I sat next to my husband at the kitchen table, looking at all three of my boys eating their lunch, wrapped in multicolored towels, still wet from their swimming lessons, and I began to choke up before a single word left my mouth.
“Boys,” I began, not sure if I would remember all I planned to say, even though I had my notes and a book tightly in my grasp. When I had their attention, I just said it, plain and simple, “Dad and I are getting divorced.”
My husband and I had only been separated about two weeks at the time. The word ‘divorce’ was almost as foreign to me as it was to my children. Having to tell any child about divorce is heart-wrenching, incredibly difficult and probably one of the only times in your life where each word you say truly matters. But, throw in special needs children, who see the world as black and white, without the grey area that divorce falls into, and who are often confused by language, relying heavily on semantics, and each word carries exponentially more weight.
I scoured the internet for guidance on talking to your children about divorce in the days that led up to that moment. There was a lot of information out there, but I couldn’t find anything geared specifically towards special needs kids. As far as I can tell it is a subject that has not been covered in depth in any searchable location. So, without a guide to follow, I started filtering information from each article I read, putting together the pieces I would need to help my sons. As most special needs moms can relate, this is something I have practice doing.
Since my kids each process information differently from each other, and differently from most typically developing children, I needed to not only decide what to say, but how it would be said. From experience, I already knew that I would be best served to give them limited information that was practical and timely, and then be prepared to give them more when they asked for it. The divorce conversation is huge, so I knew they would be processing bits and pieces at a time, and their questions would come later. Because of their varying processing abilities, it meant the conversation would be need to be short, to the point, and limited in its scope and direction.
Almost immediately the decision was made to not use the word ‘separated’ when talking to them. It wasn’t a term they were familiar with, and since we knew we would not be getting back together, it seemed unnecessary to add another transition: Married to divorced was black and white compared to attempting to explain married to separated to divorced. It also offered a small amount of protection from daydreaming about us getting back together, which I wanted to head off at the pass if possible. The challenge here is that my boys wouldn’t really know what the word ‘divorce’ means. Like all new words, it would require a definition and practical application in their world for them to understand it fully. The application of the word would come over time, but the definition needed to be the conversation opener. It was what came after that I needed to figure out.
The frame work for the rest of the conversation came together relatively easily once I identified the most probable questions children have about divorce, and specifically those questions that I felt my sons would ask. Those questions prompted me to prepare my answers, and gave direction and form to the discussion I would have with the boys when the time came. It also forced me to make a number of decisions about what specific information would be shared, and what would be withheld, based on their ages and interest level. I outlined the most common questions that were addressed in my research and began preparing answers to them. It was essential that my husband and I agree on the answers, and tow the party line in the months to come, so the responses needed to be short and to the point. Once I began simplifying the answers, I was truly taken aback at how hard boiling down the grey world of divorce to black and white was. My need to protect them kept me going, but the whole process was incredibly difficult.
The most daunting question we needed to answer was “Why?” – Why are we getting divorced? The truthful explanation is that my husband and I want different things in life. But that concept – the concept of what people really want in life, what they truly value – is as abstract as a Picasso painting, which means it won’t work as a standalone explanation for my children. But it is the truth and the boys need the truth – I just needed to be able to tell them exactly what it is we wanted – and how it was different. That was a challenge.
As I broke down those concepts in my own head, I realized I couldn’t truly tell my children that their father wanted to spend more time working and pursuing his own interests, whereas I wanted to have more time together as a family and focus on them. Although my husband thought that explanation was accurate and usable, the implications I worried the boys would take from it would be that their mother wanted to be home with them, and their father didn’t. Given the way the boys see the world through the black and white lenses of their own neurological quirks, I feared those words could get locked in their brains: Mom wants us. Dad wants work. That didn’t work for me.
After much thought, I finally decided to use the grey concept of “We want different things” as the opener for the idea that adults grow apart. It wasn’t as simple or infallible as I had hoped the explanation would be, but it was the truth: The truth that divorce is grey, and sometimes things aren’t tangible in the way that we would all like.
Accepting that the answer would be grey led the way to the final response that the boys would hear from us, “We are divorcing because we have grown apart and no longer make each other happy.” It was a starting point.
Other questions were somewhat simpler to answer – they were logistical and pragmatic. Those answers I knew: The boys and I would still live in our house. They would still go to their schools. Their father would live elsewhere. They would still see their father frequently. But that’s all I knew. I didn’t know for how long we’d be able to stay in our home, or how often their father would be here, or what days, or what times. That was all up in the air. My boys thrive on predictability, which makes the ‘up in the air’ routine painfully difficult. When my husband and I took away their ability to predict that their father will be here every morning, with it went their faith that other things wouldn’t change. That meant the divorce conversation needed to include a disclaimer: Some things would be the same. Some things would change. We would all need to be flexible as things changed, but that life would settle into a predictable routine again soon.
Next I tackled preparing the significant emotional responses. The questions that don’t come out of their mouths, but linger in their hearts, in the depths of their being, and the ones that would be waking them from sleep in the months to come. I read a lot on the emotional affects of divorce, and took stock of my own feelings from my parents’ divorce over 30 years ago. I know all children with and without special needs should be reassured during a divorce, but my sons, specifically my oldest, don’t have the emotional maturity, emotional regulation, or language skills to process these kinds of emotions. I needed to be able to help give words to the feelings that would come, and act as a guide to their journey through the pain.
