Last week was LOD’s birthday, which was a little weird because he was traveling for work almost the entire week, including his actual birthday, and was only in town the night before his birthday. So I had the kids all week, except for the night before his birthday, when they were having a special birthday dinner.
The boys talked about making him something, but then the older one said there was something he wanted to give his dad, and the younger signed on to that, so we got it: a crock pot. (Apparently my crock pot efforts over the last year have been good enough for them to think their dad needed one, too.) It was a biggish kind of box, so they decided not to wrap it, but just to give it to him as is. We wrote some of our favorite recipes on file cards to give to him with the crock pot. I was feeling good that the kids were going to be able to give their dad what they wanted to give him and see him the next night when he was home for the birthday dinner.
And then my older son walked out from his room after he’d gone to bed and asked me, “Mom, will you make a birthday cake for Dad tomorrow since I can’t ’cause I’ll be at school all day?”
I would have been completely ok with going to Kroger and buying LOD a cake. But there’s something personal about making a cake. And LOD and I aren’t personal.
But my son wanted me to.
It just didn’t feel right. It seemed a little creepy, even, to make a birthday cake for an ex. Like something I wouldn’t tell anyone else about, because how could I explain it?
But what kind of jerk doesn’t let their kid give their father a birthday cake? So I said I would.
And then I remembered: LOD’s favorite cake is not a baked cake at all, but a Zebra Cake, which is concocted of Famous Chocolate Wafers, whipped cream, and time in the refrigerator to set. So I didn’t have to bake anything, and I only needed two ingredients, and as long I got it done first thing in the morning it would be done and ready by afternoon.
I’m not sure why putting together an icebox cake seemed ok where baking a cake seemed too far over a border. But the Zebra Cake resolved my internal conflict, and I put it together and even put it on my favorite platter (pristine turquoise melmac obtained at a garage sale, which somehow seems perfect for an icebox cake).
The kids were thrilled with the Zebra Cake. LOD was shocked, by the cake and the gift. I still think it was probably too a little too much closeness, but I’m glad the kids got to give their dad a cake and I decided not to be a jerk just because I was uncomfortable.
When Moxie and I split up, I was the one who moved out. (Eventually.) I can’t describe the heartbreak I felt as I packed up, nor can I ever forget it. As I was working through it, two specific pieces of advice sustained me:
- Make sure your kids know that even though you’re moving out, you’re not going anywhere.
- Tell your kids what’s going to happen, then make sure it happens. It’s the only way you’ll rebuild their trust.
As a result, over the years I’ve built a habit that started from an abiding neurosis. Every time I leave the kids, I say when I’ll see them again. I’d like to think I’m doing this on purpose, to show the boys that their parents have this planned out, that we’ve put together a semblance of structure amid the chaos. But the truth is, it’s become instinctive. It’s pure muscle memory, like reaching down for the toilet handle after I zip up.
Over the weekend, as I was driving the kids home from the 7-year-old’s soccer game, I was laying out the schedule for the next day or so. Mom’s coming by tomorrow morning to take you to church, then we’re all having lunch together, and I’ll pick you up for Scouts on Monday afternoon.
And out of nowhere, the 10-year-old said, “You know, Dad, we can still love you even if we don’t see you every day.”
I responded with something glib—like “That goes for me, too”—but I felt his words in my chest. I never doubted that the kids felt this way, but it had always been a tacit understanding. It surprised me how good it felt to hear it expressed so tangibly and simply.
We were silent in the car for a minute or two as I savored the moment. And when it inevitably dissolved into backseat squabbling over elbow room, I hardly noticed.
For maybe half a year now, LOD and I have been meeting every other week or so to talk about the kids’ schedules and any concerns or logistics of the kids. It started out as kind of tense meetings in which we’d debate which calendar format to use. Then we figured out that if we added coffee to the chat it got more friendly, and we didn’t get so territorial about calendars, so it turned into Get Coffee and Talk About the Kids. Now by the end of the summer we’ve settled into a bi-weekly-ish Get Coffee, Talk About The Kids, and Bitch About Construction All Over Ann Arbor session.
