It is so easy to be told that you need to put your children first, but what does that mean exactly?
We need to return to the notion proposed by Winnicott in the 1950s that the best kind of parents is the “good enough parent”. This doesn’t mean being a perfect parent – it means being a parent who trundles along doing an adequate job for most of the time, who sometimes messes up and occasionally outdoes themselves. This, of course, is not quite so straightforward before, during and after a separation for two reasons. Firstly, your child is dealing with an enormous change and therefore needs a lot more from you at the very time that, secondly, you are dealing with an enormous change and just getting out of bed is difficult enough. Being a good enough parent during a separation can feel like a superhuman effort.
Remember, there is no such thing as a perfect parent, and there is definitely nothing like perfection during separation.
Imagine everyone has a ‘caring quota’ i.e. an amount of love, care, organising, listening to, feeding and nurturing you can give (to yourself, your child and others in your family). Let’s say the absolute maximum you can give is 100%. On an average kind of day your child may need about 25% and you may need about 25% for yourself. The rest is free to give if anyone needs it. When your child is in the middle of exams or being bullied at school, they may need 75% of your caring quota, which leaves less for you and anyone else around you. When your parent is very ill or you’ve just been made redundant, you need a lot of your own caring quota to get through each day (say, 80%) leaving just 20% for your child and everyone else. During a separation your child may need 100% of your caring, at the very same time you need 100% in order to function. You don’t have to be a mathematician to realise that 200% isn’t possible.
Getting the balance right
The key to getting through this time is balance. Getting a balance between caring for you and caring for your child.
Remember, there is no such thing as a perfect parent, and there is definitely nothing like perfection during separation. To get the balance, we need to think about another area of research looking at parenting. Studies have shown that being a ‘responsive’ parent is one of the most important keys to a contented child. Being responsive means that you are open to, and aware of, your child’s needs. It doesn’t mean that you always have the answer or that you know exactly what to do. But it does mean listening, watching and communicating with your child in a flexible way, so that you are moving with your child’s changing needs. This may be where the concept of putting your child first can be useful – responding to your child as they are right now may mean letting go of your expectations about how they should be. If they’re not upset when you expect them to be, then respond to their happiness. If they’re upset when you really don’t expect them to be, then respond to their sadness rather than your belief that they should be absolutely fine.
Some people are better at being responsive than others, but what is universal is that we find it easier to respond appropriately to others when we are being cared for. Talk to friends and family about your feelings, spend time with people who make you feel happy. Being able to relax and download some of your feelings will mean that you have more head and heart space to respond to your children.
Child’s point of view
The final aspect of putting your child first is to imagine how things feel from their point of view. Remembering our own childhood can help us to understand our own children. If you find it hard to tap into memories of your childhood, read books about children so that you can understand how they see the world. And if you are in doubt, ask them how it feels to be them right now. They may not give you an answer, but the fact you are asking will make them feel valued.
So, should you put your child first? There are no ‘shoulds’ at a time like this. Instead, aim to be responsive to your child. Try to understand how they are feeling while accepting that their feelings and needs will change rapidly. Look for a balance between what you require to get yourself through, and what they need. Listen, watch and communicate with openness. The rest will then take care of itself.
Postscript. Additional reading material is contained in a number of books explaining the law to people going through a divorce or separation. There is a range in our specialist shop. We have links to a number of organisations and charities who offer additional advice and support on these pages. If you are considering looking for alternatives to going to family court, these pages have some quality material to read through.
Dr Angharad Rudkin is a contributor and consulting editor to the 3rd edition of ‘Separating With Children 101’ (Bath Publishing, 2023)