Graduation day has finally arrived, and families are coming together to wish their young people well as they mark an important milestone in their lives. For some families, hopefully most families, graduation day brings pride, excitement, warmth, and togetherness. But for some divorced and reconfigured families, the expected togetherness of graduation shifts unresolved feelings into painful focus.
Certainly, there are couples that manage to divorce amicably and who are able to co-parent gracefully. (This article is not for you. You will lend the same grace to graduations that you have to other family gatherings.) It is when the divorce has been bitter and the issues that led to it continue to fester that family events are anxiety-laden for everyone involved.
Graduations often are the first occasions during which badly divorced moms and dads come together and have to be civil to each other. If one or the other has remarried and brings the new spouse along, it means that the un-partnered parent is confronted with that reality. If, as is often the case, one parent has sacrificed to make schooling possible, it can be infuriating to that parent and confusing to the child to have the other parent present to take some of the credit. As one of my young clients put it, “Why should I include my Dad in graduation pictures when it’s been my Mom who has made all this possible?”
Remember, This is Your Child’s Day
Even when everyone agrees to be on his or her best behavior, the prospect of a day fraught with underlying tensions is not an inviting one for the graduate. Often enough, the kids simply don’t want to deal with the complications. Some go so far as to think they should skip graduation to protect one of their parents from having to deal with the other.
Generally, this is a mistake. The child should not have to sacrifice an important life milestone to make parents more comfortable. The family’s public acknowledgment of pride in their offspring at the graduation ceremony is part of what makes such an event so significant and memorable. For the graduate, it is a recognition of their own accomplishments and a statement of intention. By standing in front of those who care, graduates demonstrate that they have completed a life-stage and affirm that they are moving on to the next one. The well wishes of friends and family help boost them over any anxiety and on to whatever they are going to do next.
It’s unrealistic to think that a couple that was not able to divorce well will be able to suddenly manage each other just because there is a celebration going on. But some careful planning can minimize the discord and put the attention where it belongs — on the young person who is marking an important transition. The best gift that parents in this situation can give to their children is to shield them from another go-around of the same old fight.