My parents divorced when I was three, so my memories of that period are fuzzy to say the least. I don't remember my mother telling me she was divorcing my father, nor the day he moved out.
In fact, my two earliest memories are both dreams. In one, my mother died, and I cried as I watched her body ascend to Heaven (while Chicago's "If You Leave Me Now" played!). In the other, my father tried to leave me outside my preschool. He had the ability to fly; I did not. While my knowledge of Freudian dream analysis is admittedly limited, it's pretty obvious I had some abandonment issues going on.
But you're not reading this for Freudian analysis. You want to know if and how I survived my parents' divorce, and how to navigate "the grey zone" of child custody — the period between separation and an official divorce ruling.
First, the good news: I did survive divorce. And 33 years after the fact, I'm a remarkably well-adjusted guy (and modest to boot). In fact, most of my friends are also children of divorce, and they're a damn fine bunch of people, too. So breathe a deep sigh of relief — your children aren't doomed!
In my case, custody was never an issue. My mother wanted full custody; my father didn't. So there was no tug-of-war, no ugly battle in court. The arrangement was set from the day my father moved out: I lived with Mom, and had visits with Dad on weekends.
Despite the early "fuzzy memories", I do distinctly recall some trauma. And it almost always related to consistency.
As a child, I had so little control over my life, so I craved the stability of habits and routines. Looking back, I wasn't much different than the child I have now (my pet parrot, Chicken). Chicken gets quite upset when I unexpectedly change my (and thus, his) daily routine. I was the same way. When my father cancelled a planned visit, I was heartbroken. This was "his day" — our day — and I felt abandoned. Because of this, I think the more parents can do to ensure consistency in visits, from the very beginning stages of a divorce, the easier it will be on the children.
When consistency didn't occur (when Dad missed a visit), my Mom covered for him. "Your Dad loves you so much," she'd say, "He's just very busy at his job." I believed it. I didn't know people didn't work on Sunday. My Mom was furious, of course, and once I was asleep or out of earshot, she'd give my Dad Hell over the phone. But it wasn't until I was well into my teens that I ever knew this. As angry as my Mom was, she protected me; she took the high road for my sake.
Some children aren't so lucky. I recall playing at the house of a friend whose parents were divorced. Not more than ten feet away from where we played Legos, my friend's mother was on the phone, screaming at her Ex about my friend. I don't remember what the issue was, but the subject was clearly my friend. I was so shocked to hear his Mother yelling at his Father about him. The message I took away was, "He's creating problems for the family". If that's how I felt, imagine how he felt. (Interestingly, the last thing I heard about him was that he was in prison. Really!)
I mentioned that custody wasn't an issue in my case — Mom wanted custody, Dad didn't. However, I never knew this until I was an adult. My parents were both careful to communicate a unified message: I was loved and wanted. I don't recall ever really questioning why I lived with Mom, and only had visits with Dad. It was just the way it was, and I was okay with it.
I know a few children of divorce whose parents seemed to view custody as something akin to "ownership". I'm lucky that my parents viewed it as an arrangement that allowed me to benefit from the love, wisdom, and unique talents of two people who just happen to inhabit separate homes.