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Monday, January 31, 2011

Modelling happiness: broken families

In this blog I've stressed the need to be authentic, the need to be respectful and the need to model the behaviour you want your child to copy. It all sounds amazingly easy when you're sitting in a chair reading it. Parenthood in action, however, is a very different experience- especially when the parenting relationship is in crisis.

Being a parent is hard, hard work. In the first months it can reduce you to zombie status, and even once your child starts to sleep properly, other anxieties and endless duties (and often other children) are there to fill your head and your life. Parenthood is a full time job, and most of us also have to fit in a partner and a job and running a household. Being a happy mum or dad who's got it all together is actually stupidly difficult, and nobody's got it all together all the time- strangely, even those who can afford to pay people to do the chores don't seem to automatically produce 'perfect' children. Far from it. 

Often the first thing to crack is the parenting relationship. It can be very tempting to escape into a less complicated, less demanding relationship outside the madness of home, just to get a bit of 'me' time. (And when I say 'relationship', it doesn't necessarily have to be with an alternate partner; my own relationship breakdown was the victim of my partner's relationship with his work.)

Your child is watching you, all the time. To have a happy child, you need to model happiness- how to deal with things that go wrong and how to bounce back, how to draw the line when things are unacceptable, how to grieve and then pick up the pieces, how to accept the things you can't change, how to be honest about your limitations and work within them, how to make the hard decisions.

How are you dealing with the inevitable bits of your life that are totally NOT 'together'? Are you happily resigned to a bit of chaos? Do you prioritise, and let things go if they're not that important? Do you ask for help when you need it? Have you got someone to talk to when it all gets too much? Do you allow yourself personal time alone or with friends for relaxation? Do you designate 'play' time for yourself and your partner without the kids?

Or are you actually in chaos too much, or nearly all the time? Are you modelling obsessive behaviour in a desperate attempt to be perfect? Are you modelling constant stress, anger or victim mentality when things don't go right? Are you modelling a lousy work-life balance?

And what are you modelling within the relationship with your partner? Are you working on a growing and changing relationship, or seeking the easy answers elsewhere? Is the relationship irretrievably broken, but you're accepting the misery as your lot in life?

Your own happiness is something that deserves your attention. Making time and creating boundaries for you in the parenthood equation is NOT self-indulgent, it's vital. A happy parent is a better parent. Misery clouds your ability to communicate with your child; it clouds your observation of their body language, clouds your ability to notice and respond to what they do and say, and clouds your judgement when there are difficult decisions to be made. You owe it to your child to try to be happy.

Here's a pseudo-virtuous statement that's a pet hate of mine: 'We're staying together for the sake of the kids'.

What BOLLOCKS. If the relationship is workable enough to respond to counselling and hard work from both of you, well, by all means do that work instead of taking an 'easy way out', but surely you're seeking better things for both of you as well as for the kids. And if your relationship is truly and irrevocably broken, or if it's on the way out and you're not going to try to fix it, then staying together is almost certainly NOT going to be good for your children. In this case, 'staying together for the sake of the kids' actually translates as 'I'm too scared of being alone/being broke/not coping/being judged by others to change anything.'

Hey, guess what? The kids will notice that you hate each other. They'll suffer every time you argue, they'll feel it in the air every time you bristle with irritation or fury, and they'll probably eventually blame themselves for being the cause of your misery.

What's more, the time will come when you resent them for being the cause of your misery. It's hard enough being a teenager, without having to carry your mum or dad's anger about their continued enforced contact with the other parent for the sake of this child who's just called them a filthy name or stormed out of the house in a huff.

A child living inside a broken family will also learn that it's okay to be miserable, bitter, angry and resentful within a relationship, because I bet that's what you'll be modelling. They'll learn to throw sarcastic, hurtful words when they're angry. They'll learn the guilt-ridden feeling of being a burden to someone they love. They may even learn that it's okay to hit people who anger you, if that's what they watch every night; they may learn that it's okay to accept being a victim of physical or emotional violence over and over again.

The ONLY way to 'stay together' for the good of your children is to actually reconcile to the point where you reach a civilised level of interaction (which requires excellent communication skills, maturity and commitment) or else come to some incredibly difficult agreement about co-habiting without being partners. (Next door or very close by works for some ex-partners and their kids.) To stay together when the relationship is broken, you need to be mature enough to stick to the boundaries you draw, or flexible enough to try to change yourselves without resentment. How can you model happiness if you don't draw a boundary around your OWN happiness? Read my column about arguing in front of the children, if you have any doubts about the effect of dysfunctional family life on little ones. If you can't be reasonable, pleasant and civil to each other, please DON'T stay together.

Yes, of course splitting up will cause grief and disruption for your children. That gives you the opportunity to model resilience when things go wrong, self-control, honest grieving, mutual support, planning skills, acceptance of change, negotiation skills and diplomatic communication.

Breaking up a dysfunctional family is not ideal- of course it's not- but it IS less disastrous than your child being broken by a dysfunctional family. Prioritise your own happiness, or you have little hope of being an effective parent.

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