When I was little I remember waking up most mornings feeling confused and a little disoriented. I would lay in bed for a moment looking around, trying to remember where I was. And then, after the grogginess cleared, everything was fine and I could go about my day. You see, I was a child of a split family and I lived in two homes.
During the week, I lived with my dad in a room with bunk beds and two windows. I had a desk and my Barbies, and a whole bunch of stuffed animals.
But on the weekends, I lived with my mom in a room with two twin beds with matching bedspreads, one big window, a nice big and organized closet, and a mirror my mom had decorated to look like a second window.
Because I went back and forth so frequently, I would sometimes dream I was in one room and wake up in the other only to be confused for a minute until I realized everything was ok, I was just in the other house.
Overall, I think I was a fairly well adjusted kid considering everything my family went through. But a lot of that had to do with my parent’s ability and willingness to put aside their differences and work to make life as easy as possible for my sister and me.
The Early Days Of My Split Family
I am the oldest of two daughters. Compared to a lot of the other stuff I experienced as a kid, splitting my time between my parents’ two homes was a piece of cake!
But that wasn’t by accident. Things weren’t always that way.
My parents split when I was around three years old. Early in our lives, there was a lot of fighting about who would keep my sister and me. Mom probably should have because she had a job and wasn’t battling the demons my dad was. But my dad, being my dad, couldn’t let go of control and eventually my mom caved and let us live with him.
As far as I know there were no legal arrangements made. They agreed on one thing – they didn’t want to drag me through the court system.
But I do remember a lot of chaos in my early life. I don’t recall all the details, but I can pick bits and pieces out of my memory. Like a tiny little one bedroom apartment where my dad lived above a guy name Glen. And the Pioneer Motel where Mom stayed for a period of time.
There was a time we stayed in the crisis nursery, too, though I don’t remember why. I do remember being told that they even tried out having one of us stay with Mom and the other with Dad for a short time, which clearly didn’t work out.
In the end, they settled on the arrangement I mentioned – we would live with Dad during the week and Mom on the weekends. And that seemed to work out ok.
When my mom married around the time I was six, things settled down even more. Mom tells me that Dad mellowed out a little once he realized that Mike (my stepdad) was a good guy and was good for us.
He also likely realized that his illness (he had been diagnosed with AIDS), was not going to get any better and it was in everyone’s best interest to work together to make sure my sister and I had the best home(s) we could have.
Working Together To Raise The Kids In A Split Family
There are a lot of things my parents did wrong, and even they would admit that. But one thing I’ve always credited them for from the time I was old enough to understand is that they were great at putting aside their differences in order to take care of us.
See, all that chaos and turmoil early on is nothing more than some distant, disconnected memories in the back of my mind. Most of what I remember from that part of my childhood is a united family who stood together and made it work.
I don’t take that lightly, knowing I’m incredibly blessed to have that experience because many children of split families are not that fortunate.
My mom and dad and my stepdad, Mike, had their fair share of issues with each other. It wasn’t exactly a secret – at least not for the other adults in their lives. But when it came to us kids, I don’t think we ever saw that side of it. When it came to us, they were all three our parents and they respected each other.
What My Parents Did Right (And You Can Too)…
Having a split family, no matter the reason, is never easy. And walking with your children through the ups and downs and all the struggles can be really challenging and difficult. You never want to feel like you’re the reason your child is hurting – but so many mommas (and dads) do. And it sucks.
But it doesn’t matter what happened in the past. What matters right now is what you choose to do from this moment forward. Because no matter what mistakes you (or anyone else) may have made or what you did or didn’t do, it’s never too late to make a positive change.
Give your child their own space… in both homes
One thing I never felt was like a guest in my own home. But I know many kids of split families where that’s very much a reality.
And I get it, sometimes space is an issue or the time they are there is so small and scattered that it seems like a waste.
But caring for your child and their feelings is never a waste.
Make the space and time to give your child their own bedroom or space in your home.
It’s ok if they share a room with a sibling – heck, my kids share a room and our family all lives under one roof. But don’t make it seem like a sleepover.
Let them have their own bed and their own space in a closet. Give them their own space for toys and other things they enjoy. Let them hang posters or pictures or decorate in a way that makes it feel like their home. Because it is their home. Even if they’re only there part time.
Along those same lines, please don’t make your child have to pack a suitcase every time they move between homes. Keep two sets of everything. It’s just easier that way.
That’s not to say they can’t take their favorite shirt or toy from Mom’s house to Dad’s house. Just don’t make it a necessity for them to pack up and move back and forth.
And let me just clarify right now, let’s not create a “Mom’s house” and “Dad’s house” itemized list of belongings. It doesn’t really matter who bought what or where it’s located at any given time. It was all bought for your child and it’s ok for them to enjoy it no matter which house they are staying at.
Keep open communication between everyone involved
One thing about split families is that it can very quickly become chaotic when there are two households, two (or maybe three or even four) parents, two sets of rules, two sets of expectations, two lifestyles, etc.
That’s why it’s SO important to sit down and talk openly with everyone involved.
Give everyone a chance to share their expectations and to share where they are willing to compromise (and everyone is going to have to compromise).
