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How We Told Our Kids We Were Getting Divorced

Five fathers explain what it was like telling their kids that their marriages were over.

When parents are positive about getting a divorce and are ready to tell their children, psychologists recommend they approach the issue together and present a united front. They also recommend that parents make certain their kids know that almost nothing in their lives will change (except for that mom and dad won’t live together anymore), that the divorce is not their fault, that they can’t really do anything about it, that the unit is still a family, that mom and dad tried really hard to make it work, and that, most of all, the decision is an adult one.

But, while this script is nice to follow, life forces many to ad lib. And as these five fathers can attest, the real-life version of the explanation is extremely difficult and hard to control. Emotions run high. Kids discover clues before parents explain themselves. Life gets in the way. One thing’s certain: it’s never easy. 

“The Kids Knew Something Was Going On…”

The kids kind of knew something was going on. Their mom had told me that she had developed feelings for someone else. I didn’t want to tell any of that to the kids, but I did tell them there were going to be some changes in the household going forward. There were, naturally, a lot of questions. The age span of my kids at that time were like nine, six, and three. That’s a big age range. But I thought it was better to keep things simple.  I did a reasonably good job. But are there things that I would have done better? Certainly.

My oldest is very precocious. To keep the truth from a precocious kid is very tough. I was someone who, when I got married, I expected to be married for a lifetime. It was really hard for me. I had to wrangle with all kinds of personal questions: what did I do here? Did I make a mistake? I felt guilt. In my case, and in regards to my kids, I suddenly felt a wave of: Wow. I’m not going to give my kids this perfect life and childhood that I enjoyed.

— Pritham, Oregon

“I was wishing for an out-of-body experience.”

It was a day in June. We went to the long table out back, sat around some chairs. And we brought the kids out in groups. We have six kids. We did the three oldest, and then we did the next two, and then we did the youngest one by himself. I just wanted to dissociate myself from that moment. I was wishing for an out-of-body experience, that I could just disappear and come back when it’s all over. It’s the worst.

Who wants to tell their kids that mommy and daddy aren’t going to be together anymore? My oldest said something to the effect of, ‘Well, I sort of expected this.’ The younger ones started to cry. We made clear to them that this wasn’t about them. That they were still going to live in the same house; they were still going to go to the same schools; they were still going to be loved just as much by both of us. And then, we asked if they had any questions, and I don’t remember there really being any. I think they were just too stunned. My second son, my second oldest, kinda looked like he was upset. But he didn’t say anything. And that’s pretty much how it ended.

— Brian, Pennsylvania

“Imagine the worst reaction a child can have to that information. You’re not even close.”

It was on December 8th. It had been about two weeks since I told my now ex-wife that I wanted a divorce. She was openly having an affair; she wasn’t coming home until 8 o’clock in the morning, and she would leave as soon as I got home from work.

She was going to go out that night but she stayed home. She came into the kitchen, and says she wants to tell our oldest that we’re getting a divorce. Just out of the blue. I’m like, okay. He should have some sense that something is going on because of how seldom she’s around. So, we go in the living room, we sit down and tell him.

Imagine the worst possible reaction a child can have to that piece of information. You’re not even close. There were four consecutive minutes of crying: low, guttural screams of no, no, no. Don’t do this. Why. No, you can’t do this. Just on and on. At the 20 minute mark, our youngest walked in and asked why he was crying. I said, “Mom and dad are getting a divorce, do you know what that means?” I explained it to him. When my oldest calmed down, his first thought was whether or not he was going to have to live in a crappy apartment. He had friends whose parents had gotten divorced and they ended up in new places that weren’t as nice as the old place. He was concerned about that.

— Tom, Missouri

“It wasn’t one conversation; it was many over a period of time.”

Fortunately, for me, my divorce was very amicable. At the time, my son was three. It’s hard to have a conversation with somebody who is just starting to understand life, and doesn’t understand why things won’t work. I made a point to do things on our own while his mom and I were still living together. His mom would go do something with him and then when he’d get back he’d get ice cream with me, that sort of thing. We wanted to get him accustomed to being on his own, with one parent, not two parents.

The hardest thing was actually him living with me and my in apartment and her in hers. He’s 8 now, for the last 3 years, he asks if we can all go to the movies together. I’m remarried. I had to tell him that he doesn’t have control over my life, and that this is just how things are. Parents don’t like having those tough conversations but what we forget is that children, they’re malleable. It’s adults that struggle with feedback and change. Kids accept change very well.

It’s a continued conversation. He was old enough to understand that daddy had his place and mommy had her place, but he was also old enough to see that daddy was happier, and that mommy was happier. There was no more arguing in front of a 2-year-old. It wasn’t one conversation; it was many over a period of time.

— Dom, Arizona

“My kids found the divorce papers.”

The divorce caught me off guard. I had not really considered how I was going to talk to the kids. My ex said she’d take care of it. But that’s not the way to do it. Kids need to see a unified front. You need to show them that they’re not the issue; they’re not at fault; and there’s nothing they can do to change the situation.

I didn’t get to present that front, because I left it up to her. And even then, the way that worked is, I had my divorce papers sitting in my desk. I had opened up my drawer and my son came in and saw it. We had never actually used the word divorce. My ex and I were finding it hard to believe that we were in this position. Things had gotten so far down the road that we were not going back. It was heavy. They found the divorce papers, they got very upset, and very emotional. I think it was from the standpoint of them being angry, hurt, and scared – because we didn’t work on us with them, and we weren’t upfront about what was going on.

— Andrew, Texas