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“You’re willing to die for them, but are you willing to live for them, too?”

June 6, 2013

The title of this post is taken from Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households after Divorce, a book written by our friends Deesha Philyaw and Mike Thomas. Deesha and Mike are co-creators of “Co-Parenting 101,” an extensive resource for couples, married or not, who are splitting up and trying to forge new lives as co-parents. We respect their work a lot, so when their publisher asked us to review their book, we jumped at the chance. (We received no compensation apart from advance galleys of the book.) 

What follows is a discussion Moxie and I had about the book over IM. Typos have been changed to protect the crap typists.

Doug:  Would you like to start?

Magda:  Sure. Can we establish some ground rules?

Doug:  Such as?

Magda:  Like, I get to go back and edit my spelling? You know I can’t type for crap.

Doug:  Of course. Why wouldn’t I want that?

Magda:  Cinéma vérité.

Doug:  There is no vérité in social media.

Magda:  True. OK, I’ll start by saying that I specifically avoided books about divorce and parenting after divorce while you and I were in the middle of it. I don’t know if you were reading a lot, but I felt like all the divorce books were all Doom and Gloom, basically saying our kids would be so damaged that they’d end up in the streets with no ability to connect to anyone. And the parenting books seemed so obvious and preachy.

Doug:  What about Uncoupling?

Magda:  Uncoupling was the only one I could read, because it was just a map of what was likely to happen, not any kind of prognosis or judgment. The rest just made me feel like I was wearing a big red F on my chest for “You’ve failed.”

Doug:  Given the rawness of the moment, that feeling was probably unavoidable. But I’m glad to say that Co-Parenting 101 makes a very successful, matter-of-fact effort not to make you feel that way. It starts off further into the narrative, after you’ve decided it’s over, and gets you thinking about how you’re going to make your life work under this New Normal.

Magda:  Exactly. There is no back-tracking and Monday-morning quarterbacking about why you’re co-parenting in the first place. It takes it as a given that you’re competent enough to know that splitting up was the right decision. Then it says, “How do we all move on in a way that’s good for the kids?” I LOVE that there’s no comparison of co-parented kids and together-parented kids, which is apples and oranges anyway.

Doug:  It’s a worthless comparison to make, anyway, when together-parented kids are no longer an option.

Magda:  Right. If you could have had a happy two-parent home you wouldn’t have gotten divorced in the first place. But anyway. The other thing I love about the book is that they address all kinds of situations and lay out the framework in detail. I feel like that’s got to be both a relief and a reality check for people about how their co-parenting situation compares to other people’s.

Doug:  It’s remarkably thorough, suggesting aspects of co-parenting that I hadn’t thought about. I did some reading while we were in the weeds, but this is the exact sort of straightforward resource that I wish existed when I spent my days scared shitless by predatory and self-interested divorce lawyers.

Magda:  It IS so straightforward, and kind of lays out the worst-case scenario and still lets you know that you have agency, even if you’re in that scenario. I mean, you and I have both heard some crazy, crazy shit. I feel like being as systematic as the book suggests and approaching it as problem-solving instead of win/lose would help anyone in any of those situations.

Doug:  And that’s a huge step, letting go of the emotions (guilt, betrayal, despair) that can and often do derail a divorce process and subsequent attempts to co-parent. Deesha and Mike know they’re not therapists, and they’re not going to tell you how to push through your fears. They do, however, emphasize heavily the need to do it. That’s what makes this book so valuable. In my case, my fears stemmed from ignorance. A little knowledge from credible, disinterested sources goes a long way toward peace of mind.

Magda:  From the first few sentences I was struck by how the tone of this book was just so encouraging. They assume you’re smart, that you want to do the best thing for your kid, and that if you can make things easier, you will. So they tell you ways to make it easier, no matter where you’re starting. It’s like a combination pep talk and reality check.

Doug:  And that’s a huge assumption, because you need to have navigated your Five Stages and found a way to start focusing your energy on your kids, a theme to which Deesha and Mike refer constantly. Divorcing can be really tough terrain, but keeping your eye on your kids’ well-being on the horizon helps ease the journey.

