Alright, boys and girls. Touchy divorce/co-parenting post.
This one, actually, has been on my mind more than the one I posted day before yesterday, but it just hasn’t come together right. Hasn’t been the time. However, after several recent conversations with prospective divorcees, new divorcees, or “shit’s not getting any better, and it’s awful” divorcees about what I’ve figured out as far as being functionally divorced and co-parenting, I feel like the words for this one have finally put themselves in line.
Weird how that happens.
If you’re reading this waiting for or expecting me to get ugly about the father of my children, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Also, shame on you.
Whatever personal opinions I may have based on what transpired over the more-than-decade we’ve been involved are merely that- personal opinions based on my experience. I would love to give you drama mongers the benefit of conceding that the perpetuated atmosphere around divorce and divorced co-parenting in our society is adversarial, and the raw emotions that come from the breakage naturally get the best of us at times, which causes tea to get spilled. But here’s the thing: that kind of concession is what perpetuates the ugliness.
So you’re all about to get some tough love without the drama, and we’re all gonna act like grown folks with this list of Get Your Divorced Act Together.
- Stop enumerating all the ways your previous spouse was an asshole, along with expecting other people to share that opinion or die. So, I can definitely pinpoint some occasions wherein I feel like the father of my children might have been an asshole. I can also ‘fess up to the number of times I told him I thought he might be an asshole or otherwise considered to myself at length the ways I would like to indicate to him that he might be an asshole. Obviously, some hard feelings have historically existed- otherwise, we’d still be married. In truth, throughout our dating and married life (and even now), we had at least three or four good blow-ups a year, and it was the cycle of behaviors surrounding those that ultimately made things too toxic for either of us. But it wasn’t just him, guys. It wasn’t just him.
Simple logic would state that it takes two people to make a marriage. It also takes two people to fail one most of the time. His behavior led to a reaction in me, which would spur behavior that he could predict/manipulate/use as a jumping off point, which led to another behavior of his that inspired a reaction on my part that facilitated the first behavior. See how that happened? We were just wrong together. In my initial anger and some of the ire I feel in his direction years after the fact, I wanted to live in all the ways he had been wrong for me.
Ladies and Gentlemen- I was wrong for him, too.
I was not the one. Me, my personality, my way of doing things and seeing the world, my upbringing manifested in my daily life, my parenting style…all of it. Not the right fit for that guy. Square peg, round hole. And without someone becoming structurally different across the board, this was not a good plan. Could it have been fixed with intensive therapy? God’s Will be done; if that’s what The Plan was, I’m sure it would have been possible at the time. However, that was not a relevant or integral part of my story for…reasons.
So as I stated in the preface above, my experience shapes my opinion based on the personal interaction I had with the father of my children. Other people might have had other interactions, though. It’s my understanding that some people have a great time with him, have nothing but good things to say. Crap, his wife seems to think he’s the best possible mate on the planet, seeing that she married him and all. There are humans on this earth whose personal experiences with the man I might have considered an asshole lead them to believe he is not, actually, an asshole. Whose opinion is more valid?
It doesn’t matter! Because in signing divorce paperwork, you release that monkey from your daily circus.
In reliving all the things that made me feel the way I did about him, I was obligating myself to them. I was choosing to exist in them. But, again, that doesn’t mean that other people have to, so crusading to tarnish your previous spouse’s name not only leaves you beholden to that pain that made them your previous spouse- it also tramples the rights of other people to have their own opinions based on their own experiences. Nobody wins here. Do you really want to go down with that ship? Unless the father/mother of your children exhibits behaviors that are objectively detrimental to your shared children, their daily life behaviors and acquaintances are not applicable to you. Sit down.
