”Mom, are most divorced people like you and Dad, or do they usually hate each other?”
My son Caden and I are driving to a movie, just the two of us. Somehow, the other five children in our blended family are otherwise occupied, and we’ve ended up alone on a rare mother-son date. We’re both delighted — Caden for the one-on-one attention and me for the opportunity to hear what’s weighing on his heart.
“I don’t know,” I say. “What do you think?”
“I think most divorced people hate each other.”
Caden keeps talking, cheerfully telling me about other kids in his middle school who act as their parents’ referees, message-relayers, and peacemakers. He tells me about adults fighting on phone calls, kids anxious about custody exchanges, and friends who worry they’re clinically depressed. He’s in the seventh grade.
“Why don’t you and Dad fight like that?”
I get this question often, though not from my children. Usually I get it from adults, looking for the magic reason my ex-husband Billy and I are friendly. Perhaps we had an easy divorce? No? There must be something unique about us, something that sets us apart from other divorced couples. The implication is that we are much too friendly to be a “real” divorced couple.
The truth is, there isn’t anything different about my and Billy’s circumstances. Our divorce was painful. We each hurt and blamed the other for our pain. We felt alone and rejected and as though we had failed life’s most important task — forming a family.
I tell Caden the truth. “Dad and I don’t fight because we decided early in our separation to make our divorce one wound.”
I can tell by the side-eye look he shoots me that he doesn’t understand, so I continue. Tween boys aren’t likely to ask additional probing questions, after all, and I want him to understand this.
“When we decided to end our marriage, we knew it would hurt the three of you. We knew it would be very hard for all of us. We also knew that we could hurt you once, and then each move on to finding our own happiness separately, or hurt you lots of times. Some parents hurt each other and their kids lots of times by staying together when their partnership doesn’t serve them anymore. Some parents keep hurting their families after they separate by fighting on every topic that comes up — time spent at each house, clothing, vacations.”
I continue, telling him for the first time that his dad and I didn’t speak for months after we separated. He doesn’t remember that. I tell him, briefly, about the arguments we had when he and his brother and sister had fallen asleep. I share that even then, his dad and I agreed on one thing: The divorce would be the only big, painful hurt we caused our children. We were united as a team on that goal, made in therapy, as our marriage dissolved. Even when we were on opposite ends of seemingly every spectrum, we agreed on that topic.
“Dad and I still sometimes disagree. We’re different people. You know better than anyone because you live with both of us. Our styles are different. We like to do different things. We discipline you differently. Dad interacts with Stephanie differently than I interact with Gabe. But we agree on the most important thing: you. We agree to co-parent because it is what’s best for you.”
“Dad and I love you too much to ever hate each other.”
I remind him that hating his dad would mean I hated half of his heart. Filling my head and heart with anger about Billy would cloud the happy memories I have of our marriage, and the beginning of my adventures in motherhood. Choosing hatred instead of love would color the start to my children’s story.
I’m human, of course. I don’t have only happy memories of our time together. I often disagree with my ex, even when I put the kids first and appear as a united team. I am confident he feels the same way. I can sometimes still catch the edge in his tone when he thinks I’m pushing too hard on something. Our history is messy, filled with hurt and anger. We’re divorced, after all. We chose not to continue hand-in-hand.
But we chose to co-parent. We chose, each of us independently and even when we seemingly couldn’t agree on the color of the sky, to keep working as a team. Even when it got messy and complicated and seemed impossible, we kept trying. We looked at the three people we love most and let that love unite us. Our team goal is the same as any other family’s: keeping our children safe and whole.
Billy and I didn’t fail at forming a family when we divorced. Our commitment to our parenting partnership and our children’s childhood means we are forever united. We chose the path that kept our children healthiest and happiest in the long run, and we chose it together. In that way, we are like so many parents who remain married. Our choice to co-parent peacefully binds us together.
Co-parenting peacefully may seem like a lofty goal. You may not be in that place today. Your partner may seem miles away. I understand; my ex and I weren’t always there. But co-parenting peacefully is possible. Even for the couples who hurt the most. Even for couples who are miles apart. Start small. Love your babies and start today.
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