Having your parents divorce is mind-bending, especially for an adult child. Your childhood memories may be challenged (was it all a facade?), family traditions are uprooted, and education or career plans may be threatened — all because your folks are calling it quits. During my 30-year divorce practice I’ve seen both the impact of parental divorce on adult children and the impact of adult children on their parents’ divorce process. After reading related questions and commentary from other moms on this site, I thought I’d offer a few ideas to ponder:
1. If you go with a parent to meet with an attorney, remember that the attorney-client confidentiality privilege is just between the client and attorney. Give your parent a chance to be alone with the attorney to cover sensitive topics. Yes, parents have secrets, too. Writing down questions beforehand and taking notes during the meeting will free up your parent to listen to, and form opinions about, the attorney.
2. If your parents are fighting in your presence, ask them to be civil when you are in the vicinity. You have no idea how often older clients report (and respect) adult children putting their foot down, and drawing boundaries, during their parents’ divorce.
3. Offer to help with time-consuming tasks, such as: culling through financial records, especially when it is time to estimate living expenses, both current and future. Sorting through records and running calculations is overwhelming to anyone of any age going through a divorce. And your help can be a welcomed relief for a parent who was not the marital bookkeeper.
4. If your parents are not capable of communicating with each other, consider the risks of acting as a messenger or an interpreter. There are times when they may need your help, but think twice before diving into their drama.
5. Don’t find yourself being a Super Sleuth. Spying on the other parent can backfire and is best left to investigation specialists. If testimony is needed later, you do not want to be the one on the witness stand describing your mother’s tryst escapade.
6. Try to understand your own agenda — fearing the loss of financial support or the disruption of life as you once knew it? Concerned about a parent’s financial or emotional dependency on you? Anger at the initiating parent? Remember that alliances can shift. For example: Daughter is mom’s confidante and echoes mom’s disdain toward dad for “dumping” the family. Later, daughter’s alliance shifts when she tires of mom’s continuing derisiveness toward dad.
7. Personal weaknesses and foibles are magnified during divorce. Taking sides is tempting, and sometimes appropriate. But “divorcing” a parent can put you in a difficult position if reconciliation occurs.
8. Help your parents design a new future. If your family home has to be sold, take photos, hold the memories, and adapt with an adventuresome spirit. In one case, my client faced the likelihood that she could not afford to keep the marital home — until she and her daughter had a creative moment. Mom ended up renting the home to her daughter and son-in-law and redecorating her ex-husband’s workshop and garage into a really cozy efficiency apartment — big enough to suit her needs and desires. The arrangement has worked beautifully for everyone concerned.
9. Telling grandchildren that Grandma and Grandpa are splitting can definitely be a challenge. So much depends on the age of the children, their degree of closeness to the grandparents, and how much acrimony is flying. I have been told by grandparent-clients that they struggled with this situation, but those very close to the grandchildren often wanted to be involved in the explanation and give reassurance that both grandparents would continue to adore them.
10. Involvement of adult children can be helpful to an attorney. In one case I met with my new client and her daughter. Mom had to leave the room for a few minutes, and the daughter whispered, “You know, my mother has been diagnosed with early stage dementia.” No, I did NOT know! People are always nervous and forgetful in our initial meeting. This was obviously a crucial piece of information.
The best gift a child can receive after a parental divorce is to see both parents thrive and bounce back from one of life’s most challenging upheavals. This applies to adult children as well.
JANICE GREEN practices family law in Austin,TX, is listed in Best Lawyers in America, is a Fellow in the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and her recently published book, Divorce After 50: Your Guide to the Unique Legal & Financial Challenges, includes a discussion about the roles adult children play in their parents’ divorce later in life.