In the past it’s been all business (including the bitching about construction), but school started here last week and I think both of us were just so happy we each got the kids there on time and with their shoes on and with all the forms filled out on our respective days with the kids, and that our older one seems to be having a much better year so far even after only three days, so we were kind of unfocused when we had our meeting last Friday.
These were the highlights of our meeting:
- I introduced LOD to the manager of the coffee place (my local) and the manager seemed to be a bit confused about why ex-spouses were there together and not hostile to each other.
- LOD received an email Groupon for concealed carry lessons for handguns. This is funny for a lot of reasons.
- Somehow the topic of the Robin Byrd show came up. Robin Byrd is this freaky lady who does a show every night on public access TV in NYC during which she interviews strippers and porn stars and lets them promote their upcoming gigs and then shows pretaped stripteases. It’s hard to imagine until you’ve seen it. Anyway, it is never not going to be funny. Ever.
- We confirmed the kids’ school and soccer schedules.
- We exhaled about the kids’ new teachers.
- We bitched about construction.
Then we adjourned.
Dear Guy At The Bar Downtown Two Fridays Ago:
I am not going to be more attracted to you if you tell me how horrible your ex-wife is and how you hate sharing custody with her and how much you hate having to deal with her, five minutes after starting talking to me.
It doesn’t make me think anything about her. After all, I only have your side of things.
It does, however, make me think *you* might be horrible and that I might hate having to deal with you. If not now, then at some point.
All you needed to say was, “I have two kids. I share custody with their mom.” That’s enough to let me know you’re an involved dad and a decent person.
The Girl Who Told You Her Name Was Julie And That She Was Just In Town Visiting Friends
Me: “Bon Jovi!”
Him: “There’s way too much Bon Jovi on this station.”
Me: “There’s no such thing as too much Bon Jovi.”
This is how conversation on almost every topic goes with LOD. He and I are from different eras, different points of view. If one of us likes it, chances are the other thinks it’s stupid. But we really, really try to find some common ground. And that’s why we were in LOD’s car together with the kids, listening to satellite radio as we drove to Lansing to see the fireworks.
Ann Arbor, the super-duper-all-American small city we live in, does not have fireworks. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t. LOD had heard that there were fireworks in Lansing, the state capital, which is just a little over an hour away. So we decided to go, all together.
LOD drove in his new car with the fancy radio, and I navigated, since I’d been to East Lansing, which abuts Lansing. I was a little worried about the drive, because LOD and I are better when we don’t have to spend an hour plus making small talk. Ten-minute scheduling conversation, fine. 20-minute parent-teacher conference, aces. Five-minute “you’re busted” conversation with one of the kids, plus one. But all that time in the front seat of the car together (not to mention the ride back) and I was a little apprehensive.
But my fears were unfounded. We talked about 80s and 90s music with the kids the whole way there, found the fireworks area with an hour to spare, and decided to find someplace to eat. I navigated us to the restaurant I’d been to with a friend, and we ordered burgers and fries. And then realized we’d have to eat fast if we wanted to get back to where we could see the fireworks. And then we got caught in a traffic jam and thought we were going to miss it all. But in the end we got a great spot and got to see five separate fireworks shows.
Yes, five shows! Lansing is serious about its fireworks. Before the city fireworks there’s a private fireworks show at the Lansing Lugnuts baseball stadium. And then everyone turns around to watch the city fireworks, which last for 45 minutes. And a separate one a few miles away and below the city show. And while those are happening there was some other show a few miles away that we could see, too. And then we saw another one on our way out of town. It was the most explosively patriotic Independence Day night ever. See?
The people parked around us started leaving before the city fireworks were over, so by the time they were done we had no problems getting out, made it to the highway easily, and drove home with no traffic jams. The boys fell asleep in the back seat. LOD and I spent the return trip talking about Pat Benatar and the choreography to “Love is a Battlefield.” He dropped the kids and me off at my house and carried our sleeping younger son into his room and put him in bed.
As we were driving home LOD said, “I think that was worth the trip.” And it was.
One of the great things about these regular coffees that Magda and I recently started is that on the way home I get really fired up to write about something. And not in the tabloid, What-A-Bitch sort of way that our culture clambers for like dogs after bacon. In many cases, I come away struck by an epiphany that makes me want to pound the table and shout “THAT MAKES SO MUCH SENSE, MAN!”