- You are allowed to have any and all the feelings. However, you are required to manage your response to those feelings, and you must be accountable for your intentions. When I was served papers from the father of my children after our divorce had been finalized a year prior, I had a lot of feelings. As that court proceeding drug out, those feelings multiplied and gave birth to other feelings. As things disintegrated into communicating only through attorneys unless communication about the children was immediately required, I had enough feelings to mobilize my own personal militia. The interaction was not great, and I had all kinds of support for some of the questionable “responses” I would have liked to have had.
Right or wrong, I did act on some of the feelings I had at the time. When we tie up now, I still occasionally act on some of the feelings I have. Yet, it has been my personal experience that those reactions trigger responses in him (see #1 above) adverse to resolution. Go figure. Is it fair that I have to so carefully consider my actions?
Yes, it is, actually.
Because can he not say the same thing? My personal analysis of his personality and behaviors aside, he is still a human who was made by God with the rights to be…well, himself. So it is incumbent on us both, understanding who we are individually and who we are relationally, to react with a resolution in mind. At the end of the day, the only reason we have anything to do with each other is that we are the parents of three shared children. Whether we agree with each other personally or not doesn’t matter- we are now tied together by DNA jointly donated to three small humans dependent on us for survival. This means I have to give a little (or a lot, as it tends to feel at times), to work toward some end state that best benefits the kids.
It does require being “the bigger person” sometimes. It does require admitting that his idea or viewpoint is more conducive to resolution sometimes. It also does require that I carefully consider what battles I am actually going to have with him, because not every disagreement really needs to be a battle (read: not every difference in parenting is going to screw up the kids). If you go charging into battle or intentionally put yourself in opposition to the other parent, there will be collateral. You have to ask yourself if the price you’re willing to pay for your intentions is one your kids can afford, too.
- Their life after you is not necessarily second-rate to life with you and is not an appropriate topic for comparison. To start with, I don’t like people in my business and making judgments/comparisons about my decision-making. I share what I’m willing to share as honestly as I can, and it is what it is. Face value. Whether other people are as honest about things as I am is not my concern or place to comment on- I’m just gonna take it face value and move on. Why? Because I’m not living their life in their body under their circumstances, and vice versa. Unless it is directly impacting the basic fabric of my existence, I can live somewhere else.
That said, I’m of the opinion that I’m a good partner and a good mother, in general. As mercurial as I can be, I am particularly wired to be attuned to my relationships with others, the needs of that relationship and the person with whom I’m conducting that relationship, and the state of my peace. I like to think, in reference to my previous marriage, that I did well most of the time to make a desirable home life (and I recognize that the disappointment in the outcome is what drove most of my immediate negative emotions following the divorce) and have always been the best possible mother to our children. Despite this, my marriage did die; our home did divide; and the father of my children has seemed to find a better home situation with someone else.
I think the accepted “natural” response to this is to view his second wife as somehow inferior to me, more naive, or lacking the “special knowledge” I have of her husband. I am mildly ashamed of the comfort I took, following his remarriage, in some of the sentiments shared with me that agree with such a response. It comes from a place of self-importance that seems to drive coping at this stage of divorce. New Flash, though- If I had been better at it with him, why didn’t it work?
That’s right. It didn’t.
Whose “fault” that was doesn’t really matter. Whatever it was he needed to feel like his home life was optimal evidently wasn’t happening. I know that it wasn’t happening for me to feel that way either. Because we got divorced. And while that was my experience with him, it may not be hers (see, again, #1). And I should hope that it works out better this time, because if it goes the same way, it puts my children through another divorce, which was devastating enough the first time they had to live through it. However life happens between them over there, it is not part of my daily circus until it directly impacts the children, and I am only responsible for the way my interface with it on that grounds effects them (see #2).
- Do not give the stepparent shit unless they are a shitty stepparent. Soooo…I did this one wrong, right out of the gate. Well, before she was their stepmom, and then after she became their stepmom, it took a few months of begrudgingly getting my head out of my ass. I’ll go into detail about this one, simply because she deserves some recognition.