It’s ok to have different rules at each house, but there should be an understanding about what each parent is and is not ok with no matter what. And all the caregivers should be willing to respect those boundaries.
Of course, this may be where compromise comes in. It may be very important to you that your child not be allowed to watch certain types of shows, for instance. This might be a rule that you’re unwilling to bend on.
But then you might have to be a bit more flexible on how much candy they can have at their other parent’s house.
They key here is to understand what is the most important to you in terms of limits and values and making that clear to your co-parent.
And just as you expect them to respect your wishes, you must respect theirs as well.
It might seem totally ridiculous that Dad doesn’t want your little girl to get pink highlights, but if this is something he’s firm about and you’ve agreed to respect that boundary, then respect it.
As I mentioned before, one of the best things my parents did was make sure my sister and I knew that we were expected to follow the rules at each house even though they might be different. And they stuck to their guns and never let us play them against each other.
Put your kids’ needs above your own
When it comes to split families, there’s usually some tension involved. Split families don’t become that way when everything is good.
But if there are kids involved, it’s absolutely necessary to put aside your differences with each other and agree to do what’s best for your children. Period.
As an adult, I’ve learned that Mike (my stepdad) honestly could not stand my dad. Didn’t like him one bit and, frankly, would have preferred to never have anything to do with him.
But he respected the fact that Dad was just that, our dad. He didn’t come in and try to take his place or undermine him. They put on their big boy pants and acted like the adults they were, put aside their differences and worked together for the sake of raising us well.
And every parent should do the same.
Whatever things you don’t like about your co-parent or issues you have or fights you’re involved in, you have to be willing to look past all of that for your children. Because at the end of the day, no matter what mistakes have been made, that other person is your child’s mom or dad and your child loves them.
Respect each other’s life choices
Listen, maybe you can’t stand country music and they love it. Or maybe you hate that they are in a band or that they like to cover themselves in tattoos. Maybe you don’t like the way they dress or wear their hair.
Or maybe it’s deeper than that. Maybe you don’t like their new partner or you’d prefer they live in a different neighborhood.
But unless their lifestyle choices are harmful to your child, frankly, you don’t get a say.
You can, and absolutely should, bring up any concerns you have with them. If you are fearful that their lifestyle choices may lead your child to make poor choices themselves, then by all means talk to them about it and try to work out a compromise.
Just don’t try to control their lives. And don’t use their lifestyle choices to try to manipulate the situation.
My dad was a bisexual man who had his partner living with us and spent most nights in a bar binge drinking. My mom could easily have decided she had a problem with any of that and used it as a way to manipulate and get her way. But she didn’t. Because she recognized the value in my dad being a part of our lives and she knew that his choices in how he lived his life were not putting my sister and me in any immediate danger.
Of course, if there is something going on in their home that is dangerous and/or illegal you should most definitely take action and keep your children safe. But for the most part, the rest is preference.
I know religion is a whole other topic that I could probably write an entire post on by itself. I’m not going to dive into all the ins and outs of that here. Just make every effort to sit down and come to an agreement about what each parent is comfortable with. It can be a very difficult thing to work through, so it may be helpful to seek the advice of a professional if you’re having trouble coming to an agreement about issues of family values and religion.
Your child is not a pawn in your split family
Do not, I repeat, do not under any circumstances use your child as a pawn to manipulate or control the other parent.
Your child is not a means to an end (i.e. to get something your want) and you should never ever threaten to withhold visitation rights in order to manipulate a situation.
Not only might this be illegal (if there are court ordered visitations), but it’s also just really toxic and unhealthy for your child and their other parent.
We are talking about your child – a living, breathing, feeling, human – here, not a thing to be traded or used.
Kids are surprisingly more intelligent and observant than we might think. They understand a lot more a lot sooner than we think. And when you are using them for your own benefit, they know it.
Eventually that’s going to catch up to you. Kids don’t stay young and innocent forever. Eventually they will be old enough and wise enough to decide for themselves who really has their best interest in mind. And if it’s not you, they might decide to cut you out of their lives for good.
And none of us wants that.
Let your child feel safe, loved, and heard
Children may struggle a lot more in a split family than they ever say out loud. And there may be a million different reasons they don’t tell you.
But don’t let the reason they don’t speak up be because they don’t feel like they can.
No matter what’s going on in your life or with their other parent, make sure you hold space for them to feel safe, loved, and heard.
Let them know as often as possible that nothing is ever too hard to talk about and no matter what they can come to you. If they are feeling sad, angry, scared, confused, let them know they can come to you.
But also if they are struggling with something that might be hard for you to hear, let them know it’s still ok to come to you.
Be their safe space.
Be the one that they can talk to without fear of hurting your feelings or making you angry.
It might be hard for you to hear that they love their dad’s new partner. But it needs to be ok for them to tell you that.
It might be difficult for them to express their frustration about a situation or their confusion or their hurt. But they need to know that you will be there for them without judgement.
Split families are hard to navigate. Not least of all for the children caught in the middle. Be ok enough with yourself to not let your emotions hinder your child from trusting you and opening up to you. Because at the end of the day, they don’t need another adult to add to their already chaotic life. They need someone who can help them carry the load.
