When I got married at age 22, I made a promise of forever I was sure I could keep. Boy was I wrong. My husband and I separated after 15 years of marriage, and our divorce was a far cry from the “conscious uncoupling” of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin. (Oh Hollywood! If only it were that easy.) Because I was the one who initiated it and circumstances were messy, my husband felt deeply betrayed. And because hurt people hurt people, he directed a lot of venom at me. How could you? His eyes said to me the day I told him I was leaving. I’m pretty sure he kept that same expression on his face for the next three years. I don’t blame him.
Though it was painful, I knew splitting up was the right thing to do. I wasn’t ready to throw every part of our relationship away, however, as we shared two children and a decades-long friendship. During the breakup I clung to Paulo Coelho’s words from The Alchemist: “If you’re brave enough to say goodbye, life will reward you with a new hello.” I knew we had to say goodbye to the relationship we once had and find a way to make peace with the split. Only then would we be free to re-imagine a new relationship that was based not on our love for each other but on our love for our children. This was critical to the survival of our family.
The kids were in elementary school when we divorced, and selfishly, I wanted to keep them all to myself. But that was not in their best interest, so we agreed to shared custody. Like most mental health professionals these days, Dr. Jessica Troilo, a professor at West Virginia University, believes children need both parents, unless extenuating circumstances like substance abuse or mental health issues make that impossible.
It was clear my ex and I would have many years of co-parenting ahead of us, so I did everything in my power to nurture a healthy post-divorce relationship. Some days this felt impossible, and I hated him as much as he hated me. But staying focused on the prize—raising well-adjusted kids—helped me keep my wits about me when navigating those treacherous waters.
How did I do it? I listened to people who are way smarter than I am, that’s how. Aided by one skilled marriage and family therapist and a stack of books by Dr. Harriet Lerner, Louise Hay, and Dr. Wayne Dyer, I embraced some principles I was pretty sure would keep us from killing each other and ruining the kids. Turns out they were spot-on and have indeed kept our co-parenting years peaceful (though not perfect.)
Another mom on my daughter’s lacrosse team years ago commented how amazed she was that my ex and I always sat together at games. Though there were days I’m sure he didn’t want to be around me nor I him, we were always kind to each other (fake it ‘til you make it!) and enjoyed cheering for our favorite athlete together. And she, in turn, did not have to stress about whether mom and dad were getting along that day and could focus on enjoying her game.
One thing that kept my behavior in check was empathizing with my ex’s situation and understanding the source of his disdain for me. He was forced to accept a divorce he didn’t ask for, which took time. I put myself in his shoes when considering how to react to his sometimes-hurtful words and actions. That helped me avoid being petty or vindictive, which would previously have been my go-to. I am human, after all.
Shield kids from adult problems.
There were times, especially when we were negotiating finances, that I wanted to pinch my ex’s head off and I’m sure the feeling was mutual. But we saved our most heated discussions for the phone or private meetings, when little ears were nowhere near us.
A couple of summers ago, the kids traveled to Europe with their dad to visit his sister and her family. Because the weeks-long trip fell during my regularly scheduled custody time, I could have said no. But I always say yes to these kinds of requests, and their dad does the same. Our focus remains on what is best for them rather than what is convenient or equitable for us, because in the end, it’s not about us.
Present a united front.
Over the years we’ve faced both health and educational challenges with our kids. Whenever there are decisions to be made for them, we always attend appointments and meetings together. We coordinate talking points and questions ahead of time and debrief afterwards. No important decision has ever been made unilaterally in this family. In fact, anyone sitting in those meetings who did not know us might think we were still married because we function as a team.
View them as a partner.
I remarried a few years ago, and my wife is now my partner in life and parenting. Her support is invaluable to me and she loves the kids like they are her own. One thing is certain, though. She did not try to replace my ex as their other parent, because we both value his role in their lives. Dad has shared parenting duties from day one, changing diapers and doing late-night feedings. He has always been a hands-on father and that hasn’t changed as they have grown. As time has passed and wounds have healed, I’ve become thankful to have him to call whenever I feel stressed, confused, or otherwise stymied by the challenges of raising our children.
Avoid speaking badly about the other parent and their family.
My children love their dad, and he and his family will always be part of their lives. Disparaging dad’s side of the family puts our kids in a loyalty bind, where they feel they have to choose the love of one parent over another. What an impossible spot. The more people that love a child, the better off they are, and I try to remain thankful our kids have two sets of extended families (three now, including their bonus moms) to dote on them.
Whenever conflict arose with my baby daddy over the years, I would take a breath and ask myself this question: “Do I love my kids more than I hate him right now?” The answer was obvious and helped me get centered. As a mama bear, I love my kids more than life itself. But also, I remain mindful that they are not only my kids. There is another parent living across town who loves them just as much as I do and whose needs and wishes I must respect.
For our family, keeping this understanding in mind has made for a harmonious parenting partnership, producing two young adults who may not be perfect all the time but who know, without a doubt, how much all three of their parents adore them.