I started with these basic emotional reassurances: They are loved. They will be loved. Always. We are still a family. Parents don’t ever divorce their children, or fall out of love with them. Ever. They will be sad. They will be angry. They will sometimes feel both at the same time. All of that is OK. They have every right to be mad at my husband and me, but they should know that we did our best. We worked hard to stay together. And we too are sad and angry that it didn’t work.
As I continued to read and research I realized there were so many questions to address, so many answers to give and I needed to avoid it becoming just more and more words. Too many words and the boys will just shut it out. I knew they would benefit from having visual support and quickly decided that having a book for them would be imperative. We have visual schedules for nearly every routine in our house, and of course others for special occasions, which up until this point had been limited to vacations and holidays. The divorce conversation was the precursor to a larger transition in our lives. They would need to be equally well prepared for this as any other transition they had experienced in their past.
I visited the local chain bookstore where I sat on the floor and poured over every Children’s book they had on divorce. I had a good idea of what I was looking for, but finding it was going to be the issue. Although visuals are important for my boys, having clear information and expression-free language was necessary too. I needed a book that would offer words and labels for their feelings as they move through what will most likely be one of, if not the, largest transition of their childhood.
At the bookstore I carefully went through many titles. It was important to me that I focus on each word – look at the ‘story’ from my sons’ points of view to make sure that it was painting the exact right picture for them. The book needed to match the responses I was preparing for the conversation so that it would act as a reinforcer. This proved tricky.
Some books I vetoed quickly, like the book that said, “We are getting a divorce, now let’s go visit Dad’s new house.” That wasn’t possible for us – my husband wasn’t going to be leaving immediately with the boys to show them where he was staying, so I couldn’t read a story that showed that as the chain of events. It would be counterintuitive to the boys given our picture schedules show things exactly as they will occur, step by step. This book didn’t support what was going to happen in our specific scenario, so it wasn’t the right fit.
Another book I read, said, “One of your parents may buy you new things to make you love them more, you should tell them not to do this.” The language in this book was too subjective, too ‘what if’ and the message implied a level of emotional maturity that my children do not have. Not to mention, I found it offensive. Maybe because it made the parent’s behavior the responsibility of the child, or maybe it was the fear that my sons with their gifted intelligence might try and capitalize on it. Or worse yet – feel disappointed if they weren’t showered with gifts, after all, my kids are literal thinkers.
Finally I settled on one. The language was simple and clear, which meant we could potentially avoid any major auditory processing issues, and that the boys should be able to understand it when it was read to them, then also be able to read it themselves in the future. The pictures were honest depictions of people, not animals, and were not overly complicated, which meant my sons could easily process them without getting overwhelmed or lost in the details. The book also gave permission for the kids to feel angry and sad, yet was reassuring that it was not the child’s fault, and included the black and white answer that divorce is forever. The emotional clarity of the book would be important as well, as it would be a gate way to discussing my sons’ feelings with them on going, and this specific book provided question prompts to discuss feelings while you read.
Still, the book I chose wasn’t perfect; as a matter of fact there was an entire page in it that I disliked, so I blacked it out. This solution allowed me to buy the book and have instant visual support for the divorce conversation with my kids without spending a great deal of time and energy attempting to make one myself. And that was important.
Finally the searching, research and planning was over. The night before the planned conversation was to occur, I sat in my bed, turning the book over and over in my hands, and cried. Big, sad, real tears from the center of my heart. I couldn’t believe it was happening. I was not only getting divorced, but I was hours away from uttering those words to the three most precious people in this world. I didn’t sleep at all.
The next day, the time to have the conversation arrived, unceremoniously, and although I was terrified, I was at least prepared. Prepared with what to say, and armed with a visual tool to make it easier on all of us.
“Dad and I are getting a divorce,” I said as simply and clearly as possible. The rest of the conversation followed naturally, at their lead, and I was glad I prepared my thoughts and responses ahead of time, because the whole thing felt surreal.
Then as quickly as the moment arrived, it was over.
Telling the boys was as painful as I anticipated, but not as dramatic as I expected. It was a quiet sadness. The boys cried. I cried. My husband cried. And then the boys went out back to play on the jungle gym, and my husband left.
As evening approached the boys began to ask questions, and this is where the book helped to reinforce the conversation from earlier. The boys and I sat on my bed, I read the book to them, they asked more questions, we talked about other kids and families we know who are touched by divorce, and as each paged turned, I fought back the tears and held my sons close. The book has been read dozens of times since then, and relied upon by each of my son’s differently. It is added to their bookshelf, alongside our favorites, for us to return to as we need it. The book offers a reference for all of us, a way to sort through our feelings and revisit the parts of the original conversation that were missed, or that they were just not ready for. Each time we read it, we all take away something new – even me.
As it turns out, my research, response preparation, and book selecting offered not just my sons a way to process this transition, but provided me with the opportunity to do the same.
For any of you who have gone through divorce, are going through it now or who will go through it in the future, please know that life moves on, and that you AND your children will make it through. Perhaps because we as special needs families have extra practice at being resilient. :)