The Kids Are With My Ex. I’m Free. Then, the Guilt Comes

After a custody weekend with my kids, however great, I can't wait to have a moment to myself. Once they're gone, I feel nothing but guilt. Now I know what it means.

by Chris Illuminati
Originally Published: 

The overnight bags haven’t hit the living room floor before I’m handing out quick half-hugs and hustling back to my car. The weekend is over, and I’m frantically trying to get the hell away from my kids as fast as the speed limit allows. For the moment, I feel free.

I’m a newly single dad. Per my ex and I’s arrangement, I have them every other weekend. This means I spend 72 hours straight being hyper-focused on my kids. It’s amazing, yes, but it’s also physically and mentally draining. By noon on Sunday, I’m ready to hide in the bathroom with leftover candy and pray it’s a day the clock springs forward five hours.

Once I drop the kids off, I turn the radio loud, and pop the sunroof open. Soon, a list of things to do scrolls in my mind. Maybe I’ll go food shopping, I think, since the kids managed to eat me out of house and home because they somehow managed to only take a few bites of everything. Maybe I’ll go clean up the two-bedroom condo that looks as though a bomb decimated a village of Lego mini-figs and Shopkins. “THERE ARE BODIES EVERYWHERE, SARGE!”

Maybe I just won’t do a god damn thing. The day is mine.

But the minute my front door opens to the carnage and chaos and remnants of the weekend, a familiar feeling washes over me. It’s only been ten minutes but I miss my kids terribly.

Separating from a spouse — and a family — comes with a long list of emotions. The feeling that dominates my daily life is an overwhelming sense of guilt. I feel guilty that I’m not with the kids enough, about ending the marriage, living a life separate from my children, missing out on moments both real and imagined. I feel guilty how good it feels to drop them off on Sunday afternoon after three days of being the sole parent and then doubly guilty about the estranged wife performing the solo role for the rest of the week.

In 1969, Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross penned the groundbreaking book On Death And Dying. In it, Kubler-Ross explained that all changes, not just death, involve a feeling of loss. The Kubler-Ross model, as it came to be known, breaks down the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. Over the years, the model has been modified over time with the addition of two more stages to include shock or disbelief and guilt.

“The stages don’t have to go in order,” explains Sara E. Leta, “but can be like a cycle or a roller coaster.” Leta is a clinical social worker with a focus on loss and bereavement.

Based on my answers, Leta concludes that in my current state, I’m sandwiched between feelings of pain and guilt with a little “anger and bargaining” added in, which creates a giant soup full of negative feelings.

Stress and tragedy are inevitable parts of life. We humans experience pressure at an early age, and the exposure to these hardships molds a child. This stress gets classified into three categories — positive, tolerable, and toxic. Toxic stress is harmful and has permanent repercussions, tolerable stress activates the body’s natural alert systems in response to longer-lasting difficulties like death or divorce, and positive stress is connected to experiences like minor injuries or being dropped off at daycare for the first time.

Leta suggests that to overcome my feelings of guilt associated with the absence of my traditional family unit, I need to focus on the way loss was handled in my childhood.

“There is extensive research,” Leta explains, “about how our exposure to loss, if handled appropriately, can make us resilient to future losses.” For example, she says, if you have lost family members or pets at a young age, those moments can help through an experience such as separation. On the other hand, she adds, if you had the type of family that lost a pet, and then quickly replaced it with another pet, your coping skills aren’t as good when working through future loss.

In 1994, my father survived a near-fatal car accident. On his way home from an annual check-up at the University of Penn connected to a thyroid removal surgery a decade earlier, the lack of breakfast and suddenly sweltering summer morning caused him to pass out behind the wheel. He woke up, surrounded by paramedics, his SUV passenger-side down in a ditch after crossing three lanes of morning rush hour traffic.

The accident happened in the early morning. The police notified my mom immediately. She phoned my aunt’s house — the place where I was spending the day painting a metal railing and hanging around to watch SummerSlam with my older cousin. My aunt told my grandparents, who both lived in the house, and my cousin about the accident. Everyone knew but me. I found out at 10 p.m. that night when I got home to find my father missing.

I lost my shit. I was relieved my dad survived but livid that my entire family knew, for hours, while I remained oblivious to the ordeal.

I was 16 and far too old to be sheltered.

My parents, as you could tell, were protectors, shielding me from any and all bad news from birth. Pets didn’t die, they were sent to a farm upstate. Relatives didn’t pass away, we just didn’t see them as much anymore. Bad news doesn’t travel fast in my family. If my parents caught it early enough, bad news was put on the “no-fly” list, never making it past the boarding process.

“That generation of parents sheltered kids because they didn’t know how to talk about pain and loss,” adds Danielle Knox, a clinical social worker who focuses on child and adolescent psychiatry. “They also saw the parent and child dynamic differently than we do now. We are a society that helicopters our kids. It could be your past experiences creating the guilt now, but it also could be because of the way the role of parent has shifted.”

Now, I’m not trying to point fingers at my family for my current situation. But the way I handle loss right now is directly tied to how I was raised. Much of the stress in my life as a kid — at least what I can remember and only the incidents I was told about — feels like the tolerable stress every child endures. But the constant sheltering from bad news turn life-learning experiences may have evolved into something far worse.

“Being sheltered from stress or bad news turns toxic because you’re not allowing a person to develop the skills to cope with life,” said Knox. “You’re depriving a child the chance to develop a tolerance for life. Parents want so badly to protect kids from the pain that when the day comes to face pain, they won’t have the strong skills to manage.”

Since time travel isn’t possible because Elon Musk is too busy with other endeavors these days, my only hope is finding ways to cope with my conflicted feelings of micro loss in the same way a person deals with death. There are ways to make the guilt wash away, at least for a short period.

So, per instruction, I’m finding healthy ways to cope. I’m running more, and for longer, and writing as much as possible. Cookbooks litter the kitchen counter, arranged in Tetris-style patterns, opened to pages of recipes ready to be tested.

It should go without saying that it’s also important to not fall victim to escapes like drugs, excessive drinking or avoiding uncomfortable situations entirely. Leta stressed that the most important thing to make the feelings of guilt subside is to cut myself a damn break.

“Yes, you will miss moments. Big and small. And it will be tough,” she said. “But you will also experience different moments with the kids.” She tells me the ones I miss I will get to hear about from my kids, through their eyes. And that I need to let them know that I care about them and love them, and want them to tell me everything that happens in the time we spend apart.

This I do. And will continue to do. Years will pass, and hopefully, my emotions will weaken over that time. The changes I implement will reflect my parenting style too and, when it comes time to break any bad news to the kids, I’ll be more overt. I’ve made a promise never to sugar coat. Car accidents happen. Pets kick the bucket. People die. There are stages to these feelings, and the last stage is acceptance. We all reach that stage at our own pace. It’s important to get training in this course, no matter how hard it might be.

I know that life involves pain, heartbreak, death, and sometimes breaks you into pieces, far more numerous than all the plastic parts scattered across my dining room floor. It’s up to me to pick them up.

Chris Illuminati is the author of five books, including The New Dad Dictionary, and far too many post-it notes about parenting that are now available as a calendar.

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