Co-Parenting: Navigating the Grief of Separation While Teaching Children Empathy

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It’s been 3 years since my children’s father and I decided to separate. And, it’s been 2 ½ years since we shared the news with the kiddos, and when I began to live single. At the time of our separation, our kiddos were 5 and 10. Honestly, living on my own for the first time in 12 years was, well … eye-opening (in the eye-popping kind of way)! Between now and then, I have developed a method to help me co-parent through the separation by acknowledging grief and growing empathy.

I reverted back to some behavior and things immediately that I was doing in my late 20’s before I coupled up and started my parenting journey. When I moved out, I was angry, alone, sad, and terrified. Really, I was just trying to get through each day—to show up for my kids and my work; to execute and not fall apart. It reminded me of what it felt like to finish undergrad and when I was not sure of what would be next.

My former partner and I were committed for 12 years. Ours was a split that we both anticipated and dreaded. We kept our focus off the real human shame and blame that accompanies separation and on the kiddos with this approach.

Pushing Through the Grief of Separation

  • Once we agreed separation was our way forward, we placed the kids in therapy for a few months before we told them the news.
  • Therapy established a baseline for the kids to express their feelings about their father and I’s parenting. Trust that as I learned their perceptions of us as parents it was … quite revealing.
  • When we told the kids of our plan to separate, we took the advice of the therapist. We stressed that we were not permanently splitting up. This gave us space in case we reconciled.
  • Then I moved into my own place, and I got a cat “for the kids.”
  • Their father and I shared time with them for a partial week and every other weekend for the first year and then switched to one week on one week off.

Then, there I was in my own place and on my side of the co-parenting coin. I needed to navigate my emotional reality and still show up for my kids. So, I made space to support my emotional state. This allowed me to actually parent and give us all space to grieve the loss of our family unit.

Teaching Children Empathy During a Separation

  • I created an affectionate space for open communication about our feelings. I went to therapy too in support of my transition and to account for my emotions. And, I let the kids know when I was having a hard day. Their ability to witness me and hug me was helpful. I reminded them of that—that they were not responsible for making me feel better.
  • I found activities we could do that would provide me the space to enjoy them and sit in my feelings. Simple small things like working on a puzzle or laying a blanket out at a park and letting them explore while I rested my mind. It gave me space to feel without the pressure of having to be their focal point or make something happen.
  • I identified a secret place for us to go, one that their other family members could know of but where we agreed we would only go together to play. This allowed us to share something new that belonged only to us.
  • And, my personal favorite, I instituted the concept of a day of rest. I use it to teach the kids how to be more supportive of each other and me. Each day of the week one of us has our day of rest. Monday is mommy’s day of rest and the kiddos help me when I ask without the need for me to painfully negotiate for their cooperation. Tuesday is my daughter’s day of rest. If she asks for water or a snack, her brother or I step in to help. Since we started the day of rest, I have seen them improve their use of manners. It has proven a good life hack to avoid lengthy negotiations before they lend a hand when asked.

On this side of the co-parenting coin, my goal is to raise my kiddos with empathy. I want them to witnesses honest human life transitions and emotions. My hope is that they may identify how to navigate their own transitions and emotions. I’d like for them to carry this skill throughout childhood and adulthood. Maybe secretly I am offering them something I have needed more of all along.