Alan Cohen said about guilt, that it is “punishing yourself before God doesn’t.” I’m not sure I even know who Alan Cohen is, but I saw this quote float by on my Facebook news feed and it got me thinking…
Many single parents I am friends with feel a huge amount of guilt over the pain their children feel because of the divorce/death/lack of a second parent which has forever altered their children’s lives. They went through a nasty divorce, or their spouse passed away… Their own feelings of grief and loss are complicated by the guilt and utter devastation they feel over their child’s loss. This is, of course, perfectly natural.
But Alan Cohen was right! God forgives! We punish ourselves sometimes far more than God will or would. St. Paul tells us in Hebrews, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” God gave us the sure-fire cure for our guilt- His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The practical, human side of us, however, asks, “So what about these feelings of guilt that I feel all the time?!” Well, the Church provides avenues for all manners of the loss of a spouse such that the remaining parent is ministered to and still in communion with the Church. The Church offers the comfort of the funeral service and memorials for the loss of a parent. When one receives an ecclesiastical divorce, there is forgiveness given for repentance (confession), and the Church welcomes the person back with open arms. In which case, remind yourself as often as you have to that God has forgiven you. It’s time for you to forgive you.
One of the unfortunate consequences of parents who feel guilt for their kids’ situation is that sometimes the kids are given far too much latitude where behavior is concerned. But loss is not an excuse for allowing poor behavior. “I don’t want to be hard on him, he’s just lost his father.” “She’s having such a difficult time coping with her mother leaving. I just can’t bear to tell her no.” This may make the parent feel better in the moment, but it is not responsible parenting. Allowing a child to misbehave and rebel out of personal guilt is not going to serve the child well in life. It is not going to help them cope. It is only going to complicate their problems. This does not mean that a certain amount of compassion and understanding are not in order. Of course they are. But temper that by asking yourself, “Would I have allowed him/her to do this before the divorce/before my spouse died?” If the answer is no, then the behavior is probably not acceptable.
The other thing I often hear my single parent friends say is, “My kids are going to be so screwed up. They’re going to end up divorced, just like me.” Not true! While there is a correlation between a person’s marriage and the marriage the grew up seeing (after all, we learn everything else through our parents’ modeling), this does not necessarily doom them to failure. In fact, it is just the opposite. This is a perfect opportunity to teach your kids about the grace and forgiveness of God. It is the perfect opportunity for them to see that where something went wrong (a divorce or the death of their parent), God provides comfort and healing. Talk to your kids about what happened in a way that they can understand, and which preserves the relationship between them and your former spouse. Discuss it as thoroughly and honestly as is possible and appropriate, and model new behaviors if you are not proud of the behaviors they witnessed before. Be a model of the Gospel, reflect Christ’s image to them, and challenge them to do the same.
A few additional thoughts about navigating what are certainly going to be rough waters: Ask your priest to help you talk to your children. He can help them understand what happened, how God forgives, and what is expected of them going forward.
You may have children young enough that you now have to consider daycare. Every parent feels some guilt at leaving their child in daycare to go off to work. But providing financially is one of your main responsibilities as a parent. So be willing to accept help for things like child care, especially so that you can take some time for self-care.
With that being said, be willing to accept help, but try to balance that to be sure that you don’t forgo your responsibilities as parent altogether. God gave your child to you to raise, not your parents, not your sibling, not your babysitter. It may be tempting to leave your child with mom more than you have to because you are tired, stressed out, and still working through all the emotions that came along with your new life as a single parent. Challenge yourself to schedule your self-care time (which should be an absolute priority) such that you are still getting adequate time with your child.
And on that note… Spending good quality time with your child is also a priority. As a single parent, your life is going to be busy. Quantity of time is not nearly as important as quality. Here’s an easy tip: an evening routine is important for them and can be helpful for you. Establish a strong nighttime routine that carves out some time for your children which is sacred, not to be given up in favor of an “important” phone call, email, or a work deadline. Find that sacred time for your child and be completely devoted to and attentive to them and only them. They will never forget that you made them a priority. The fact that you spent one or two hours every day giving them your complete attention will carry on in their memory for years.
Your children need help through this process. They need you to be able to make the hard decisions that are in their best interests with a clear heart and a clear head. If you are feeling guilt about what your kids have gone through, your motives could be clouded and you may be making bad decisions. Try to take plenty of time for self-care, attend to those feelings with your priest and/or a counselor, go to confession (even if it wasn’t your fault, I PROMISE it helps), and try to change what you tell yourself about the situation. Instead of rerunning the monologue of guilty self-talk, make a conscious effort to remind yourself that God forgives and provides. He knows how much you love your children and how hard you are trying for them. Give the guilt to Him and let Him carry it for you.