We get together mostly to compare notes on the kids, figure out what needs to get done, and decide who’s gonna do it. In any childcare arrangement between parents, married or otherwise, our culture’s expectation is that “if it’s gonna get done, then Mom’s gonna do it.” That’s a lot of pressure for mothers to carry around, especially when a dad gets to be Father of the Year if he manages to remember his kid’s birthday, within a week or two.
For any 50-50 co-parenting plan to work, two things have to happen: 1) one parent–<cough> usually the dad </cough>—has to want to take an active role and pull 50% of the load, and 2) the other (usually the mom) has to be willing to cede that part of the load without feeling like she’s not living up to some unreachable and unreasonable expectation. It’s a bad enough non-starter when 1) doesn’t happen (and it doesn’t WAY too often), but 1) without 2) can conjure the same level of friction and resentment if one parent, for whatever reason, overclings to the majority of the responsibility.
And that’s a big part of what’s happening (or not happening) with us right now. If I step up and say I’ll take the kids to skating class, or sign them up for a day camp, or whatever, Magda will say, “Sure. Knock yourself out.” Because she’s decided not to buy into the “Mom or Bust” mentality, we can spend our precious energy figuring out the division of labor, and all we care about is whether it’s fair. It isn’t something we consciously set out to do, but it’s a symbiosis that has settled in as part of our routine. And it seems to be working.
Some of you have seen the NY Times article about moms who travel for work. I’ve been traveling for work since I went back to work fulltime in March of 2007. (In fact, the first interview I had when I started looking ended with them offering me the job and asking if I could get on a plane for my first day in five days.)
Reading that article made me realize how much easier things are for divorced co-parents who share custody.
We’re already set up for one parent to be doing it alone for three days (the situation LOD and I have). Sometimes when I’ve traveled for work (and now that LOD is traveling some for work) the kids forget that we’re going somewhere and are surprised when I reference having been on a plane. To them, it was just their normal three days with their dad.
It also means that we don’t have to scramble to keep in touch by phone or Skype. When the kids are with their dad, I usually don’t make contact. I feel like it’s his time with them, and I shouldn’t be intruding. If they want to contact me, I’m very happy to talk to them, but I don’t want to pull them out of their world with him. If I’m on a trip that fits into his normal time, I don’t contact them while I’m away. Just because I feel far from home doesn’t mean that they are.
I realize that for some women, the idea that their children’s father could be a responsible parent who keeps track of everything and that they don’t have to plan their kids’ lives in detail or manage from afar is bizarre. And, quite honestly, if I had started traveling when LOD and I were still together I would have felt like I needed to be running things even while I was gone. I think that our culture pushes women to be the Great and Powerful Oz (as my AskMoxie.org readers nicknamed that part of you that has a running track in your brain that lets you know when everyone’s supposed to get their teeth cleaned) and encourages men to earn money and play dumb around the kids (see: Huggies ad).
But here’s one great gift divorce has given me (and my kids): when he was given the chance to be the primary parent during his alone time with them, LOD absolutely rose to the task. He’s a zillion times better dad now than he was when we were an intact family. When they’re with him, I never worry about anything (unless I realize I have info that he doesn’t have because I forgot to give it to him).
FWIW, I’ve seen this a lot. Men who really weren’t on top of things with the kids when they were married rise to the challenge to become stellar parents. (Of course, I also see the opposite, that some dads just fade away and use a divorce as an excuse to do less and act helpless. I’d argue that that’s a matter of basic character, though.)
Think about how great it is for our kids to see moms and dads being equally good at parenting. And moms and dads both traveling for work and making it be OK for the kids.
I try not to be all “Eff Yeah, Divorce!!!” here, because I know a lot of readers are in the early, painful stages and it sounds too much like not acknowledging loss. But seriously? There are some massive, massive family dynamic benefits to a) being happy, b) being who you really are, and c) just pulling your share without the power imbalance and psychic debt load of being married.
(I’d also like to give an enormous thank you to my mother, aka Grandma Jellyspoon, who is taking the kids for three straight days in a few weeks when I have school for an entire weekend and LOD will be at a conference for work. I can’t even express the difference it’s made in our lives to have back-up.)