Why I Work So Hard To Stay Friends With My Ex

by Nina McCollum
Odua Images / Shutterstock

Our marriage was over a long time ago. I knew it, and he knew it. But he was raised Irish Catholic, and in his family, you stay together forever, even if it’s miserable and awful and you can’t stand each other and never talk. I wasn’t raised like that. My mom divorced my dad when I was in middle school. I didn’t know all the reasons then, but I was old enough to be able to tell he wasn’t a very good husband. It was shocking when Mom told me, but it also wasn’t that surprising.

I had an aunt who was divorced three times and an uncle who married seven times; the last one was the keeper and they were married until he was elderly and passed away. So I learned that sometimes you have to repeat it to get it right. Sometimes, like with my mom, once was enough. She never wanted to get married again or share space with anyone again, and she never has.

When my ex and I finally had our shit together enough to live separately and begin the process of separating our lives formally and legally, he was angry. He was mad I’d gotten into it if I ever intended to get out of it. But I didn’t intend to get out of it when I started it. I think almost nobody does. But when you see how the ugly is affecting your child, how they are watching the mistreatment play out, all wide-eyed and absorbing every lesson, it has to stop. It’s no longer about you. It’s for the kid’s future wife, how he will treat people, what’s acceptable. I don’t want him to think marriage is purgatory.

As all are, the process was rocky, but not as rocky as some. We only wanted what we came in with, even after 11 years. But there’s this wonderful kid—this little, elementary-aged boy—who was at first excited about the prospect of a second, new home, not understanding that was also an apartment, not a house with a yard, a big upstairs or a basement. And he just didn’t understand why we split up, and we did not give him reasons, only the party line that we had decided together this was best for our family. And that’s OK. One day he will understand.

I work hard not to say anything bad about my ex, not just to our son but publicly as well, in person or on social media. My struggles with him are my own and only shared with some very close friends when I need to vent privately. It is a struggle of course, parenting separately and alone on alternate weeks. The teacher has to send two printouts home of weekly reports from the classroom. We have to pay each other for half of this prescription or half of the cost of that field trip. You can’t just decide things; you have to check with the other first and get them to agree, which is fine.

Once we realized we would basically talk every day about our child and that this is the way things were going to be, I think we both relaxed into it a bit.

All that matters is the boy. This wonderful boy we went through so, so much to get into our lives. I had him via in-vitro fertilization; we tried for three years before that. I joke that it’s the best $15,000 I’ve ever spent, but truly, it is. He’s a miracle—crazy and loud and so good at reading, like I was, and complex and measured and introspective, like his dad. He is the best of us and sometimes the worst, but he is also his own person, new and different from both of us. A marvel. A wonder. A force of nature. A curiosity. I marvel at the tiny dark hairs starting on his legs, his lithe little body and how he attacks the playground like it’s a pro-gymnastics competition.

Because of our boy, we work together. Each day is a question of what we can do to make things the best for him. We don’t bad mouth each other around him. We try to stay out of one another’s business. We keep each other informed as best we can without oversharing. The balance shifts. We don’t always get it right. It’s a frustrating process and one we’ll always be working on while he is a minor, but we are both motivated by the awesome child we share. We tuck him in at night, both of us in our respective places, with love, carefully laundered sheets, just the right amount of light or heat or air conditioning, having fed and clothed him, worked on his homework with him, worked on his manners, danced and played and read books with him. We cannot give him two parents who live together, but we can give him all the love, guidance, friendship and education we can muster. We can give him parents who get along.

There are moments of the friendship, glimmers of the connection we once shared—that which was so important—long before our son was ever a presence. We exchange emails about local and national news and events, about TV shows we both still watch. But we are critical of each other, and too much sharing becomes prying, and we have to level the see-saw again. It’s a work in process, I guess.

In court, the judge commended us both on our composure and friendship, on the obvious way we had come together on a fair agreement to both parties in the best interest of our child above everything else. When we left the courtroom and had paid our fees, we went down in the elevator together. I broke down in tears at the sadness of it all, and he held me and told me it would be OK, and I was so grateful we could still have a moment like that, as friends and people who had once cared so deeply for each other that we had made this wonderful kid. He said, “You know me, I won’t be able to feel it until later,” and so I checked with him later, and he was OK eventually too, and we got through it.

Because that boy, those little knobby knees, the sandy brown hair, the furrowed brow, the hyper energy, the amazing laugh, the line-by-line recall of Looney Tunes cartoons, the Marine-level appetite for food, he is all that matters. And we once mattered to each other, and even though it’s not the same, what used to matter created that boy. So we work, all the time, every day, to overcome the differences, to find a way through the arguments, to seek what’s fair and flexible and right, for the child. Our miracle.

He will always be the best thing that ever happened to either one of us, and for that, there are no regrets.