Making Room for the Kids When Parents Live Apart
About three-quarters of a million children witness their parents’ divorce each year. Three-fourths of them live primarily with their mothers, with dads granted what is unfortunately called “visitation.” For divorced dads (or other mothers) like you who want to stay meaningfully and lovingly involved with their kids, it’s not about visiting. You want to create a kid-friendly second home for your kids to come home to during the times they are with you.
Balancing your own needs with the kids’ needs is challenging, especially if money is tight. Setting a rhythm of expectations and rituals of everyday life is difficult when you aren’t doing it every day. But at least some of the stress of having your kids live with you part-time can be reduced if you can figure out how to afford a home base that gives the kids a room, or at least a space, of their own.
Here are some reasons to create a room of their own for your kids:
- It recognizes that your children are being asked to function well despite living in two different homes. To manage it, kids need to feel welcome and at home at both houses.Ideally, it means having a room where they can keep their stuff with the assurance it will still be where they left it when they return to you. At minimum, it means having a permanent space in the bathroom for their toothbrushes and combs and a drawer for their clothes. It means having a special place for their books and toys or school and art supplies.If you can’t give them a room, get creative. One father I know transformed a walk-in closet into a tiny but beautiful space for his little girls to play in. Another father curtained off a corner of his living room, installed a stack of milk cartons for storage and designated it as the kids’ “camp.” Another mother designated the one bedroom in her apartment as the kids’ room and found a futon sofa for the living room that she sleeps on when the kids are there. From her point of view, it is a preferable arrangement because she can put the kids to bed and still have time for herself in the living area.
Regardless of your arrangement, when they have their own assigned space in your home, the kids feel that they belong there.
- It reassures young children. They often have a great deal of difficulty grappling with the idea that you have a separate home. Unless there has been abuse, they want their parents to get together again. They worry that their “visits” to you will end. Designating whatever space you can as theirs and theirs alone communicates to them that, yes, you are making a life separate from the other parent, but that there is room in your life for them. Setting up a space for them tells them that you are committed to being their parent and that you welcome having them with you.
- It keeps the kids out of the middle. Work with your ex to manage finances so the kids have an equivalent space in each home. Why? Because if one parent can offer them a room of their own and the other parent can offer them only a corner of the living room floor, the discrepancy puts the kids in a tough spot. They may feel sorry for the parent in the limited space or guilty that they would rather be at the larger house. They may be angry with either parent or both.Some kids blame the parent who has the more spacious house for being “selfish” and uncaring of their other parent. Some kids blame the parent with the more reduced circumstances for not doing enough to make things more equal. Stretch the budget instead of the relationships. The kids will be more comfortable in both places.
- It provides you with privacy. When they have their own room, you can watch TV, do your own activities or have friends over when the kids are napping or have gone to sleep for the night. Adult conversations (whether on the phone or with the friend who stopped by) can more easily be kept between adults.
- It recognizes that the kids need privacy too. By the time they are 3 or 4, children develop a sense of modesty when dressing and undressing that should be supported. Older children need to be able to withdraw to do homework uninterrupted, to get away from you and their siblings now and then, and sometimes to manage their emotions. Teens who are going through the normal developmental stage of separating from parents need a space of their own just to chill. Yes, people can and do work around being crowded. But if you can manage it, just having more space reduces the normal tensions of living together. Ironically, it often supports togetherness.
- It helps the process of blending families. Don’t expect your new partner’s kids and your kids to love each other just because you love your new partner. It’s more realistic to expect that it will be rough going for awhile. If at all possible, even if it’s a stretch financially, give your kids and your partner’s kids separate spaces. They can then figure out their relationships with each other gradually.
I’m fully aware that there are many, many families who reside in as little as a single room. Families who are part of the Tiny House movement are challenging American ideas about how much space (and how much stuff) people really need. It’s simply true that kids can and do thrive wherever they have parents who love and care for them. But managing the realities of limited space is for another article. Generally, adults and children will all do better if they have the option for a little separation when they are together.
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