As a side note, if your child comes to you and shares something concerning, do your best to remain neutral in your response until you’ve gathered all the information. Don’t immediately react negatively, especially in front of your child.
A negative reaction may have one of two outcomes. Either your child will withdraw and be afraid to tell you anything in the future for fear you may overreact. Or they will see that they can manipulate a situation if they tell the right story to the right parent at the right time. Neither of those situations are ideal. Before you make any judgement calls about a situation, make sure you have all the facts first!
Keep any negative opinions of each other to yourselves
It’s likely that your split family didn’t get to this point because everyone thinks each other is great. There are probably some less than stellar opinions about each other floating around and that can make it tough to co-parent.
But in order to have a successful co-parenting relationship, it is essential to never speak negatively about each other to or in front of your child(ren).
This includes conversations about what the other parent does or doesn’t do to support the child, things they have done wrong in the past or are doing wrong now, conflicts between you and the other parent, and anything else that may affect the child’s perception or opinions of the other parent.
Look, I know that there are some scumbag parents out there. And it’s possible your co-parent is one of them. But there are two things to remember here:
First, regardless of your feelings about the other parent (or their partner), that person is still your child’s mom or dad.
Second, if that person is truly as bad as you believe, your child will figure that out all on their own some day. And when they do, they can decide for themselves what to do with that information. In the meantime, don’t make your child resent you, too, for adding fuel to the fire.
When you’re trying to raise kids in a split family, you need a support system. This isn’t a road you should walk alone.
Find two or three close friends or family who can stand by your side and help you in times of need.
They say raising a child takes a village. And that doesn’t change just because your family didn’t end up looking like maybe you’d hoped.
You need the support of a few trustworthy and wise people. Choose your people carefully. You want those who won’t give their opinion where it’s not needed but also are not afraid to tell you some hard truths you may need to hear on occasion.
These are the people you know have your and your child(ren)’s best interest in mind and aren’t just looking for some sort of selfish gain.
But keep your split family matters private
Even though it’s essential to have a few close friends or family who can support you and your child(ren), it’s equally important not to be too open about your split family situation.
There are far too many people in this world who love a good bit of juicy gossip, like to get involved in things they have no place being involved in, and like to meddle with other people’s lives.
You don’t need that stress, darling.
There are going to be times when things are tough. When you just need to vent. When you need an objective opinion from someone that’s not involved.
But that’s what those two or three close friends are there for.
Social media, or the women’s group at church, or your break room at work are not the places to discuss these private matters. When you begin sharing too much with too many people you risk causing more damage in an already difficult situation.
You must guard your heart, mind, and soul from the negative intentions of those who do not have your best interest in mind. And you must protect your child(ren) from the hurt that those bad intentions can cause.
When it comes down to it, you have to do what’s right for you and your family. And getting too much input from people who don’t matter can lead you to make the wrong choices.
Let them know it’s not their fault
This may be cliche, but it can never be over-stated. Your child needs to know that no matter what happens, no matter how you feel about their other parent or their other parent about you. No matter who comes or goes from the picture, or any other thing that comes up, it’s never the child’s fault.
It’s important to remind them every chance you get that you love them and that nothing they have ever or will ever do could ever change that.
Children of split families often struggle with believing that something they said or did caused the split. Make sure they know that’s just not true.
You don’t have to share every detail. And it’s important not to point fingers or lay blame on the other parent, too. But they need to know nothing they did caused this. That sometimes these things happen and that both their parents still love them very much and want nothing but the best for them.
When The Other Side Doesn’t Play Fair
Here’s the thing. I know not every split family is able to do what my parents did. Sometimes cooperation is difficult at best, impossible at worst. That’s just reality, right? Sometimes the courts make decisions about what’s best for your family. Sometimes the person you chose to have kids with turns out to be a royal jerk and does everything in their power to make life difficult.
You can’t always control all the details or the makeup or the dynamics of your split family.
But the one thing you can control is YOU! You get to decide how you’re going to spend your time and energy when the kids are with you and even when they’re not.
So if you are one of the parents struggling to raise a child in a split family where your child’s other parent isn’t cooperative or where the courts have made difficult decisions beyond your control, don’t lose hope.
Just take ownership of the time and space you have control over and let the rest work itself out. Make your little loves life as good as it can be as far as it depends on you and don’t bear the burden of anything else.
If you have fears about your child’s wellbeing, gather your evidence and take it to the authorities. But beyond that, lean on your support system, pray for your family – especially your children, and be the best parent you can be.
Remember, your kids will eventually discover the truth and then they will decide for themselves what they want to do with that information.
Raising a child in a split family can be incredibly challenging for everyone involved. But it doesn’t have to be a negative experience. When both parents are able and willing to set aside their differences and work together to create the best and most united family life possible for their children, split families can sometimes bring about some of the most unique and amazing blessings in a child’s life!
But even if there is no easy resolution and the situation is difficult, you still have the opportunity to make a positive impact on your child’s life – even if you’re the only one. Keep learning, growing, and moving forward. Your efforts are not wasted even when it feels like the whole world is against you. You are a good mom. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.