Magda:  You know that letter from a Texas judge that keeps going around Facebook that basically says, “You people are so stupid that you couldn’t keep your marriage together, so now I’m going to assume you’re too stupid to parent your kids”? This book is the antithesis of that. But it also just has dozens of tips, things I’d never thought about, for dealing with routine situations, painful situations, and special cases.

Doug:  That first part relates to the scariest part of the divorce for me: I was the most vulnerable I’d ever been, and the stakes of getting things right had never been so high. I needed a support system and the right legal counsel, and one of the first things Deesha and Mike recommend is to find the best help you can. You have the right to be represented the way you want, based on the type of divorce you and your STBX are pursuing. Divorces progress the most efficiently when both parties have retained their dignity.

Magda:  Yes. Even if one person is the one who “did something wrong” that person still has the right (and obligation, I think) to be an equal part of the divorce and to be an equal parent in every way.

Doug:  Well, that’s the Gordian knot of the whole process, isn’t it? You can’t co-parent well together unless you both want to. And although this book does devote a chapter to the most frustrating intractable situations, the tips and checklists will work best for you if you and your ex have already achieved some level of détente.

Magda:  But détenté is détenté. I think people think you have to be like Deesha and Michael (meaning, you essentially get along) to be able to co-parent. The book brings out that you don’t have to get along that well; you just have to be not actively trying to screw each other over.

Doug:  Which isn’t to say that any book could help two utterly incompatible exes find common ground. It’s incumbent on each person, independent of the other, to learn not “to take poison every day and wait for the other person to die.”

Magda:  It’s a book, not a magic bean. So, yeah. If you hate each other, the book won’t help.

Doug:  What did you think of that quiz in Chapter 4, and the three categories of co-parents they established? I imagine we’d end up somewhere on the “Business Partners” scale, with a star rising in the house of “Super Friends.” (Or something. I don’t know from horoscopes.)

Magda:  Ha! I thought the same thing. I mean, you and I have pretty specifically referred to ourselves as business partners in the last few years, but I think we’re getting to be friends now. Maybe not Super Friends, but we’d need our superhero costumes for that, anyway.

Doug:  Those three categories are pretty extreme. Better to use a five-point scale, for a little more nuance. If it’s good enough for NORAD, it could work here.

Magda:  What would the other two points be? “Pretend To Cooperate But Really Act In Your Own Best Interest” and “Uninterested In Kids, Anyway”?

Doug:  I’d make a place for “Parallel Parents,” who seem, to me at least, a step above “Oil and Water.”

Magda:  The book talks about Parallel Parents, but they didn’t rate for the quiz. I think it can be hard to recognize and accept if you’re parallel parenting. It’s not really a construct in the popular culture, you know? We’re either fighting like cats and dogs, or buddy-buddy.

Doug:  Which of course is nonsense. That’s another of this book’s prime assets—how it discusses many facets of the co-parenting spectrum. There’s no one way to do this, and as each ex-couple sets about making its decisions, it really helps to know about the myriad options that have worked for others. For example, the thought of Nesting never occurred to me while we were splitting. And even though I know it never ever ever EVER would have worked for us, it still would have helped me think more creatively.

Magda:  YES. (And also yes to no on nesting.) Have you talked to people whose minds are blown by our custody schedule? I feel like the book was full of all sorts of data points that were mind-blowing. I feel like if a couple agreed to negotiate everything based on this principles of this book and Getting To Yes, people would come up with arrangements that were better for everyone involved. And it would take less work to negotiate to those arrangements.

Doug:  If this book brings more work to therapists at the expense of divorce lawyers, I’m all for it.

Magda:  YES. That’s it. I think that’s the perfect ending to this review.

Doug:  So this is a special thank-you shout-out to Deesha and Mike, for writing a book that I hope will help make more divorces a little more cordial, a lot more informed, and a helluva lot less expensive.

