Saturday, December 7, 2013

Connections to Professional Life: Split Families

Last week my teaching partners and I received an email containing a string of communication between two parents about their child who we have as our student. The string was actually between the parents (who are divorced) and we were cc'd.  It was kind of awkward.

Split family situations aren't unusual for educators, but the involvement by cc'ing us (passive as it was) is a telling reminder that different kinds of family structures create all kinds of complexities for parents, step-parents, and children, not to mention teachers.  And while involved adults can display their emotions and thoughts passively, contrast that to children who can be forthright and honest, like my one student did when he publicly recited this the day before Thanksgiving:

I'm thankful that my parents aren't together but thankful that we can still have Thanksgiving with each other even though they're divorced and even though it'll be in different places.  I'm just thankful I was born.  

No matter what the family structure is like, there are inherent stressors.  They range in degree and type but there's no doubt that split families are just hard.  I'm in the know on this one.  I was 18 when my own parents split, and I became a stepmom to Emma in 2002, so I ran the treadmill of varying emotions, logistics, and levels of involvement.  With Emma, I was cognizant of who I was and always considered my place in the system because in truth, I just didn't want to be that stepmom - or step-monster for that matter.  Mostly though, I observed and waited patiently day to day as Emma grew into her own.  And man has she taught me - someday I'll publish the list of lessons I've learned from her.  Not only did she teach me how to be a stepmom, but those lessons transferred into my job as a teacher.

In fact, whenever parents come to school for conferences or whenever there's tension or unexpected exchanges like the one I mentioned, I always take it back to my experiences.  Just as strong as my empathy and concerns are for all parents, I have that much more for divorced parents.  Believe me, I know some of those experiences that frustrate and at times, infuriate.  I know what it's like to be in the background, and I also understand boundaries.  I get purpose, too - like, if what I'm doing or saying does not serve a productive purpose, I should withhold that action or thing that's at the tip of my tongue.    I've figured out that at times it's okay to have the second to the last word, and that having imaginary conversations about the things that bug me are healthier than a conflict that won't be resolved.  I also understand distance and disengagement, and I get that on all sides, it's a necessary part of a system that's broken.  But I also know what it's like when the system flows and those times are when agreements and decisions are made because it's really, really what is best for the child.  

You probably recognize the idea of flow if you've read or heard of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  As a skier and climber, I've been reading his work for over two decades and I can honestly say that it applies not just to athletic performance or to the learning process, but it's also a part of teaching and parenting.  The best moments of flow in parenting are not when parents are passive, receptive, or status quo.  Mihaly says that the best moments seem to occur when we're stretched to our limits because we have chosen to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.  In my opinion, this aptly applies to parents in split families.  

If flow is to be possible in a split family, it means both parents have to suck it up.  Every family has different crosses to bear, and what matters to one might not be that big of a deal to another.  Nevertheless, it might mean that they agree to attend parent-teacher conferences together or that both households will implement an organizational system to keep the kid in check as s/he switches houses. Maybe it's an agreement that there will be no public bashing of each other in any way whatsoever, whether it's through an email, text, or conversation - and certainly not to the kid.  That difficult thing might be making decisions from a set of shared values that they've identified together instead of ambiguous actions or behaviors.  It could be something that's super hard and seemingly impossible like accepting that once and for all, your households are different and that's just the way it is.  Although flow is not something that's easy to achieve, it becomes possible, and even probable if agreements and decisions are made because it's really, really what is best for the child.  

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