Many people think divorce is an easy process to undergo, forgetting that it leaves emotional scars on the children involved, writes Shirley Genga
Everyone dreams of that special day when they will marry their soul mate in front of family and friends, and then proceed to live happily ever after.
But what happens when the bubble bursts and a marriage cannot withstand the test of time? What happens to the children?
Rachael Njeri Njungu, 46, a businesswoman and director ofHumanity’s Promise — a non-governmental organisation — found herself in this predicament eleven years ago.
“I married my ex-husband back in 1988. We met in church. He was a pastor and I was actively involved in church. To many, it was a match made in heaven,” she recalls.
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The couple gave birth to two children: Rachael Kaingi, 23, and Steve Mwende, 21. But the reality that the marriage was crumbling and unable to hold up troubled her. Everything was not right on the inside.
In April 2000 Rachael walked away.
“I had been depressed and unhappy for a long time, but walking away was one of the hardest decisions I had to make. I left my marital home with two things; my children and determination, though without a cent as I was jobless,” she says.
Rachael, however, later found out that leaving her marriage was only half the battle.
“There was no one to advise me on how to handle the situation. Not many talked about divorce a decade ago, and even though I was open to my ex-husband seeing the children, I was stuck emotionally.
“I walked around with a lot of bitterness and anger towards my ex and it began trickling toward every part of my life, including my children’s,” she says.
“Finally it dawned on me that while I was bitter and angry, my ex had moved on and had even re-married. I was stuck and because of this my children were not able to reconnect with their father,” she continues.
Rachel called her ex-husband in 2003 and told him she had forgiven him.
“I let go of my past and only then was I able to move on. Even my children began enjoying the company of their father without feeling guilty,” she says.
The biggest lesson she learnt from her divorce was: “Parents should never ever make children choose or take sides or try to paint the other parent in bad light. Children are innocent and should never be made to feel like they were to blame.”
Rachael’s daughter Rachael Jnr says the period after her parent’s separation was difficult.
“I was forced to grow up fast. At the age of eleven I was aware that everything was not right with my parent’s marriage. A lot of times parents often think children do not understand what’s going on, but they do,” she says.
“After my parents got divorced, it affected me emotionally in many ways. It confused my sexuality. I was angry at men for a while and even went through a bisexual phase.”
At the same time, she also longed for affirmation from her father who was no longer around.
“I craved attention from the opposite sex. All a guy had to do was show a little interest in me and I was in. For a long time my self-esteem was low,” she says.
Rachael Jnr now believes, looking back at her life, that the role a father plays in his daughter’s life is critical.
“When a girl has a father who affirms her and lets her know that she is beautiful and worthy, then she does not have to go out to look for that affirmation elsewhere,” she continues.
Further, Rachael explains that a father is the first man a young girl falls in love with.
“A father shows his daughter how she is to be loved and how she is to be treated. A father is a girl’s first love. He teaches her to be safe in her femininity and how to receive love from a man. He is the one who sets standards for his little girl on how men should treat her and when he is not around, she is forced to figure it all out with too many tears, trials and error,” she continues.
Work in progress
What she is most grateful for is the way her mother handled the whole situation.
“From the very beginning, mum would tell us that no matter what, he was still our father. It was difficult for me to understand him; I was not able to form a relationship with dad until mum finally forgave him. It was almost as if her forgiveness was permission for me to give my father a chance,” she explains.
According to Rachael Jnr, her relationship with her father is still a work in progress, but they are at a good place.
“I now understand my dad and we are able to talk for hours. Our relationship is at a good place,” she finishes.
And while Rachael Jnr knew everything that was going on, Stephen claims his elder sister protected him from the murk.
“My sister kept everything from me. I guess she was trying to protect me. I only knew there was a problem when my mum took us to stay at our grandparents’ place, and later took us to a boarding school. I did not understand what was happening, but because dad was rarely there I never felt any loss at first,” says Stephen.
He claims it was only during his teen years that he felt the impact of his father’s absence.
“As I got older, the need to have a father around became stronger. I remember once during visiting day at my high school, I broke down and cried because I felt empty. I longed to have a relationship with my father. I needed someone to show me how to be a man and I am glad that mum let me spend time with dad,” he says.
He adds that it was not easy to reconnect with his father at first because he was angry, but now that he is older he is able to understand him.
“I now understand things better and I realise I never have to take sides. I am able to see my parents as individuals and to spend time with each on different levels,” Stephen finishes.
According to Naomi James a counselling psychologist at Oasis Africa, divorcing parties often do not realise that their children also get affected, sometimes even worse than the adults involved.
“A lot of parents will hide the truth from their children, never realising that they always know what is going on. Teenagers especially struggle with self identity, and separation confuses the whole process,” she explains.
Further, Naomi says that a lot of parents force children to take sides and this is never a good thing.
“Parents should keep their personal feelings aside during a separation or divorce, especially where the children are concerned. This helps to create an environment where children involved easily access either parent without feeling guilty.”
She explains that many children will often sympathies with their mothers and attempt to supress their need to have a relationship with their father, which is not advisable.
“I have had situations where one parent will bring a child for counselling simply because the child wants to see their father after a divorce. Others even get their children involved in hiding title deals and other property documents. This is not fair to the child because they should never be forced to pick sides,” advises Naomi.
She also recommends that separating parents should go for counselling especially where children are involved.
“Separation or divorce is not simply about engaging in legal process. So many factors should go into consideration. The couple should first decide if they are separating to work on differences through counselling; and even though they decide to divorce they should still go for counselling. Children involved should also go for counselling. When not handled properly, there is risk of depression or rebellion,” concludes Naomi.