Typically when I use the term parental engagement, I’m talking about how involved parents are in schools and their children’s lives. I’m referring to the depth and the breadth in which a parent is engaged in a child’s educational, social, emotional, and physical activities. This article is not about that.
My ex-husband is engaged. Less than two years after we divorced, my ex-husband emailed me that he is engaged. My feelings aside, I remembered an article I wrote about striving for a kinder divorce for the kids—something I have since discovered is somewhat of a unicorn. As an educator and a mother, I have observed my children through this process and can offer my thoughts on what I think can lead to the greatest success as this transition continues.
1. Kids come first—bottom line.
In the process of dating, engagement, and wedding planning, it's critical to let your kids know that they are always number one.
Even if they aren’t directly expressing that they are feeling replaced, left out, or simply concerned, your kids need your attention, affection, and positive reinforcement. As the families are blending (and even thereafter), children need time with their parent. I recommend making one-on-one time a priority with each of your kids without the soon-to-be spouse.
2. It’s not about the party.
The day after my ex got engaged, he told my oldest about how much fun the wedding would be—tuxedos, a tropical location, the dancing—it sounded like a dream; who wouldn't be excited? But each night thereafter, I heard about the concerns, the worries, the long term: Where will I sleep? I don't get along with my stepsibling. I don’t want the wedding to happen so soon.
While the newly-engaged parents are in bliss and excited, the kids are full of emotions. It's important to see and hear those emotions and concerns, as children need space for them. They need to know that those emotions are okay and are going to be addressed, both by the engaged parent, the soon-to-be stepparent, and the other one. There is real life after the party, and while it's okay to get the kids excited about the wedding, you also need to address the day-to-day changes that will occur.
3. Respect your child's parent and your past relationship.
Not everyone will agree with this, but I think respect for the past relationship is critical when approaching a second marriage when kids are involved. You created children together and are co-parenting, so it's important to speak respectfully to and about the other parent, especially when speaking to your kids.
As I stated in my previous article, I have always envisioned a time when my ex and I could be friends, where we could work together to better one another in our new paths and not destroy each other. If we can each respect and appreciate the relationship we had—even though it's over—we can move forward happy for the other person and therefore create a better environment for our children. Constructive behavior is better than destructive behavior.
4. A new spouse isn’t a substitute for the other parent in your child’s life.
Remember that each person is a parent seven days a week, not just when you each have custody.
I recently met a man who dated a woman with children for about five years (he doesn’t have children of his own). He knew he had approached the situation in the right way when the children introduced him to people as their friend, John. He wasn’t trying to be a substitute for their father or play a fatherly role. He understood that wasn’t his place nor did he need that to feel part of their lives. I had so much respect for how he explained his approach to dating a woman with children. He respected the parenting relationship and didn’t try to break that or interfere. He was simply the children's friend, which was of immense value to him.
These four rules are the result of going through this process with my kids. Each situation is different, but I think everyone can agree that respect for your parenting partner, regardless of your relationship status, goes a long way during and after a divorce.
While my dating process is slow and calculated—a casual jog where I watch my footing and carefully select my paths— when I find the right partner, I will reflect back on what I have learned about putting the children first and respecting my children's father. Regardless of divorce, my ex and I are still engaged in each other's lives as co-parents of two of the most amazing children I’ve ever known. I hope our actions fill them with love instead of worry.