When my ex-husband and I decided to split, it was like being thrown into another dimension. I knew nothing about dissolving a marriage – legally speaking, nothing about lawyers or how to pay for them, nothing about custody orders or the terms inside them. Nothing. It was overwhelming, to say the least.
We began our separation in Pennsylvania, knowing we would be moving to Texas and would finalize it there. What we did not know is that the separation agreement we established in PA, would have absolutely no legal standing in TX. Even so, we were naïve to think that as long as we had good intentions, we could get through the process easily.
The truth is, when there are kids involved, nothing about divorce is easy.
I know there are quite a few mamas and papas that are just beginning their divorce detour in life, and I am certainly not one to lecture you on your choices. Even with all that came with my divorce, it was the right choice for my ex and me. But you should know – it’s a stressful, emotional upheaval that alters your mind, your heart, your schedules, and your life. You need all of the help, advice, and insight you can find to get through this.
In hopes of helping you out, here are some things I learned the hard way – things I wish I would have known before getting a divorce.
13 Things I Wish I Would Have Known Before Getting a Divorce
1. How to navigate the legal system.
The legal system is sticky. Every state has different laws and procedures, and moving states during a separation can make things even stickier. Don’t expect laws in one state to pass over seamlessly into another when things haven’t been finalized.
There’s also no one-size-fits-all solution to divorce and custody orders. Laws often try to force families into standard agreements such as one parent having primary custody and the other having every other weekend, but that’s not necessarily what’s best for your family or your children. If you can be adult about it, sit down and have a conversation about what’s really best for your child. Grab a book on divorce in your state, or look for a lawyer who can shed some light on the process for you.
For custody and support negotiation tips, check out Kristen’s post on Negotiating Custody.
2. The truth about lawyers.
A lawyer’s job is not only to help you navigate laws and the legal system, but also to prepare you for worst case scenarios. No matter what kind of a person your ex might be, they will want to prepare you for the worst.
In my experience, my lawyer wasn’t pro-co-parenting. He was pro-“winning”. He wanted me to always push for more, to go to court, to refuse deals, even if what was presented was what I wanted. The degree varies among lawyers of course, and by state law. While I’m all for hiring legal help and someone to represent you and help you navigate the legal system, keep in mind that they don’t always know what’s best for you and yours – you do. So if your lawyer tries to convince you that you need full custody when you really want and believe in 50/50, stand your ground. They work for you.
If we had known this before our custody battle, we might have gotten through things quicker and easier.
3. Co-parenting is a thing.
If you’ve read anything on this blog, you’ve probably heard the word co-parenting a lot. Co-parenting is defined as sharing duties of parenting even though you’re no longer together or married. It’s when you push past your own emotions about the divorce to do what’s best for your child – parenting as a team and working together.
I had never even heard the word “co-parenting” before my ex and I were already divorced for several years and finally trying to mend our destroyed parenting relationship. It may not be an option for everyone, but it is possible. Learn more about co-parenting with the Co-parenting Challenge email series (it’s free!).
4. Making peace with the ex takes time.
No matter how good your intentions are to stay amicable for the sake of your children, getting along after divorce, or even just getting to a civil place… well, it takes time. And the length of time is different for everyone. The most important thing to focus on after divorce is your kid and what’s best for him or her. That means being polite to your ex during handoffs, not talking bad about the other parent when little ears can hear, and sucking up your hurt and bad blood whenever the little ones are around.
This is often easier said than done, especially after a particularly nasty divorce. And like I talked about before on why I thought I couldn’t co-parent, I get it. I know Kristen and I might look like we have the fairytale version of a co-parenting situation, but my ex and I didn’t always get along and she and I certainly haven’t always been friends. The truth is, you don’t have to be friends in order to co-parent. Sure friendship makes things easier, but it’s not a requirement.
Until wounds heal (and hopefully over time, they do) and you can actually be at peace with your ex, just focus on keeping things civil when your child’s around. Treat discussions and handoffs like a business meeting with a colleague you aren’t a fan of if that makes things easier.
5. Never put your kid in the middle.
Your son or daughter is a child, and should never be put in the middle of parental conflict. It’s not your child’s job to handle disagreements, relay messages, or console you when you’re sad – as much as you wish you could unload on them. Let them be children as long as possible.
When they ask you why they don’t have more time with you, don’t use it as an excuse to throw their father under the bus for giving you “the raw end of the deal.” Your 5-year-old doesn’t need to know you cry because you’re lonely when they’re at their mom’s house. They deserve to visit both parents – don’t guilt them over it. Your 10-year-old doesn’t need to know that Daddy’s a cheat and shouldn’t be trusted. An unfaithful husband does not a bad father make. Your 7-year-old doesn’t need to hear how upset you are that child support payments are behind. Collecting is not their responsibility. They don’t need to be telling Mom they aren’t allowed to do XYZ because Stepmom doesn’t like it. Address the problem yourself.
Your child is not your messenger. Your daughter is not your therapist. Your son is not your confidante. Your child is your child. Let them be little, and happy, even if that means keeping them ignorant.
6. It’s okay for life to change.
Life is always changing, and divorce is one of the biggest changes of all. But you know what? Change is normal.
You may have been a stay at home mom with your kids 24/7/365, but after divorce, don’t freak out when that all shifts. Your kid is going to have to learn to live with parents who work different hours than before, going back and forth between houses, developing a relationship with stepparents or stepsiblings, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
But children adapt, just as adults do. We must. And just because “their schedule is thrown off” doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. Things change. Life happens. And learning to deal with something as big as divorce will help your children learn to deal with changes they’ll face in the future.
