free time when my kid comes back to me. But I also have to make sure I’m taking care of myself, or I won’t be much use to him.
So I do little things. Simple things. Frivolous things. I paint my fingernails. I dye my hair. I cook. I watch bad horror movies. I go to bed a little earlier. I sleep a little later. I play with the cat. I read in the sunshine. I listen to podcasts … You get the idea.
These are little changes to my normal SuperMom routine, but they add so much value to my life, make massive improvements in my stress level, and heighten my self-esteem like nobody’s business, all of which can’t help but make me a better parent.
So the next time the door closes and the kids leave for a while, take a deep breath and remember that everything is going to be okay. Then think about what you’d like to do—anything that helps you grow as a human being—and go do it.
The “parent” mantle will still be there, waiting for your return, and you’ll be that much better for the care you’ve taken with yourself.