When parenting plans fail, rewrite the script


When parenting plans fail, rewrite the script

Divorces have a dark and horrible side, especially when children are involved. There is no magic formula to erase or numb a history of unhappiness and despondency, but a compromise is not impossible, writes FRANCOIS BOTHA.

  • 01 December 2023
  • People & Culture
  • 4 min to read
  • article 11 of 18
  • Francois Botha

RACHELTJIE throws the breakfast bowl against the wall with so much force that the dog bolts, whining, through the back door. The milky mixture slowly drips from the fridge into a pool of mess on the floor. An emotional display by a six-year-old. “I hate you. I hate all of you!" Racheltjie is hoarse and hysterical.

Right on cue, baby Donovan starts crying, heart-wrenching and persistent. Martha grabs her phone and calls Him, on speed dial. She holds the phone high, until He answers, so that He can HEAR. And He shouts back, audible through the chaos: “Yes, and if you can't cope, then fucking call! That's why I knew you're not worth a damn as a mother… you are and always have been useless!"

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Divorces have a sombre and ugly side, one that was never supposed to be part of the fantasy of a new chapter in the book of the estranged. Hurtful outbursts over a vet's bill, a leaking tap, a moment of unrestrained drunken sorrow. Wasn't there supposed to be an outsourcing clause regarding these dramas at the termination of the marriage?

With that comprehensive parenting plan. The Plan that was combed-through and reasoned during hours of legal negotiation. The roadmap according to which each would navigate a new life. It could never have been the intention of the Plan, despite its cost and hours of negotiation, to hear the little ones scream desperately and with so much pain over the loss of the former togetherness.

Surely, it wasn't the intention of the Plan to prescribe resolutions for the avoidance of tears of despair that would follow unforeseen cancellations of scheduled visits. Of grandparents intervening and “just trying to help". Of insults, demeaning behaviour and snide remarks that now hurt even more than before.

But it happens, and the outline of the Plan blurs in renewed attempts to  survive. And so, new divisions develop. Mistakes by the other parent are subtly or not-so-subtly highlighted and used. New alliances, accompanied by new love relationships, are negotiated. Bribery. Silences where the virtues of joint parenting should be sung. And Racheltjie and her crying little brother's resentment, dislike and sorrow are interpreted at will. It's he who did it to us. She never told you, did she?

My family mediation is taking on a slightly modified form these days. I am less concerned about the ongoing pruning, rewiring and finetuning of the Plan. Because when cold-blooded hostility, suspicion, treachery, unreliability, cowardice, a purposeful criminal agenda and a history of mental illness (the list is much longer, but these are a few favourites, usually presented with emotional emphasis) take centre stage, no Plan really helps.

It is of critical importance (especially from little Racheltjie's perspective) to write a new script. To find a new approach to the old conversations. And, for heaven's sake, to encourage a different, more refreshing wind to blow in from somewhere. Something to cool the predictable maelstrom of agonising conversations.

But open windows are rare. Defence mechanisms, self-protection and venom born in the misery of rejection keep most windows closed. It sometimes takes time, skill, wisdom and a bit of luck to find an opening. The discovery of this window of communication is unparalleled. In a recent divorce mediation, I witnessed in astonishment how reconciliation and a joint decision to provide assistance and support unfolded. Two people who couldn't even communicate on WhatsApp now sit together on the counselling couch in front of me, looking at each other, both in tears. Both longing for a new plan. And I learn that nothing is impossible. And also that it's about more than just Racheltjie and Donovan, and their “best interest".

That it's also about a pursuit of personal happiness and at least a better fate than the current one that nurtures stomach ulcers.

There is no magic formula to erase or numb a history of unhappiness and despair. But if you dig deep within yourself, you will find the faith and ability to change circumstances.

This optimism should be part of the family or divorce mediator's toolkit. My approach is that an almost naive optimism, grounded in the belief in goodness in all people, provides the best formula for rewriting the Plan. Therefore, I encourage parties (enthusiastically) to consider a new script, not only for Racheltjie and Donovan but for themselves. A new Plan that barely needs to be written on paper. One that accommodates unforeseen events, changes, adjustments, tolerance and intolerance. One that provides a deeper insight into someone else's misery.

For someone you once deeply cared about.

* Francois Botha is a family and divorce mediator accredited with the Family Mediators' Association of the Western Cape (Famac). E-mail relationstrategies@gmail.com

♦ VWB ♦

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