7. Find your tribe (support system).
Whether you’re a mom or dad, every divorced parent needs some kind of support system. If you’re lucky enough to have a family ready and willing to help you cope and get back on your feet as a single parent, then, by all means, take them up on that offer. You’re going to need it.
If you don’t have family around or willing and able to help, look elsewhere for your tribe. Look for groups of other single parents in your local community, or online. Reach out to friends who have gone through similar situations. Join co-parenting or single parent Facebook groups like The Co-parenting Challenge. I wish I would have been a member of these groups during and after my divorce. The insight from others could have really helped me back then, and does to this day.
No matter how strong of a woman (or man) you might be, there will be days you need someone’s shoulder to cry on. There will be moments you have no idea what to do. There will be nights you pull your hair outstanding in puddles of tears when you feel like your life is over. Those are the times you’ll be grateful you have a tribe full of people who have been in your shoes.
8. Everything is harder as a single parent.
It’s true. Everything about parenting is harder as a single parent. From juggling work hours with daycare pick up times, to struggling to pay family living expenses on one income, to having no one to lean on in a crisis or WTF situation… Be prepared that it can be overwhelming. But as I shared in How to Survive as a Single Mom, it can be done. It will not be easy by any means, but you can survive. Lean on your tribe, and don’t give up.
A good rule of thumb to combat this stress is to remember self-care. Take care of yourself! Find something, anything that can help you unwind at the end of the day. Let off steam by going for a jog, lose yourself in a song, watch a mind-numbing TV show – whatever it takes to take your mind off things for a while. Your sanity will thank you.
9. The (financial) struggle is real.
I cannot tell you the number of times I wondered how I was going to pay bills the next month. Lawyer fees and custody battles are expensive, but so is living on one income. This is especially true for women re-entering the workforce without a Bachelor’s degree who’ve been stay at home moms for so many years prior. If it’s possible for you to go back to school, your future self will thank you if you do. There are many scholarships and grants for single parents going for a degree.
I chose to jump right into working 2 minimum wage jobs after my divorce, thinking one day I would start my own restaurant. If I could go back knowing what I know now, I would have done things differently. I would have either gone back to school or immediately jumped into the corporate workforce instead. I should have been more focused on earning potential rather than following a dream. That would come much later.
For more advice on making ends meet, read How to Save Money on Everyday Bills. You don’t have to be a mom (or single even) to benefit from those tips.
10. His new wife will be your child’s additional mother figure.
Something I had never thought about before was how my ex-husband’s new wife would be a mother figure to my child. I wanted my ex to find the woman who was right for him, I wanted him to be happy and in love. But what I didn’t think about was what that meant for my little girl.
When K’s at her dad’s, I’m not the one signing off on her folder after school or helping her with homework. I’m not the one reading bedtime stories to her or cooking her dinner. Her stepmom Kristen does that. And while it may seem easy to outsiders, learning to share your child with another woman (or another man, if you’re a dad) will be one of the hardest struggles you’ll learn to overcome.
The trick is to focus on what’s best for your son or daughter. Stepmom is not replacing you, she is supplementing. No one will be able to replace you in your child’s eyes. Try to look past your emotions and focus on your child’s happiness and well-being. What’s best for them, not your ego. Know that accepting stepmom will blow your child away. Suddenly, they don’t have to choose between hurting stepmom’s or mom’s feelings, because you’re on the same team. Plus, it’ll make it infinitely easier for your son or daughter to accept her, too.
11. Don’t move on too quickly.
Like I said earlier, it takes time to heal wounds. There’s no rush for you to find a new life partner. Take your time and heal the battle wounds from your previous marriage. Master those insecurities, rebuild your confidence, find yourself. Only then will you really know what you’re looking for in a significant other.
(Fun fact: When I reached out to parents in co-parenting groups about how long it took them to move on, the majority of mothers and fathers claimed it took a year to a year and a half before they were ready to find someone new. But according to the Wall Street Journal, experts say it takes about 2 years.)
There’s nothing that says you shouldn’t casually date – this may even be the healthier route. Adults need adult contact and conversation. Go out with friends, meet new people, experience the dating world. But take your time before looking for anything serious. Jumping into a new relationship too soon often does more harm than good.
12. Be mindful of your child’s heart.
I say this with new relationships in mind. When choosing a new partner in the future, it’s important that you take your child’s feelings on the subject into consideration. If your new significant other can’t accept your son or daughter, they aren’t the one for you. But please, oh please, don’t introduce anyone to your child as more than a friend unless you know it’s going to last. If that relationship ends, you won’t be the only one brokenhearted, if your child grew attached. Be mindful, and cautious. You’re protecting your child’s heart just as much as your own.
13. Know your worth.
You deserve happiness, darling. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Focus on finding yourself now that you’re single, and figuring out what it is you really want. And if a guy you’re dating ever says you set impossible standards no one can ever meet (yes, I’ve been told that), take it as a compliment. Set high standards for yourself, and for your future partner. You deserve a man who meets those high standards. Because you’re an amazing woman. A grown woman – you don’t have time for games. So don’t settle for anything less!
While some of these topics sound daunting, I have to be honest – I don’t regret my divorce at all. In our case, my ex-husband and I knew we would never make each other happy. While I would have approached some things differently had I known all of this beforehand, I wouldn’t have changed my decision.
Divorce is hard, but as they say – “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and it is so true.
This too shall pass; don’t give up.
PS: Is there something else YOU wish you would have known before you got divorced? Let me know in the comments!