Coffee or do not coffee–there is no try

February 14, 2013

A few days ago LOD and I were at one of our sort-of-bi-weekly coffees. It was our first coffee since turning in all of the essays and forms to apply to the middle schools we’re applying to, so we were both feeling kind of expansive, and LOD even ordered a flavored foofy coffee. We took two of the armchairs by the fake fireplace in the coffee shop and began the Airing of the Grievances.

One of the nice things about being divorced now for as long as we have been is that we can be very selective about the interactions we choose to have with each other. We just don’t have interactions that don’t have a reasonable chance of being successful. So the Airing of the Grievances is us against common enemies–construction, the Ann Arbor Water Utility’s impossible online “payment” system, how the intersection of foods our children will both eat is enshrinkening, the Michigan GOP, kids these days and their leggings and Uggs, etc.–and not us against each other.

We’d moved past our list of common enemies and were talking hard-core schedule stuff, when suddenly a lady in her 50s asked me if it was my bag in the chair net to me. I said yes, and moved it, and she sat down.

Right in the comfy chair making up the third seat in a cozy triad there by the fake fireplace.

There were six tables free, but she sat right next to us. LOD and I gave each other a “WTF??” look, and I briefly thought of pumping up the Divorced Parent Drama level to make her uncomfortable, but then I couldn’t even muster a topic to pretend to be mad about. It’s February–what’s going on bedside figuring out who needs to go buy the Yoda valentines from Walgreens and figuring out who’s where during the Presidents’ Day school break? There are plenty more contentious times of year. If we’d known in advance, we could have manufactured a fight. Instead she just got an earful of my plans to take our younger one to the Wade Center at Wheaton College to see the wardrobe that inspired C.S. Lewis to write the Narnia books.

I did notice that she kept glancing up over the top of her Nora Roberts book to look at us.

Denouement of the Valentine’s Day lottery: I had them the night before Valentine’s Day, so in theory I should have bought the Yoda valentines, but I asked both boys what they wanted to hand out, and both boys are boycotting valentines this year! Who wins? Everyone!

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! Tomorrow is half-price candy day.

Biting my nails

January 13, 2013

It’s my turn to write, and has been for a few weeks. I apologize.

In my defense, I’ve been working on my Flourish Through Divorce workshop (with special guest: LOD) and freaking out about turning 40 and finishing my previous semester and then starting my last semester of business school. And the kids were with LOD for 8 days over Christmas, so I didn’t have much to report.

But now, well, now we’re dealing with a kid who is in fifth grade at a K-5 school. Which means we need to find a middle school for him. And we’ve got a bunch of options, and have only successfully eliminated one. I have my favorite, but we don’t really know until we go through the process at all the (non-eliminated) options and then get in to a school. And part of the process for some of the schools includes writing essays.

You would think that writing admissions essays for middle school would be super-easy when both parents are writers. And I suppose it’s easier than it would be if we were afraid of writing essays. But LOD and I met when we were both teaching people to take tests and write essays to get into undergraduate and graduate programs. So we have two chefs and no workers. And we each want to write a certain way (and, as you know, we have massively different writing styles) and with a different tone and flow. So this has turned into a comedy of “you write these essays and I’ll edit, and I’ll write those essays and you edit.” And then we edit back to closer to our own writing styles, and go back and forth about what we really want to say.

It would all be silly and not worth spending time on, except that it’s my baby, and this decides the school he goes to for the next three years, while he’s going through puberty and figuring out who he is. So it feels high stakes. And I don’t want us to mess it up because his parents are playing King of the Castle with the essays.

So. We write, and we edit, and we submit, and we wait.

Some families are messed up, while others are fine

December 12, 2012

When you’re divorced, the holiday season can be a rough time. Your mailbox and whatever social media outlets you pay attention to are filled with news and images of picturesque homes decorated by happy, intact families who want to tell you all about how fabulous their lives are.

During the first couple of winters after my divorce, I became a Holiday Hermit. I didn’t open the Christmas cards and tuned out of Facebook, because all of that Holiday Cheer was just a grim reminder of what my Christmas was destined not to be. I was bitter and jealous enough to have earned a pair of Scrooge-ian muttonchops.

