When I found out my co-parent was going to have a child with his new wife, the first thing I did was ask my kids how they felt about it. I assumed that they would feel left out, replaced and pushed aside. They live with me primarily and their dad would now be living with his other child full time. I assumed they would feel sad and alone. I would often bring it up, as they will tell you, unskillfully. I wanted them to know that their mixed feelings about their new brother were completely understandable.
One day my son turned to me at the wise age of 8 and said, “Mom, you keep bringing this up. I am not upset about this. In fact, I love having my new brother, but you seem upset about it.” Yeah, he is a pretty remarkable kid. I had to take one of my “crap, you are right” deep breaths and realize that I was actually the one having all these feelings. I was the one who was feeling replaced and pushed aside. My ex who wasn’t present and available to parent our kids with me was suddenly available to parent another child.
I was sad, I was angry and I did not want to admit it.
It was much easier for me to see the kids as the ones who might be hurt and in pain than look at what I was feeling. This is a perfect illustration of why it is essential to always ask yourself when you are dealing with an issue with your kids and your co-parent:
- “How much of this is about me and how much of this is about them?”
- “Am I really protecting the kids’ feelings or my own?”
Asking these questions requires us to look deep into ourselves and examine our motivations. If I had not admitted that it was me who was feeling left out I may have presumptively asked for changes in visits to help the kids with the adjustment to the new baby, when in fact they might not have needed it.
Of course, my explicit desire would be to help the kids, but with the implicit gain of not having to face and deal with the change in my ex’s life and the pain I feel about it all.
But, how do we do this? How do we turn the focus inward?
I try to use shifts in my physical experience to alert me to whether I am making a decision based on my needs or my kids’ needs. Here’s an example, recently my teenage son did not want to spend time with his father during their every other week visit. I was listening to my son’s feelings and concerns while noticing my physiological response. My heart was racing, my muscles were tight and I was sweating a bit. It was clear to me, as a clinical psychologist, that I was in a flight/fight/freeze moment. In that moment, when my son was refusing to go I was terrified. Since I recognized that my body was in this state I knew that any action I took would be about me trying to reduce my stress and anxiety.
It was really uncomfortable. I really wanted the feeling to go away.
I wanted to blurt out, “fine, don’t go.”
I wanted the stress and anxiety to lift and I knew those words would do it.
However, deep down in the part of me that just knows a bit better than my head does, I knew this reaction was about me. I went into the bathroom, took some deep breaths, felt my feet on the floor, put my hand to my heart and said: “you are safe, you are loved, you are strong”. I spent time regulating and taking care of my feelings before I returned to talk to my son about his feelings.
It was a hard conversation and I was fighting the urge to make my pain go away, but ultimately I gave my son the space to talk to and figure this out with this father. This will be an ongoing dialogue between the two of them and my son’s therapist: How to create a visitation schedule fit for the needs of a teenager not the needs of a 5-year-old (which is when the agreement was created).
My job in this is to step back, support from a distance and believe deeply in my son’s ability to move through this. I will need to rely on my community, my tools, my strength and my wisdom to help me with the feelings that are coming up.
This is hard work, but so rewarding. I know that both my son and I are growing deeply from these challenges.