Learning how to parent together, after the marriage is over

By Samantha Shanley

In retrospect, my ex-husband and I were always at our best when we were apart.

Shortly after we began dating in Boston, I left for South America. We stayed in a long distance relationship, but even when we lived in the same city again, our best conversations were often over the phone, while he was away on business.

When we began having children, it was easiest to continue operating as we always had—together, but separately. Our first child was still a baby when we moved abroad to Germany. With me as the default, stay-at-home parent, our roles became even further divided, wrapped up, and stashed like cheese parcels wedged into a grocery tote.

At that time in our lives, and for many years afterwards, I was in charge at home, holding our life together with glitter paint and glue sticks, play-dough and after-dinner tarts made from fresh market pears. As evening waned and my energy ran low, my husband would come home from work and I would pass off our children—first our daughter and then our two sons. I held these tender moments of parenting out to him as a chalice, untarnished and full.

When our marriage ended, the question of particulars—who would do what and when for the kids—was set aside, temporarily. We were each stuck on the spin cycle, a state of confusion and turmoil that lasted for months, and our main responsibility was simple: to remember how to breathe.

We were the first family we knew of in our small town to go through a divorce. How was this supposed to happen? Did a family just break up and fall apart in pieces on the floor, a smattering of glass with no chance at repair?

In divorce, the dysfunctional patterns that led to your relationship’s demise while you were married will continue on as your annoying, unwanted chaperone. You will keep trying to fix things that cannot be repaired. You will keep looking for things in your partner that you were never able to find before. That’s human nature, of course—to continue repeating a pattern, even if you don’t like it, because it is easier than creating a new one.

The whole point of divorce, however, is to change.

When we both managed to surface from the first devastating phase of our divorce, the role structure that my ex-husband and I shared began to shift. The way I had seen it, when we were married, I had been in control of the house and family until he came home, at which point I handed him the reins. I had always felt flattened by this dynamic—trumped, my delicate work all but erased when he entered the fray. Post-divorce, I was still the parent charged with the most responsibility—my ex-husband worked full time, and that’s how it had always been—but out of necessity, when the kids were with their father, I had to give up control over things I had only ever accomplished alone.

The absurdity was that even though we were getting divorced, my ex-husband and I were going to have to learn to work together to coordinate parenting responsibilities more than we ever had during our marriage. This was, in practice, as difficult as it sounds, made even harder by our soured connection. Ultimately, the divorce had been my choice and that fact couldn’t help but shape a long and anguished road of co-parenting.

On the most basic level, it began to play out like this. At first, I would send my children to their father’s house with a meticulously packed tote bag. Inside was everything I thought they’d need for the night or the weekend: clothing, beloved blankets, stuffed animals, favorite Lego sets, a hair brush and detangler spray, and other childhood accoutrements. Sometimes, I would even reserve a museum pass for my ex-husband so that he’d have a planned activity with the kids.

“Have fun at Dad’s house!” I would say, as our children burst out my front door, down my walkway, and towards their father’s car.

I meant it of course—I wanted them to have fun—but there I was, wrapping up our old married pattern and carrying it into our new life. When it came to parenting, it had always felt like I did the work, and he reaped the joy. Now this dynamic filled me with a heightened despair, and not just because I was alone in my house. When my ex-husband dropped the children’s dirty laundry on my doorstep after having them for a four-day weekend, I realized that he, too, was perpetuating our old pattern.

I knew that something had to change and that it had to start with me. I began reserving the more whimsical parenting moments for myself instead of handing them off.

So it was that I welcomed my kids into my house after school, not with mandates about homework and piano practice, but with a game of Frisbee or whiffle ball with my older son. I stopped forcing myself to make any new, interesting recipes for dinner; instead, I planned for the standard mac and cheese, and spent the extra time and energy talking with my daughter, even if it was through the bathroom door. I read books to my preschooler in the afternoon, though he lay deflated on the couch. Bedtime, though, was still hard: it was then I remembered how different our lives had become. I skipped the songs I’d once sung to them—when I tried to use my voice I would begin to weep.

When their father took the kids for an evening, rather than wallow in the wide open space of loneliness, I began to figure out how to meet my own needs, with a new kind of freedom I never had during my marriage. I took a yoga class, started a new book, called a friend to come sit by the fire and talk. My ex-husband also began to make changes and figured out how to participate more proactively in our children’s lives, once I gave him the space to do so.

This kind of family structural rework, this maddening re-ritualization, takes a peculiar amount of emotional energy—there is a simultaneous extraction and piecing together, like building a structure made of glass, fastidiously, using an old bulldozer.

Nine months after their father and I separated, I noticed suddenly that I was singing to my children at bedtime again. I had stopped, I suppose, because it hurt too much to sing the same old songs when everything else had changed. When I began again, my voice was full, extending from a kernel of long-lost joy.

As I sang, I realized the grief and sadness I was trying to soothe out of them would mostly heal when they are older. Their father and I will still be apart, but we always will be linked together from afar by our family cord, strung with our three prized beads.

Samantha Shanley is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, and mother of three. As usual, she is plotting her next trip out of the Boston area and into the mountains of New England, where she alternates between seeking her next adrenaline rush and a quiet moment or two. Find her @simshanley or on her blog: http://simtasia.wordpress.com. 

This essay is part of our Motherwell original Divorce and Parenting series.