Eventually, it helped me to remember that much of that cheer was just a PR sham manufactured for our consumption, and many of those people were secretly as miserable as I was.

And eventually, as I re-discovered my happier self, I wasn’t even all that pissed off at the couples who still did love each other and whose houses looked like the December edition of Architectural Digest. If they were still happily together, they’d probably worked really hard at it and deserved whatever they had.

Even now that my holiday mood has returned mostly to normal, I still get occasional twinges of what could have been. It’s stupid and sentimental and pointless, I know. But I’ve lived long enough to know that a part of me will always indulge stupid, pointless sentimentality.

Last month, Moxie asked me to come over and take a picture of her and the boys for her Christmas card. I was happy to do it, and I got a great shot of them laughing and hugging on her front stoop. There’s been an unexpected development, though: When I look at it on my phone I can’t help but feel a small frisson of loss. I mean, we had a great (sort-of) family moment while they posed for the picture and I made dopey faces to make the kids laugh. But in the end, it’s a picture of the three of them, and even though I was right there, not two feet away, I’m not in it. I’m on the outside, separate from those three smiling faces. And that small, twinge-susceptible part of me that will never go away thought I should be on that side of the camera, with them, instead of alone over here.

The super-majority of me, however, is comforted by the fact that the joy in that picture is not a manufactured sham. We are genuinely getting happier, because we’ve worked really hard at it and deserve whatever we have.

Breaking the first rule

October 24, 2012

Last weekend, while I was in class all day Saturday (Supply Chain Management–woo-hoo!), LOD texted and asked me if he and the kids could watch the football game at my house (I get the channel it was on, and he doesn’t). I said it was fine. When I got home that night they were gone, but LOD had left two beers in my fridge as a thank-you.

I posted about that on Facebook, and so many of my friends said things like, “Wow, you guys have such a great (and weird) relationship!”

What I replied was that I think LOD and I are getting better at knowing what interactions we can have success with, and are trying to only have those interactions, and not others.

We used to fight about all sorts of stuff. Even when we didn’t realize we were fighting, we were fighting. Or at the very least competing. The fights were all the same. The competition was all the same. The fight was always, “You are a bad, inadequate person, and I don’t value what you have to offer.”

Now that we don’t have to be yoked together, and we’re essentially just co-workers working together to parent these kids (and to write this blog), it doesn’t matter who we are. And the things we have to offer the kids are things the other values. So it’s easier to have successful interactions most of the time.

Having said that, we still fight, because we both have hard heads. Some discussions (not actual fights) we’ve had lately have included:

  • whether or not I (Moxie) am a hypocrite because I am adamantly opposed to leggings as pants when I used to wear (in the late ’90s) tight black pants that LOD asserts were at least as revealing as leggings.
  • which college football team/conference is the equivalent of the NY Yankees in arrogance.
  • XM Radio stations: Backspin (me) vs. 1st Wave (LOD)
  • whether it’s advisable to cook beef in the crock pot with a can of Coke

Boring is really freeing. But there is one actual fight that we have that’s ongoing, and it’s caused us a lot of pain. It’s about having our younger son in the Boy Scouts. We are both very passionate about how we feel about the Boy Scouts, and I know it causes me a lot of pain and guilt and frustration to be in the middle of this fight. However, the two huge differences in how this fight feels vs. how fighting when we were married felt are that: a) we each get to go home and not keep having the fight constantly, and b) it feels like we’re getting somewhere. Slowly. But it feels like there’s motion. So stay tuned on the Boy Scouts issue, because it might turn out OK for us.

Anyway, yes. Successful interactions. I’ve noticed that for us, successful interactions seem to involve either beer or coffee. But Halloween’s coming up next week, so maybe we’ll be able to add Fun Size Snickers to that list. (And I’m going to let LOD tell you the story of Last Halloween and How We Were Both Left Speechless.)

