Hawk about a month before the split.
I originally started this post in August, a couple of months before Hawk turned 4. 2011 really kicked my ass, our asses (ohmyfuckinggodican'twaitforittobeover). I don't know how present I was through all of it. In hindsight, I wasn't capable of shielding Hawk from my own life 100%. I did well enough, I suppose, but I wish I'd done more.
I try not to ruminate on my own feelings about our days together (I don't know how he'll feel about this past year or how it will effect him in the long run - only time will tell). It's like a counseling session: I might feel like I was off my game and floundering, but the client might walk away feeling empowered, listened to, and like it was a meaningful hour. I can't translate the experience for anyone else but me. And so I look back on my impending divorce and my first year of single-mothering with as much objectivity as possible.
Here are my thoughts on handling separation and divorce with your 3 (& 4) year old:
Be developmentally appropriate
When Rooster and I split up - physically separated - Hawk was roughly 2 years and 9 months old. Just a wee little thing. Which meant he wasn't fully potty-trained, yet, he was only barely grasping the concept of yesterday, today, and tomorrow and was struggling with communicating his feelings through language, but he could feel. So that's what I addressed.
If I felt the loss, the strangeness, the sadness, the longing for my baby, wouldn't it follow that he would also feel something along those lines as well? He's a littler human, after all. I know his father was feeling it, too.
I spent a lot of time talking about my feelings and those of Hawk's. I gave voice to them and hoped I was close to the mark since I knew he couldn't conceptualize them on his own.
When he cried after a transition or after seeing his father I would say, "I know you love your daddy very much and it hurts to be apart from him." He'd nod agreement and cry some more. I tried to incorporate the visceral feeling of loss, too. "My heart hurts when I miss Daddy. I bet your heart hurts, too." I always ended chats like these with, "Don't worry, baby, it won't feel like this forever."
Be honest about the situation and realize you're not the only one who's living this new life
By acknowledging the suckiness of the situation and Hawk's initiation into a new palette of emotions I hoped to validate his experience of going back and forth and being separated from me (he was already used to separation from Rooster), and living with two parents who were struggling.
It fucking sucked. Why wouldn't I tell him I knew that and that we were (as a disjointed family) all going through it together?
I believe one of the most powerful things a parent can do is to show her humanity. When I feel sad or cranky I share my mood with Hawk, "Mommy is feeling really cranky right now and I'm sorry I've been short-tempered today." Which segues nicely whenever he's cranky and being a bear, "Wow, you seem to be having a rough day today. Is that true?" He's able to identify and relate in (hopefully) a meaningful way.
I wanted to show Hawk that I knew he was there, too. That he wasn't forgotten. That he was a real participant in our lives, too.
Forgive yourself and be strong
Ok, so your life isn't turning out as you wanted, but that doesn't mean shit. Not really. It's something I had to embrace when I realized I wasn't going to have more than one child. Accepting this new fragmented life seemed an easy extension of that. And my hope is that I'm modeling flexibility and strength.
Co-parent, co-parent, co-parent
I know not all relationships end like mine. Rooster and I have remained partners in all of this and for that I'm eternally grateful. So, if you can manage to have any kind of connection with your ex, do it. Keep anchoring routines as similar as possible, the language the same, the consequences. Every little thing that you two can do to keep the tumultuousness of the new life at bay, do it.
And if you can manage it, see your kids on off weeks for hugs and kisses.
Don't stop being the parent
So, here I am telling you to be open, honest, and human with your little one, but there's a balance. He's not your co-hort, though he's sharing this path with you. He's still your charge and not to be leaned upon. Don't cry to him, though a cry in front of him can be natural if not too alarming. I've cried in front of Hawk a handful of times and he was given the opportunity to come and pat me, inquire after my feelings -- a good exercise in compassion. I would tell him my heart hurt because I was a little sad, but that I would be ok and I was thankful for his hugs. You don't want to overwhelm your little ones with the force of your feelings.
Of course I'm no expert. These are just things that helped make me navigate this emotional time, rules I implemented so I didn't feel so goddamned lost. I also have no effing clue what my kid is gonna be like when he grows up; how he's going to view these first few years of his new life. He will never have a memory of his father and I living together. Never. And he still shares his wish that we all lived together, though I think it's more about convenience than a memory he might have.
Like I tell my kid, we're tough, he's tough, we're all tough, and we'll get through this. My fingers are crossed we're past the worst and I mostly believe that's true.
What do you guys think? Do you have any specific questions? Any other helpful suggestions?