I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Judy Osborne, author of Wisdom for Separated Parents:Rearranging Around the Children to Keep Kinship Strong. Through interviews separated parents, Judy uncovers another trait of Baby Boomers: the concept of separated family members as “kin,” forever linked by love for, and responsibility to, their children.
When Judy and I talked, we chatted about the negativity of so much of the language of divorce – broken home, failed marriage, divided family – and she introduced me to her concepts of “untangling” and “rearranging.” She also introduced me to the notion that marriages can be characterized as a series of separations that are both normal and unsettling. Here’s Judy:
How do you know if it’s just the normal differences of shifting into being parents that make you feel so separate – or whether you are on the way to a formal separation? The formal separation lets friends and neighbors watch you “take the roof off of your house,” and become parents apart?
If you are asking that question you need to understand that feeling separated happens as soon as you become parents.
Seconds after holding our first child, feeling deeply connected to each other and to the baby, change begins. Partners now look at each other as parents. They are no longer lovers and pals imagining a family. They are living a family.
The focus of time together and time apart changes. We see our partner from a different platform. Before having a baby, what do we really know about our lover/partner as a parent? Probably not that much. Seeing a wonderfully playful man or a woman reading a bedtime story to nieces and nephews does not predict how that person will react when caring for a child all day or trying to soothe a crying infant in the wee hours of the morning.
“It was red flags the first week we brought our daughter home. Right away we had arguments about parenting. She would cry. I would go to pick her up and he would tell me not to. He thought she should just scream. I would yell and say, ‘No, my baby’s crying. I’m going to pick her up and cuddle her.’ He’d say, ‘Well the books say you should let her scream and that’s how we should be raising her. We’ve got to let her tough it out.’”
In interviews with parents for my book, Wisdom for Separated Parents: Rearranging Around the Children to Keep Kinship Strong, important stories of real parenting emerged.
In addition to differing ideas about what babies need, there are other differences in how each parent spends time and energy on a daily basis. Most cultures divide the worries and concerns of child care unequally. One parent takes on or “gets” the primary job of juggling the caretaking with whatever else is on that parent’s plate. Caregiving and emotional involvement become unequal, unanticipated by either parent.
“We didn’t know how to do all the family stuff. I felt I had way too much responsibility and there were years that he was getting up and leaving before the children were even up. It wasn’t his fault. It was just the job he had. I didn’t want to move so he had a very long commute. That did a lot of damage to the relationship. I was just overloaded, doing all the child stuff and the financial stuff. He was definitely involved with our kids but I just got overwhelmed by feeling I had to do everything. If we’d been more sophisticated about marriage and families and what’s involved, we might have worked it out. I didn’t have any psychological training to prepare me.”
This is pretty common. Without a lot of deep discussion or serious thought the tasks get divvied up, patterns established and life moves along. Helping new first families and new stepfamilies understand and navigate these transitions might prevent the resentment and isolation that many feel when the roles of caretaking pull them in opposite directions.
Other normal differences between parents come as children grow. Who comforts the toddler? Who’s in charge of baths and bedtime? Who brings in the money? Who makes medical appointments? Who cooks for kids? Who cooks for the adults? How do you play with a kid? Who disciplines? Who coordinates homework? Some parents find it easy to cope with these differences. Some experience deep contention. Most parents think they are “right” about how these tasks get divvied up. And they do not want to notice that the other parent has another version of “right.”
Each parent brings ideas about how to “do” family from their own family of origin. Most don’t notice the patterns unless they make a conscious effort. We tend to repeat patterns from our own childhood, from our own family culture, without even thinking about it. “Juggle and struggle” is what we do. No one sits us down and teaches us how to shift into being a parent; shift into being a family, how to piece together the family styles. If family backgrounds are similar, there are fewer conflicts. But no two families are completely similar.
Nan and her husband were active politically and socially. They had similar energy levels and loved connecting with other energetic couples. But, they had very different experiences of growing up. Nan had lost a parent and felt adrift without family connection and without many financial resources. Her husband was from a large extended family, wealthy and socially active. His family focused on adult connections. Their differences emerged as the babies were born.
“We were very social in that first six years before we had babies. Then my connection to the baby became really kind of magical. I wanted to bring my husband into that connection but he really wanted to continue our busy social life. His mother and his grandmother were wonderful hostesses. It was exhausting – all these big parties. I wanted us to be with our baby.”
As a wife, Nan had found adult social life thrilling. Then, as a mother, she found life with a baby “magical.” Her husband did not. He did not have the deep losses that would make parenting “magical.”
Mostly unconscious, these unexamined differences are normal and common for all parents. Understanding what we bring from our families and being open to learning what the other parent brings is crucial. We may want to continue some things – or work very hard to change many family patterns. This is what makes having children such a busy adventure. We all have an opportunity to see our own families in a new light and to sort out what we want to pass on and what we want to learn to do differently.
These differences are normal. These differences can be unsettling for all of us. But they do not necessarily mean that one is headed to separation with a capital S
Judy Osborne is a marriage and family therapist in Brookline, Massachusetts, and Director of Stepfamily Associates, an organization she founded in 1981. She consults with individuals, couples, and families about the issues of living in stepfamilies and has seen, firsthand, the evolution of many postmarriage relationships.
Judy’s far-flung family includes a daughter and son, a son-in-law, a daughter-in-law, four grandsons, two stepdaughters, and two step-granddaughters, plus the extended family members connected with each one of them. Her ex-husband and his wife and families complete the kinship circle. These lifelong connections are renewed annually on Cape Cod, where her kids and stepkids played by the sea 40 years ago.