After we divorced, it was not long before the father of my children went public with his new relationship. Feeling replaced that quickly hurt, even though the love between us died long before we called it quits. I mean, I didn’t want him, but I didn’t think anyone else should, either. It took an embarrassing amount of time to realize that I needed to stop following his social media (and stalking hers…and unfriend his family/anyone else who was going to allow me to indulge my hurt feelings) because I just kept coming back for more hurt. I gave you my youth and three children, you jerk! How can you just move on from that with some blonde lady a few months later?
He and I had agreed that a certain amount of time had to elapse in a new relationship before that person was allowed to meet and be around the kids (we also had ground rules restricting that person from being alone or the lone adult entity in the house with the kids, driving a vehicle that contained the kids, etc., in addition to standard divorce decree restrictions of significant others prior to marriage), and when that time came and went, I’m not even gonna lie- I looked for reasons to extend it. The truth of the matter was that I was still grieving, still angry, still wounded. Mama bears are volatile on their own, as are wounded animals. A wounded mama bear? Come at me, bro.
There were other factors (like the details of the court proceeding) that made me less inclined to encourage this interaction between his significant other and my children, but what it came down to was that I felt threatened. These are my children. I nearly died delivering them. I bear scars (and tattoos) due to them. I dealt with the sleepness nights, documented first-everything, mended torn lovies they’ve had from infancy. I gently rearranged the house after their father left to make it a positive environment “for just us now,” while still allowing one frame of pictures of them with their dad in their room to help them cope with missing him. I skipped dinner to feed them properly when we had $2.07 to get us through six days. I curled up in a ball, weeping, on the floor after they went to bed because I could see them emotionally floundering. I put on a brave face for parent-teacher conferences pertaining to why their performance or behavior had changed, why they might be crying at school, and the changing nature of child care arrangements. I spent my breaks at work reading books and articles, consulting counselors, as to how to explain parts of this transition so that they could develop coping mechanisms and communication skills. I am their mother, and I bear all things to keep them afloat.
How could I accept that anyone would even attempt to perform any motherly duties in my stead for my children when I was so keenly aware of my suffering for their sake? How could I allow their father to replace our history with so little consequence? How could it be fair that they get to play happy family when I am clawing my way through hell?
Well, I didn’t do it gracefully. I was never overtly ugly to her, but I didn’t always make coordination easy or comment charitably. As she didn’t have any children, I wasn’t sorry about the learning curve, especially with kids like mine. I was hyper-sensitive and hyper-aware of any parenting that didn’t meet my standards or fall in line with the growth arch I set for the kids, and I was vigilant and thorough about correcting influences. I worked harder at my occupation to secure more “normal” work hours to maximize my time with the kids in order to offset the feeling that I was doing all the tough parenting, and they were having all the fun times at their dad’s.
And then they started calling her Mommy.
The first time it happened, I couldn’t breathe. I asked them to clarify about whom they were speaking. “You’re Mom. Our real dad is Dad. Stepmommy is Mommy. Bear is Bear.”
I cried for hours. Hours and hours. I didn’t “correct” them, and I knew immediately that I shouldn’t make them feel one way or another about what they decided to call her. This was their new normal. They’re little, and if that marriage does well, they will spend most of their life with her in it. This was how they were coping with it, creating something that feels like a standard family unit at their dad’s, and later at home with D and I. In their little heads, this is what made the most sense, and this was how they were comfortable.
How I felt about this doesn’t matter.
It still stings a little, and when I refer to her, I still call her Stepmommy. That’s more for me than anything else, but it doesn’t interrupt their emotional state or even cognitive awareness, so I allow myself that. In the meantime, I have had a good, hard look at what she does with and for them. Frankly, I don’t think their father deserves her, because she is that good. From school pickups and drop-offs to covering me when subbing or appointments run late to grabbing meds and groceries when the kids are quarantined with me in the house to just writing the check for the field trip form that came home without bothering to discuss the legal division of school and extracurricular fees…she’s there for them at school functions and baseball games after working at the hospital all night, stays up with them when they get sick during their dad’s visitation, and makes runs for forgotten blankets when they leave them at home and suddenly misses them. She takes it upon herself to contact me directly with questions about their diet, their discipline, or their homework assignments. She sends me pictures of them at times when they’re doing something cool I’m not there to see (she even framed their fall portrait for me as a Christmas gift).
