Managing a Single Parent Home in Transition

Q: Dear Shira,

I am the mother of three children — a 14-year-old daughter and two sons, one age 10 and the other seven. At this point I’ve been separated from my husband for over a year, and for the divorce to happen, several things still need to be put in place. My daughter has complained that she’d like it to be definite either way — she feels that we are really in limbo and she doesn’t like it.

Her father has still not come to terms with the fact that this marriage is over. We were separated once before, and afterwards we got back together to try to make it work, but the issues could not be resolved and so we separated again.

This situation, combined with my general lack of organization, has made our home a pretty tense place. I try to understand what my children are going through, but that often backfires. I guess I need to focus on what I’m able to achieve with my children given our particular situation the way it is right now.

As for my daughter, her teacher says that she often daydreams in class, even though she does initially seem to grasp the material. Because my daughter doesn’t do well on tests, she has asked me to ask certain of her teachers to give her oral tests, but it’s been difficult to reach them. I can only leave messages with the school secretary and hope that she passes them on to the teacher.

Another thing is that she tends to keep her distance from others, especially school staff, and can easily fall between the cracks, so to speak.

In order to encourage and motivate my children I’ve made numerous charts over the years, but time and again I get lost in the details and fail to follow through with them. I manage to work full-time but am perpetually late; people say that my “charming personality” has saved me from being fired numerous times!

I see that this aspect of my personality definitely gets on my children’s nerves — that sometimes it can take me weeks to get around to taking care of things that they need.

I’ve tried to analyze the cause of this behavior, and it seems that: a) I am a perfectionist and get stuck in the details, which all have to be just right, and b) I get emotionally frozen about something, and find myself unable to move forward.

Any ideas?

A: Perhaps you can take on one goal with each child and follow through with it successfully.

Bear in mind how much stress, ambivalent emotions and feelings of dual loyalty towards parents children in a situation such as yours might experience.

A child might think: “If I seem too happy when I just saw Tatty, Mommy will feel bad.”

Or they might entertain thoughts such as: “If I tell Mommy how nice Tatty was with us today, maybe she’ll let him come back.”

Sometimes a parent reflecting empathetically about a child’s feelings can serve a purpose. But this approach needs to be attempted with caution because it can sometimes cause them more anger and resentment — depending on how it is done, and the parent’s relationship with the particular child, and other factors.

A child might express her frustration and say, “Why can’t you just get your act together? I feel angry because you never follow through on anything. Things are always unfinished.” As your marriage situation is unfinished, it just reflects this same theme.

A child will undoubtedly feel his feelings, but sometimes verbalizing them in a volatile setting will only increase power struggles and animosity. An objective third party involvement (as in a family therapy session) can often be beneficial to work with such sentiments. Children’s feelings can also be worked on in individual therapy.

As we are dealing with ways to help your children — and not your marriage or your personal issues — I suggest that you continually re-focus on what you are able to accomplish, in a practical way. How can you successfully reach your daughter’s teachers, to ask that she have oral tests?

You need to follow through with one goal, and view taking care of that task the same way you’d take care of a medical need. If a parent needed to take a child for allergy shots weekly for several months, a parent would do so. Besides being a role model of responsibility, it shows appropriate coping mechanisms in stressful situations — which is the best gift that a parent can give a child. B’hatzlachah!