Becoming a single parent typically happens through life circumstance or choice. Yet such instances or events aren’t limited to the years between your children’s birth and the day they turn 18. While divorce rates are declining overall, divorce rates for seniors are rising. Typically having spent a life preparing to retire together often these parents, or even grandparents, find themselves financially much worse off than if their divorce had occurred years or even decades before.
Having commonly “stayed together for the children,” parents can then find themselves calling on the very same, now adult, children to help support them through their life change. Once children are grown and have left home, divorcing couples don’t tend to think of themselves as single parents. When you’re no longer making lunches for school-aged kids and your young adult has both found themselves and their own home, do you even need a label for your role as a parent?
Anne, a 60-something mother of three grown children and three grandchildren, feels that although she is in the process of getting divorced, her role as a parent and grandparent need not be categorized as “single”. “I don’t think of myself as a single parent. My children are grown up and I don’t feel that my role as a parent is required in the same way anymore.”
Theresa, a mom of two young children, experienced her parents’ divorce when she was 37 years old and similarly, she has never thought of them as being single parents. “The term never really came up. I was older, married and had my own family.”
While older parents may not be involved in the day-to-day parenting of young children anymore, parenting is a lifelong job. Wendy McCrae, MSW, a clinically registered social worker who has experience of working with families going through these kinds of life changes finds that people have to adjust their parenting style when resetting their family dynamics. “You no longer have that other person to ask, ‘What do you think?’ If there is a stressful situation with your children, it can create distress for what is technically an older single parent if they feel they are handling the situation alone.”
As parents, we all worry about our children’s well-being, and Anne has struggled with the effect her separation and redefining of familial roles and routines has had on her adult children. The effect of divorce later in life both for you and your children and even their children goes beyond practicalities and finances.
While most children want their parents to be happy no matter what their age, the appeal of “two birthdays and two Christmases” is a little different when you’re too old for birthday balloons and Santa doesn’t come for you anymore. Anne has found the most difficult part of her divorce process has simply been change itself. As she explains, “The biggest challenge has been dealing with the emotional impact that telling my children about this change had both for me and for them, and being aware that my fears about it were incorrect. It was actually worse than I thought it would be and recognizing my lack of understanding was something I struggled to accept and it’s still ongoing.”
When it comes time to share this news with your children, Wendy McCrae recommends matching your messages to the maturity of your child and sending a clear joint statement; for example, “Dad and I have decided...” While McCrae acknowledges that no matter what a child’s age, there’s still an adjustment that has to happen - even adult children don’t need to know all the details. “They probably have a good idea of why any separation is happening and it can become a boundary issue. Parents can think that because their children are now adults, they can cope and they can become confidantes and that’s not appropriate at any age.”
We are all individuals and how we respond to our parents separating will vary from person to person, maybe even day-to-day too.
As McCrae explains, “Divorce sometimes creates a sense of disillusionment in the sense of wondering if your childhood was a lie. There might also be anger that parents didn’t deal with the situation sooner as this would have resulted in them being further ahead.”
There can also be differences between you and your siblings in terms of how this change impacts you. As Theresa recalls, “I had my husband and my own family to focus on and to help support me. I think it may have been different for my brother as he doesn’t have his own family and the support it can bring.”
When parents of adult children choose to live separately or divorce, it may also involve having to explain to grandchildren why there has been a change in family circumstance. My (rather accident prone – I was watching her!) daughter recently fell on the fireplace mantle resulting in her requiring stitches in the back of the head. During said procedure, I was at one end of the hospital bed rubbing her legs, feeling the room spin, trying not to vomit, faint, sob hysterically and prevent my soul from being extinguished by all-consuming guilt. She was giggling and declaring, “It tickles!” While pregnant with the same girl, my husband and I worried, ‘How will it be for her, when her brothers leave every other weekend to visit their dad?’ Like most, if not all worry, it was a waste of what could have been more productive thoughts and time. Her brothers leaving every other weekend is just what happens in our home. It’s normal because it’s our normal.
Regardless of children’s resiliency and acceptance, Anne was concerned about how her own grandchildren would respond to her and their grandfather no longer living together. “I did worry about how my grandchildren would feel. It’s easy to assume that they’ll be okay or accepting, but I have just taken any questions or comments as they’ve come along rather than imposing a situation or topic on them and so far, there have been no issues at all.”
In terms of talking to your children about your parents’ separation or divorce, McCrae recommends taking time in an age-appropriate way to explain what divorce or separation is and how their relationship with their grandparents will not be impacted in a negative way. “Children need to be reassured that they are still loved by, and will be able to see, each grandparent. It’s also important for children, and adult children, to know they have not played a role in this change in the grandparents’ relationship.”
Like any life experience, though, how we reflect on parents’ or grandparents’ separation tends to change as we mature. Theresa’s eldest child was five years old when her grandparents separated and Theresa did explain the situation to her daughter in a way befitting her age. However, there were still challenges along the way. Theresa’s father stayed in the family home but after getting divorced, decided to purge everything that reminded him of his “former life” by redecorating. “My daughter had a special room at her grandparents’ house but my dad got rid of everything and turned my daughter’s room into a guest room. It was hard for me to explain why when she asked, ‘What happened to my room?’”
Finding out that your parents are divorcing when you have left the family home and have your own “life” can still be an upsetting experience, yet there is little in the way of support groups for navigating this life change as an adult, whether as the parent or the adult child. Support groups and organized social meet-ups tend to be more for single parents of young children, yet people going through this life change can also benefit from support from others going through similar experiences. As McCrae explains, “People do need support and support groups in different forms when this kind of life event occurs. It can provide validation for experiences and feelings.” McCrae recommends reaching out for this kind of support “whether it’s with a professional or a group of friends who have gone through or are going through similar experiences.”
While it may take time for those involved to heal, parents choosing not to be together can often be for good reason and can instigate or eventually bring about positive changes in familial relationships and routines. While braving a storm of change can be hard, eventually Anne began to experience advantages from her choices. “It took a while, but the positives started to happen when everyone began to accept the change of situation.” Feeling that she’s raised her children and ready to start a new phase in her life, Anne feels that her role as a mother has been redefined through this process. “I can tell that they’re accepting that I’m more than just a mom and that’s not such a bad thing.”
For Theresa, she witnessed her mother become much more independent. “My parents were together for 40 years and my mom relied on dad for finances and other things. Now she takes care of herself and is so much more independent and in charge of her life.”
Theresa also feels that the outcome was positive for her father too. “He was able to move on and meet someone else and make a new life.” While all of these positive changes did take time, Theresa feels good about how everything has settled since their divorce. “Our relationships are different now, they have changed and I would say in a positive way. We have good relationships with both of my parents but visit them separately now. It’s different, but that’s just the way it is.”
Weathering this change can eventually lead, McCrae explains, to a bringing about of feelings of self-acceptance, reliance and confidence. “If people can get to a phase of acceptance of the change in relationships, they can feel both contentment and also empowerment.” Anne concurs, “Very little has changed in terms of my bond with my children and it was a fear for me that that might go. I’m still the same mother; I’m just not in the same house anymore.” She believes that taking time to listen to her children was key to bringing about closure and acceptance in this way. “Regardless of what the reason is for change in family set-up, parents need to listen to their children when they express their feelings.”
While children may not be born with a guidebook, listening to our children may be the only lifelong strategy we have that never fails or changes for parents of any age, whether married or not.
Victoria is a freelance writer living in Calgary.
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