When I found out I was pregnant the first time, I bought and consumed all the baby books I could find. I obsessed over what foods I was eating, what music I listened to and whether I touched receipts that might contain toxic BPA. I wanted to do everything right.
Then one day you are handed a tiny baby in the hospital, and it behaves nothing like the babies in the books. It won't eat, it won't sleep, it cries all the time and you realise you're wading through uncharted territory. Because of course you are. Every individual, child or adult, is unique. All the books can do is give you a false sense of comfort as you enter this terrifying new stage.
I have shelves of parenting books I haven't touched since my first child was a toddler, even though I had two more children. I quickly found, as I am sure many of us do, that my previous experience was worth more than any book or class or article on the subject.
No one knows my children better than I do, and now that I have met them and spent several years learning their individual quirks and eccentricities I feel like the only book of parenting advice I need is the one I would write.
I am the expert on my children. Finally.
But what happens when suddenly you are thrust back into the unknown?
There are few things scarier to a parent than the idea of harming their children. Almost universally, parents want more for our children than we had. We want them to succeed, and for a short time we have the ultimate power over them. We keep them safe. We feed them, clothe and house them and teach them everything they know.
We take the safety bubble we tried to shroud ourselves in while pregnant and we wrap it around them like a blanket. But we know that at some point we will have to let go, to release our grip on the security blanket and trust that we've prepared them for all the complications of real life.
For many parents that transition is jarring and uncomfortable at best. For those of us who go through a divorce with young children, it comes far too quickly. We are not ready to let go. And suddenly we find ourselves staring again into the abyss of the unknown, desperate for guidance.
There are hundreds and thousands of books and articles on the best or healthiest ways to talk to children about divorce, including tips for transitioning them to a new home and common mistakes to avoid when introducing them to a new partner.
Every person in your life has an opinion, and each one thinks they are right. It is easy to fall back into that place of devouring every piece of advice like it is the cure to all your fears, your ticket out of the unknown. It is almost paralysing.
I've been there. I've read advice from psychologists about how best to tell my children their dad was moving out. I've listened to adults who were once the children of divorce about the things they wished had been different. I've seen examples to follow and horror stories to avoid. I've bent and sacrificed to do what I thought would impact them the least.
What I'm only now realising is, the problems that arise are never the ones you expect. Just like that first day in the hospital when the nurse hands you your first child, it is nothing like the books say it will be. Not all babies like being rocked. Not all babies breast-feed instinctively. Not all babies need to be burped.
And not all children respond the same way to major life changes. I found that the more I tried to micromanage the transition, the more I was confusing them. What was worse, I was losing touch with who they were as people. I started thinking of them as "children of divorce" instead of the complex, unique individuals they were. I was so busy focusing on making sure I was "getting it right" that I was not listening or attending to their actual growing and changing needs.
The truth is, there is no right way to get a divorce. There is no security blanket or safety bubble thick enough to shield children from the impact. They are going to notice. When I finally put down the advice books and went back to trusting the years of intimate experience that only I have with my children, I realised the comfort and control I thought the books were offering was for me, not the kids.
No book was going to protect or care for them. No article was going to tell me what to tell my 8-year-old when he asked why his dad moved out. Because no book or article or person on the outside of our life looking in truly understands what that means for him. Only I could do that.
It was all unknown. Divorce is scary. Starting over always feels intimidating. But instead of being afraid and looking for someone else to hold my hand through that darkness, I started thinking of it the same way I thought of parenting in the first place: It is just another adventure.
I still have no idea how to navigate my new role as a co-parent. I miss my children when they are with their dad, and I feel overwhelmed by the responsibility when they are with me. So I have taken the time I was spending reading books and listening to everyone else around me and I have refocused it my kids.
I may not know what they are going to need from day-to-day, but at least now when they do reach out to tell me, I will be paying attention.
Widdicks is a former cognitive psychologist, freelance writer and novelist.
The Washington Post