There’s a whole helluva lot in a name

October 15, 2012

How we named this blog speaks a lot to why we get along as co-parents so much better than we do as spouses. As you can tell from her suggestions, Moxie prefers a very blunt, no-nonsense approach to things. This is why her site has been such a success, and why, when our 10-year-old asks what a clitoris is, she can describe it as impassively as if she were listing instructions for building an IKEA bookshelf.

My writing, conversely, is more narrative and painstakingly agonized over crafted. And yes, I like obscure cultural references. I like bands with names like BR 549 and Toad the Wet Sprocket. I like puns and turns of phrase and other yes-nonsense that she usually just shrugs off. This may shed light on why she remembers my suggestion as “Pooping in the Enameled Tub,” because if something I say doesn’t register immediately, she mentally files it under Crap.

My favorite name was actually “Dogs in the Bathtub,” which I thought of while we were estranged but still living together in our not-large Manhattan apartment. If you’ve ever washed a small, easily vexed dog, you know how they can tend to get agitated and leap out, but their claws’ complete lack of traction against the porcelain makes the whole effort futile. Imagine two in the same tub, threatened by each other and yapping at each other’s tails, running around in clumsy ovals and ultimately getting nowhere. That was us.

I like “When The Flames Go Up” very much (and not just because the band spends most of the video performing perilously close to the edge of a cliff). The song’s title and anthemic melody have always felt life-affirming. And as she said, I got it as soon as she suggested it.

That little spark of commonality is a nice allegory for the blog itself, a little stronghold in the ever-shrinking overlap of our personalities’ Venn diagram.

That’s the best chance we have to make this bathtub confinement as pleasant as possible, especially for the pups.


October 12, 2012

We realized the other day that we never talked about why we named this blog “When The Flames Go Up,” and that you might be interested in that. So here’s the story:

We decided to write a blog together with a lot of trepidation. We’d written into our separation agreement that neither of us was allowed to talk about the other in any public forum. Which was, in hindsight, a little paranoid, but there had been a rash of divorcing couples who had done things like post each others’ profiles online and make fun of them, and all kinds of stuff that was the online equivalent of taking a Louisville slugger to both headlights.

The problem, of course, is that I write an advice blog, and the whole focus of it is to give data points so people know a) they’re normal, and b) they could try something someone else has done and see if it works for them. So I’d been getting a lot of questions about things ranging from “How did you know?” to “How does your custody arrangement work?” to “Tell me our kids won’t be fucked up forever.” And not being able to give any of my own data points was killing me, because I felt like I was not being loyal to my readers when they needed me.

And it was beginning to feel like people thought something Really Bad had happened that we were hiding on purpose, and we didn’t want to have to keep assuring people that we weren’t trying to kill each other and they could still be friends with both of us.

So we decided to do the blog. And kind of circled around each other warily. We agreed that we’d alternate posts. And that we’d each show the other our posts before we posted them. (No absolute veto power, but we were trying to balance honesty with taking the high road.) And that if we got media requests we’d only do them together. And then we had to come up with a name.

It was all so predictable. I suggested things like “A Blog About Co-Parenting” and “It Could Suck More.” LOD suggested things like “Pooping In The Enameled Tub” and “An Obscure Reference No One Will Get.” We each rolled our eyes and thought about how glad we were not to be married to each other anymore and how in the hell was this blog going to work?

And then “Alive and Kicking” by Simple Minds rolled through my Pandora station. The whole song is about having it all and then having it all go away, and what do you do?

What you gonna do when things go wrong?
What you gonna do when it all cracks up?
What you gonna do when the love burns down?
What you gonna do when the flames go up?

And I realized that LOD and I were living the worst case scenario. We were married and we were a family, and then things went wrong. It all cracked up, and the love burned down.

And the blog was about what we were doing about that, living here in the worst-case scenario.

So I suggested “When The Flames Go Up” to LOD, and he got it immediately.

And that was the last time writing this blog was easy. But it’s worth it. Because who else gets to a) realize they’re living the worst-case scenario, and b) make something out of that that’s greater than the scenario suggests? I feel lucky in a lot of ways, but especially in being able to write about this together but separately. Thanks for reading.


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