This has been just a bizarrely transformative time for me, and I think for the whole family (and by “family” I mean my parents and kids, as well as Doug).
I graduated, and gave up my house thinking I’d land in a new one right away, and then I didn’t and it all kind of went to hell, with a bunch of fallen-through business plans and my parents spending most of their time 600 miles away taking care of my 98-year-old grandmother and a new schooling situation for our older son and then The Heart Attack. And trying to regain equilibrium after the heart attack, when everything we’d constructed so carefully to keep us in harmony had all fallen apart, and we were left with old hurts and feelings that are never going to be resolved.
The polar vortex didn’t help.
I didn’t notice at the time how depressed I was. I was functioning, and holding a lot of things together. I fell in love (fell hard) and then had my heart smashed into a soggy pulp. I drifted away from things that made me feel competent.
And in the midst of all of that, some flowers grew inside me and started poking their way to the surface:
A few weeks ago I offered to solve any problem (business or personal) for $250 in around 24 hours. I’m really good at it and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had.
And I’m starting a company with a mission so big it scares me. More on that later.
Some friends stepped in, in ways that have opened me up a lot. It makes me tear up a little.
And my children are thriving.
(And this is just what happened to me. I can’t tell my parents’ story or Doug’s story or my kids’ story. But they’ve all had big years, too.)
This co-parenting thing, we’re piecing it back together. I don’t know if it will ever be as seamless as it was before. You can insert your own “stronger at the broken places” aphorism here. I never know if aphorisms are true or not. This is hard.
But it’s still easier than it was being married to each other. So there’s a lot to be grateful for, every day. And as everything else improves, the co-parenting gets easier again.
Magda and I started this blog in August 2010, and within three days of our first post, we were profiled in The New York Times. During the interview, Lisa Belkin asked us if we had any idea how the blog would evolve, and how it might end. And Magda answered that our hope was for our situation to become so mundane as to make our readers flee out of pure boredom.
For the first two years after we moved to Ann Arbor, wonderful, peaceful, boredom reigned. She had her house, I had mine, the kids could go back and forth easily, and our flexible, work-at-home schedules made it easy to cover for each other when our 50/50 custody schedule was disrupted.
Then, predictably, the disruptions got hit by an overdose of gamma radiation and became Disruptions and LIFE SMASH!
In September, I had a heart attack while I was running on a treadmill at the gym. (They kept calling it a “widowmaker,” and I kept saying I WASN’T MARRIED.) I came home from the hospital after three days being trussed up like a marionette, and because I couldn’t drive until my body adjusted to its new pharmacological cavalcade, Magda moved in with me for two and half weeks. To have my Left Anterior Descending artery cave in was jarring, but it frankly paled in comparison to the sad fact that my only emergency contact was my ex-wife. The thing is, though, we didn’t even have to talk about it. When I came home, her stuff was already there. It never even occurred to us to handle it any other way, because the greater good was at stake.
Moving in was an even bigger deal than you might think, however, because Magda gave up her house last July, and since then she’s been living 45 minutes away in her childhood home. And her parents, on whom we often relied for childcare, spend most of their time out of town caring for a sick relative.
These last 10 months have relied on outside-the-box thinking. And since the boys are in school here, the best solution we could come up with—in order to save them a bitch of a morning commute—was for them to stay with me on school nights, and for Moxie to come here 2-3 times per week and get them to school, help with homework, make dinner, etc., in my house. During which time I usually do errands, or socialize, or pretend I’m not there.
It hasn’t been easy. One of the reasons she and I divorced is that we run our households very differently, and the differences have only diverged more dramatically after six years apart. Each of us has had to endure the other’s weird foibles (the ones that endeared me when we were married), at way-too-close range, a lot more than we ever bargained for.
But the only reason we’ve been able to tolerate this madness for as long as we have is that, back when things were placid and normal, we had the chance to re-invest in our relationship. And because, when Life hit the fan, our new roles as co-parents (and—dare I say it—friends?) were established enough to endure the impact.
You might be hearing more from us in this space for a while, as we strive to figure this out. Since our lives aren’t close to boring, this thing surely isn’t close to ending.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)