She even makes jokes about her husband with me, at his expense.
When the father of my children and I don’t get along or aren’t communicating effectively, I can coordinate comfortably with her, and she will relay the necessaries. That takes a lot of strength and patience, on her part. So much of this situation has, really, and it’s been quite the undertaking of love. It can’t have been easy- I know from watching D go through it with my kids, as well as going through some of it with his kids. Choosing to love someone who has children from a previous relationship is signing yourself up for a lifetime of mandatory flexibility and patience (and trying not to bite your tongue off about the other parent of their children). In loving one person, you have to immediately figure out how to multiply that love times however many…but I digress.
My point here is that you cannot punish the current spouse of your former spouse for choosing to love them and being involved with your kids. Just because things didn’t go well for you (#1 and #2) doesn’t mean that it can’t and won’t for them (#3), and as long as that new stepparent loves your children enough to care for them well, you really don’t have an excuse to make their life hard.
My kids will always only have one mother. No one coming into or passing out of their life can change that. That being the case, I should not reject the opportunity for my children to receive even more love in their life by a good person who looks after them when I’m not present.
- Do not abuse your title of “parent” in order to exact “justice” on your previous spouse. The concept of folks using the kids to injure the other parent is not new, but it is despicable and occurs more sneakily than is often corrected. It’s not always as overt as literally keeping the kids from the other parent or going to court over and over to revoke parental rights. Sometimes it’s as subtle as creating a scheduling conflict or refusing to correspond in a timely manner to avoid scheduling conflicts. It might be taking the kids to a thing before the other parent can take them to the thing, even though it was previously mentioned how excited they were to take the kids to that thing.
Maybe it’s psychological warfare. Exerting your “firstness” and longstanding obligation as mother/father to the shared children to put pressure or throw shade on the new relationship. Implying that a failure to comply to a request may lead to the intentional mental manipulation of the children to see their mother/father in a negative light. Making every personal decision a game of “I love the kids more than you do.”
Man, quit being so freaking petty.
The thing about kids is that they will come to their own opinions based on their own experiences in reference to both parents (all the damn numbers). You are not raising programmable androids. You are guiding small humans as individual and unique as you are, as every other person on the planet. Adults make the mistake of seeing children as universal entities and then are completely shocked when they cease being children, becoming adults with views of their own (and possibly a little resentful of being discounted). Out of respect for your kids, stay focused on your own interaction with them and the state of the household you have with them, addressing the other parent and the other household only when it is objectively relevant. Helping them learn to process and respond to what happens in either place is appropriate, but trying to skew their psyches definitely isn’t.
While this is one I can’t say I have straight up, intentionally committed, it is one that has impacted my life through various sets of children. And through that impact, I have seen a look of sadness that outweighs any confusion a parent might have stirred up. Kids are created to instinctually love their parents, and messing with that because you, personally, are injured just makes you a jerk. It doesn’t create an ally. Au contraire, it tells your child that they cannot talk to you about what goes on or how they feel about the other parent, which punishes you more than it punishes the other parent at the cost of a relationship with your child.
And there you have it, friends. A comprehensive list of what we should be counseling each other in the wake of divorce, as realized in my own personal misadventures. While nursing hurts during a painful time is fair and human, we have got to stop using it as an excuse to create company for our misery. I hope this cuts down on the amount of time spent setting shit on fire in the funeral pyre of a lost marriage.
Because, believe me- the death of divorce is hard enough.