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What a Matrimonial Lawyer (and Divorced Mom) Knows About Divorce and Children

What I Know About Divorce and Children

By Guest Contributor

I have a been a matrimonial/family lawyer for over two decades, I have dozens of friends who have been through separation and divorce, and I am divorced myself. In social settings, I am often asked for advice regarding children and divorce, and over the years, I have compiled a list. Please note that these are suggestions only, does not constitute legal advice and it should not take the place of obtaining legal advice from a professional in your state.

If you are going through an amicable divorce and are parting as friends, what follows will most likely not be surprising, unlike Trump becoming our most recent president (yeah, we’re not over it.).

But, if your split is acrimonious, it is a good idea to keep these pointers in mind.

1. Act in your child’s best interests. Always.

While there is no parent who would knowingly not act in their child’s best interest, sometimes we get so overwhelmed with our own grief over the end of a relationship, that we lose sight of the effect that it has on the children. Keep them front and center. This does not mean that you cannot process your own feelings about the end of your marriage, but it does mean that you have to look elsewhere for help in carrying the pain. Divorce is stressful for children. Do not make them your caretaker. If they see that you are upset, acknowledge it but reassure them that you are getting the support you need and that it is not their job to make you feel better.

2. Spare the children.

Never, ever make the kids take sides. Even if everything is 10,000% your ex’s fault, spare the children that knowledge. There are exceptions to this, of course, such as if there was violence or another safety issue in the relationship. If that is the case, you should consult a hotline or get a referral to a mental health expert for guidance in how to approach this with the children. Most times, less is more. Do not lie to the children, but do not volunteer information for questions that haven’t been asked. Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for assistance, if needed.

3. Do not say “I wish I never met him/her!” in front of the children.

Many of them will take that to its natural conclusion and realize that if you never met your ex, they would not be here today. That can’t feel good. Other things to avoid saying, “You are just like him/her!” and “Thanks to your [other parent], we now can’t —-.” It is not fair to make your child hold “carry” that burden. It may not be fair to you either, but it is your job to protect your child.

4. Be careful in whom you confide.

It’s normal and healthy to talk to friends about what is going on. If your friends are other parents at your child’s school and you choose to confide in them, make sure they understand that the information you are sharing is confidential and is not to be discussed with others, and especially not in front of the children- yours or theirs. Information travels, even among the well-meaning but your children deserve not to hear the details of your breakup through the grapevine.

5. Your soon-to-be-ex can be a terrible spouse/partner but could still be an excellent parent.

Or a good parent. Or a good-enough parent. Not to suggest that your terrible or not-that-great spouse is an excellent parent, but put your anger/disappointment/heartbreak/rage aside (easier said than done, I know) and ask yourself if you feel that your child is safe when he/she is with the other parent. Does your child enjoy spending time with the other parent? Do you believe that the other parent loves your child?

And if you are in litigation with the other parent:

1. It’s not as Seen on TV.

Hopefully you have an attorney that you trust and can run things by. Do not rely on information obtained from the media. I have seldom seen one divorce storyline on TV that does not get something legally wrong. This is important for all matters concerning the separation, but is more so when children are involved. Don’t educate yourself based on The Good Wife or Law & Order.  On their behalf, you deserve knowledge, not media sound bytes.

2. Do not involve your child in court talk.

If you are involved in court proceedings with the other parent, do not fill your child in on the details. If your child knows that you are in litigation, have a script ready and prepared and, if possible, encourage your ex-partner to have and to use the same one. Something along the lines of, “we are trying to work out what will be best for all of us and we have people who specialize in this helping us” may be sufficient. Answer the question, but do not volunteer information. 

3. Do not litigate your feelings.

It is impossible to go through an acrimonious divorce without feeling angry and even vengeful. The stages of grief are normal, but litigating your feelings is not healthy (and also expensive!). Go ahead and have the fantasy of Judge Judy setting your ex straight in front of an audience of millions, but then work towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict between you. It will be a lot more satisfying in the long run.

4. Do not destroy your ex in litigation.

As a litigator, winning is important. But it is almost impossible to torch the earth and win in litigation and co-parent effectively with your ex. In most cases, the two of you will be at your kids’ future graduations and weddings together. You will feel pride and, unfortunately, sometimes pain, about your children that only the other parent will understand. Even if you are no longer partners, you will always be parents. That is in your child’s best interest. Almost always. 

Final Thoughts

As you go through the divorce, be gentle with yourself. Surround yourself with people who love you and support you and who understand the value of preserving as much as possible the co-parenting relationship with your ex. Your children will be better off for it, and so will you.


Mariana Olenko is a New York City attorney (and divorced mom) practicing matrimonial and real estate law at Olenko Law, PLLC

Photo source: Depositphotos/Buurserstraat38

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Comments

  • Selena Luna

    I have a question that I don’t know if you can answer: My boyfriend and I don’t have kids yet (nor is it in the plans for the close future), there are none from his previous marriage, and I’ve always felt that was easier. However, we want to have kids in the next several years. When we have kids, should we tell them that he was married before? I don’t know that it would come up, per se, but it’s not like his previous marriage has ever been a secret–everyone knows about it in my family and his. Should our kids know about it?

    • Watashi Zenaku

      I would approach it on a “don’t offer, don’t refuse” point of view: Don’t offer the information unsolicited, but don’t refuse them answers if they ask.

      You can give an age-appropriate answer to them if they ask – ie. “Daddy was married, but now he’s with us as a family” for a younger child, or “You know how you sometimes have clothes that don’t fit you anymore? Or why we can’t wear a swimsuit to school because it just isn’t right to do that? Sometimes, when we’re with people, they may not rfit us or be right for us” for school-aged kids, or “Daddy was in a relationship that wasn’t positive or healthy” for older children.

      My children recently saw my previously married name in books that I own, and asked me about it. I told them that I was married before, and it did not work out very well. However, I met, dated, and married their dad, started a family, and am much happier now. If they ask later on, we’ll address it in an age-appropriate manner.

      • Selena Luna

        His divorce was actually quite amiable, and they didn’t divorce because the relationship was unhealthy. There were certainly issues, but that wasn’t one of them.

        He and I have talked about this pretty extensively, and we probably will just follow your advice–don’t bring it up, but have answers ready for when they ask, which they will.