It’s a sunny Saturday morning. I was hoping for rain; six hour Saturday classes on divorce and shared parenting are much easier when it’s raining.
Parents begin to arrive. I offer food, but no one eats. A few people slip into the kitchen and fill their cups with coffee or tea.
Soon, I’m sitting, knee to knee in a circle with ten other men and women. No one really wants to be here, including me. About half the parents have been mandated by the Court to take this class on divorce and shared parenting. The other half felt compelled to come to deal with a difficult divorce situation.
On the far end of the circle, a big burly man in his mid-thirties stares into space. He looks angry. We mutually avoid eye contact. Class is about to start and so I’m compulsively making small talk. My chatter includes the local men and women sports teams, the short and long-term weather forecast, and other conflict avoidant topics. I make a point to NOT bring up religion, politics, or recent changes in child custody law.
We begin with ground rules and introductions. Everyone agrees to confidentiality, to mutual respect, cooperative participation, and to be open to new ideas. As introductions proceed around the circle we eventually come around to the burly man. I notice dread building up in me for what I suspect will be an outpouring of anger and resentment. Instead, when he begins speaking his face contorts. Then he puts his head in his hands and quietly starts to cry.
The room is still. He finally manages to talk. His speech is slow and his words like water. We’re submerged in the ache he feels from missing his son and daughter. Three other parents are wiping their eyes. Only fifteen minutes have passed and these parents are already deeply into their emotional pain. There are no more involuntary participants in this class now; everyone in the room is just a parent—a sad, frustrated, and angry parent missing their children and hating part-time parenting.
In the end, the class that wouldn’t eat, orders pizza together. The participants have bonded; they’ve discovered a common passion. They all love their children and want to be better parents.
Amazingly, the 10 parents agree to put their own pain and misery aside when communicating with their children’s other parent. They commit to keeping their children out of parent-to-parent conflicts. They express their willingness to try to accept and listen to their children’s anger, instead of stamping on it like a smoldering fire. They all realize that nothing will magically make their lives easier. But they resolve on a sunny Saturday afternoon to work as hard as they can to leave behind their dysfunctional anger and frustration. They resolve to become not only more loving parents, but also more skillful parents, parents who are ready to put their children’s best interests first and to treat their children’s other parent with the respect they wish for themselves.