What Do You Hide From Your Kids?

“Did you ever get divorced?” 6-yo Kai recently asked my wife, as we three sat on the couch munching white-cheddar popcorn.
“No, that was Daddy. He was married once before.” Jodi glanced over at me, smiled and continued,”I’ve only been married to one person.”
My son turned his earnest gaze my way. “Who did you marry, Daddy?”
“Her name was Kim,” I told him. Kai grabbed a fistful of popcorn and asked no more questions. 

My divorce was a dark and sad chapter of my life, as it is for anyone. While I’m not eager to discuss it with my children, I certainly see no reason to mask any of it from them. If they ask, I’ll tell them whatever they want to know.

Yet, I know a couple with a nearly 30-yo son who have purposely kept from him the fact that the father was married once (no kids.) I can’t, for the life of me, understand their motivation. I find this a slap in the face to their son on several levels:

  1.  When that child learns the truth, and he will, I can only imagine his sense of betrayal. By lying to him (by omission) his whole life, his parents are teaching him to be deceitful. And, they add insult to injury by hiding from him something which, in our 50%-marriage-success-rate society, is regrettably commonplace. I can see holding back a past murder or child molestation … but a divorce? Instead of using this sad affair to teach their son that life is complex and we all make mistakes, they’ve chosen a ridiculous, head-in-the-sand approach predicated, I assume, on the naive notion that their son might lose respect for his father. The underlying message to the kid – you are pathetically weak and unable to deal with the facts of life. If I was that son, I’d be furious and deeply hurt.HappyBaby
  2. Kids are resilient. I was 4 when my folks split. Did I have issues? Sure. But those issues informed my creativity, my sensitivity and my worldview. My struggles, emotional and otherwise, are who I am, for better or worse, and I dealt (and deal) with them as best I can. I’m a wiser person for having been through the fire. Bottom line – I turned out alright.

The couple above have done their son no favors by trying to “protect” him from the “sins” of the father.

I have known the divorce-hiding couple for decades. I knew the man’s first wife. She was a nice enough lady. As I understand it, the marriage-killing issue was that she changed her mind on wanting kids. Ouch … that’s a tough one. Unresolvable, in this case. But, what a teachable moment for father and son. A chance, at the right moment, to sit by the sea with his boy and share some deep wisdom. Through his heartache, that dad could help his son understand that people change. That relationships are moving targets requiring rigorous effort. And that, sometimes, all our hard work still results in failure. Choosing instead to divert the narratives of their lives from their only child is futile, insulting and just plain dumb.

Darkness on the Edge of Town, acrylic on panel, 23"x20", 2002, Stuart Sheldon
Darkness on the Edge of Town, acrylic on panel, 23″x20″, 2002, Stuart Sheldon

Divorce is no joke. The shame and guilt I felt are unmatched to this day. But, it was what it was, a best effort that went awry. Two people not meant to be together. No shame in that, I now realize. Certainly nothing to conceal from the kids. In fact, my divorce made me a better husband today and thus, a better father.

It is hard enough to build bonds and trust with our kids. Especially, when they are older and think they know better than we do. One of these days, my kids will learn from my own mouth that I spent a night in jail, that I drove drunk, that I ran naked to the girls’ side of summer camp … and that I asked a nice person to marry me and then to unmarry me a mere two years later, because I was too weak to see that it was wrong before it started.

Instead of keeping our pasts from our children, let’s utilize our train-wrecks and missteps to help them avoid the same ones.

15 thoughts on “What Do You Hide From Your Kids?

  1. Yet another ball thrown and squarely hit way, way out of the ball park. You are my most favorite read. I look forward to the next time. Thank you.

  2. just read again and cried again, the power behind those words, the reflection inside, the love of your children….

  3. I plan to tell my first son about my divorce … But my second son must never know! (-;

    Nice one Stu! Resonates. We’re overdue for a long phone call. X

    1. I agree, NEVER tell your second son anything. And speak to him only in a thick British accent. Let’s aim to have that call this weekend or next week, matey!

  4. Maya and I were watching the political news and she asked me what ‘pro-life’ meant which led to a discussion about abortion and all that goes along with the decision. I told maya about my decision to terminate a pregnancy at age 19. If she asks the rights questions, I answer. I answer with the same detail and maturity level as to match the detail and maturity level of the question. She knows she can ask me ANYTHING and I will always…always…tell her the truth. To this day, the only lie I’ve ever told her is about the horse. She’s not really in a pasture in Oregon. :-(. But that one was too sad for even an adult. Sometimes I like to believe that lie because it makes me feel better.

    1. Wow, Debbie. What a sublime example of keeping it real with your daughter. I am sure she will be deeply grateful, consciously or sub-conciously. And don’t worry about the pony. Oregon is such a nice place;)

  5. Dang, Stuart, you nailed it again. this makes me think of something — of course it does. I was watching the Cosby show years ago. I was pretty addicted to that show, & I miss it, actually. Anyway – Cliff Huxtable is telling his son Theo about some shenanigans he had done when he was younger — something about wetting down a floor, putting on a big diaper-ish thing & doing a running-slide across the floor. Theo pulls the same stunt at school & gets in big-wahoola-trouble. Cliff gets called in for a conference with the principal. Tell you the truth, I don’t remember Cliff’s response — just my own. I think it’s like all things our kids see us do — it gives them permission to do the same, whether it be positive, negative, or just is.

    I’m extremely human – my daughters see me, warts & all, & I’m their role model. Divorcing their dad was horrible & the fallout was dreadful, however they know that if they’re ever in the wrong relationship, staying in it just for the other person is bullshit — to survive, you’ve got to take care of yourself. Making them proud of me is the most important thing in the world to me. It’s one of the reasons I put absolutely everything on the line writing my book, even when everyone thought I was crazy — especially them (& my banker). But, I’m a dreamer & I’ve taught them to swing for the fence, because doing that — well, that’s survival, too.

    glad we could have this talk.

    1. Martha,
      I’m 50+ pages into your book and feeling the pain of a bad marriage acutely thru your narrative. Life is too damn short. Clearly, we both understand that. And our kids will be far better off for it.

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