How Do You Parent When You Are No Longer Partners?

by Susan Goldberg
Originally Published: 

Then, after the reality set in—after I watched their two faces, almost identical in profile, move in unison from innocence to confusion to shock to worry to grief—they had questions for us. Lots of questions. Where would they live? And with whom? Why were we splitting up? Where would the cats live? Who else knew? Could they get kittens at the new house, the one they’d live in halftime with their other mom, the one that they’d live in when they weren’t at this house with me?

Fortunately, we’d done our best to anticipate their questions and prepare answers. We wanted to give them as much information as we could so that they could feel as safe as possible in the midst of transition, so that they could see that we were still on the same page, still working as a team—just now a team with different parameters.

The question I wasn’t as prepared for, though, was, “How?” Or, as our 10-year-old, Rowan, put it, “How are you still going to both be our parents if you’re not partners?”

I couldn’t figure out what to say. Because we had to? Because we’d try hard and communicate and put their needs, the needs of this reconfigured family, above our own as individuals? Because we had schedules and smartphones? Because, even though the marriage itself had floundered, my soon-to-be ex and I had always been skilled at so many of the practicalities of what it meant to raise kids together? I didn’t know how to explain it, how to let him and his brother understand that, even though there were bound to be complications, we’d make it work—because we always had.

And that’s when I realized I had the answer all along: “It’ll be like how we are with Rob.”

Rob. Rob is…well, he’s many things. He is our sperm donor, the man whom Rachel and I flew across the country several times in order to procure genetic material. He is Rowan and his brother Isaac’s biological father; he is their third, part-time, parent. He has been in their lives since the three of us first conceived (pun intended) of a daring plan to have kids together: My partner and I would act as the primary parents, while Rob would be a sort of benevolent presence. His precise role, we figured, would be determined over time, as life and love dictated and as we all got to know each other.

In the end, Rob’s presence has proved solid and invaluable. He doesn’t live in the same city as us, but he manages to visit several times a year. He spends large chunks of school holidays and summers with us. He stayed with the boys when Rachel and I have taken vacations together. Last year, he took Rowan and Isaac across the country to visit his family. When he’s not in town, he sends postcards, communicates with the kids by phone and on FaceTime. He’s become much more than a benevolent presence; he’s also my kids’ dad.

With Rob, I realized, our kids have always known what it’s like to have a parent who doesn’t live with them. They’ve always had a parent who moves in and out of their day-to-day lives at regular intervals, stays in touch in between, gets up to speed and jumps right in. Because of Rob, I realized, our kids are used to the idea that their parents can be co-parents without being partners, that two or more people can parent together without being in love, and that they can still like and respect each other.

“It’ll be like it is with Rob” is what I said to Rowan, hoping to communicate all of the above into a single sentence.

And when I said it, my 10-year-old relaxed visibly. “Oh,” he said, his features softening. “Yeah.”

I won’t say that he immediately perked up, that it all of a sudden made everything absolutely okay. But at least now, his mothers’ separation had a context, a model, something he could understand and with which he was already familiar. If Rachel and I could co-parent with Rob without being partners and without living together, then maybe we could also co-parent with each other without being partners, without living together. Maybe things weren’t as scary or as dire as they seemed.

When I said it, part of me relaxed too. There are still about a thousand and one scary and difficult things about separating after spending nearly 20 years with someone. But in the face of legal agreements and mortgage calculations and scheduling and the division of furniture, there’s great comfort in knowing that I already know how to share parenting joys and duties and challenges with someone who isn’t a partner. After all, I’ve been doing it since before my children were born.

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