We were at the dinner table and my 12 and 14 year-old daughters were snickering about something their dad did. I joined in on what I thought was light-hearted fun: I said something negative about their dad. The conversation and chuckling came to a screeching halt. “What just happened?” I wondered as a chill crept up my spine.
“Mom. Don’t do that.” My 14 year-old Anna said sternly. I felt the sting and shame all within a second.
You may not believe it, but in the 7 ½ years since our divorce, this was the first time I said something negative about their dad in front of my children. When we divorced, our children were 5 and 7. It was easier back then in the midst of my grief and transition to keep them out of earshot. Now that they are teenagers with complaints of their own, I am in new territory.
For the preceding years leading up to this moment, whenever they mentioned something that happened at their dad’s house that gave me pause, made me cringe, or downright annoyed me, my go-to reaction was to let out a “Huh” along with a head nod. This physical reaction portrayed curiosity and the impression I heard something that was vaguely interesting.
Granted, I this neutral response is cultivated from years of practice of hearing incredible details of marriages gone wrong from my clients. I hear how harsh spouses are to each other. I hear about personal tragedies. I remain neutral in a show of support and strength even though often my heart is hurting for them.
When using this tool with my children over the years, my children were unknowingly given permission to tell me everything they wanted to about their dad. They were free to love him in my presence, they were free to be frustrated in my presence, and they were free to be kids with complaints in my presence. My daughters have not walked on eggshells around me when it comes to their dad because our environment was conducive to them sharing their feelings.
I made an active choice to be neutral. And trust me, it is not always easy. But it is 100% my choice. A client recently asked me how I do it. I replied, “Don’t get me wrong I get frustrated and need to get out my own feelings, my mom and best friend hear plenty of my grumbles. But the choice is to keep them completely away from my daughters.”
What I see now is how important that choice has been in the healthy post-divorce development of my children. I now know that no matter their age, maturity, or own negative opinions – any opinion I have about their dad must remain neutral. The best thing I can do for my children is to create in an environment that does not threaten their ability to wholeheartedly love their father.