THE BLOG
05/31/2011 11:57 am ET | Updated Jul 31, 2011

Untying the Knot: A Divorced Couple's Perspective on Raising a Child, Part II

After comments and feedback we received from the first article, we realized that we used an imprecise choice of words to preview this article when we said that things didn't have to be so complicated. We know all the ways that divorce is inescapably so -- logistically and emotionally. What can be simplified, we believe, with some thought and effort, is how to think about our kids' needs. We've found two approaches that have worked reasonably well for us.

First, as simple as it sounds, we realized that we needed to think about things not from our own perspective, but from the perspective of our child. Children will see their new reality very differently than we will, especially if we give them the space to do so.

Second, we found it very helpful to establish a couple of key guiding principles that helped us simplify what were sometimes complicated decisions. We know it's highly unlikely that a divorcing couple will sit down one night, have a perfectly agreeable conversation about issues that any family would find challenging, and then merrily go about their business. We had -- and continue to have -- many stops and starts and disagreements about what is best for Lillian. But we have found that by doing some work together to decide on some parenting principles, we were able to avoid approaching each parenting decision as if it were a new decision. In doing so, we forestalled opportunities for repeated arguments and were less likely to be tripped up by nursing our resentments rather than focusing on Lillian's needs.

Seeing the world from a child's perspective -- kids tend to see things in pretty simple, concrete terms. Trying to see the world (particularly the small world we're creating for our child) in these ways has helped us get past our feelings of guilt or sadness about what her world isn't and to think in specific ways about how to make it as good as possible. That is not to say that those guilty feelings are banished. But using her lens to understand how she thinks about her life has given us clarity about how to meet her needs.

Anne's sister, who ran a preschool for several years, always felt sorry for children who talked about going to "Dad's house" or "Mom's house." "They never say 'I'm going to my house,'" she said; "They must feel that that no place is 'home' for them." For an adult this is an insurmountable, existential problem: Who among us feels truly at home? For a child, "what is home?" is a concrete question with a concrete answer. If you try, you can give your child a sense of home, even when they have to live in two different houses.

One day Jonathan asked Lillian, "What could I do that would make my house feel more like home to you?" She was about six years old, and she said, "Get an art table." When Greg asked Lillian, before he asked Anne to marry him (she was 10), "What can we do to make our getting married work for all three of us?", she said, "we could get a TV" and "we could get another cat." Jonathan bought the art table; when Anne and Greg got married, they got a TV but no second cat (Anne has allergies). The answers will change, and you may not be able to fulfill every wishful answer to your question (as we've said previously, all parents fall short in some way). But encourage your child to answer that question in concrete terms, and be thankful when he or she can. Now 13, Lillian has given us other advice: to make both houses as alike as possible -- parents usually think in terms of having consistent values and predictable rules (which may be important), but children are more down-to-earth. If the child takes piano lessons, both places should have a keyboard. We both have pets, because our daughter is crazy about animals. We are lucky that she has had a best friend at both houses.

Another way to make "home" real is to have rituals, special things you do, at each house. Since we established the routine that Lillian would spend Monday night, Tuesday night, Friday night and Saturday days with Jonathan, the two have been going out for breakfast on Saturday mornings. One day, when she was about six, Lillian thanked Jonathan for thinking of the whole idea of taking her to breakfast. She wanted to know how he came up with the idea, and he said he just thought it would be fun. She agreed that it was. No fancy explanation is necessary. The concept of "quality time" means nothing to a child; it's the reality of the moment that is important.

So much of what we adults think about family, marriage and divorce is in the abstract -- the desire to get married is often an abstract desire based as much on an idealization of the institution and the expectations of society; the fear of divorce can also be abstract, an abstract fear based on guilt, sadness and confusion about the ideal we thought we had entered into and created and which is now crumbling. But there are things you can do -- concrete, meaningful things -- that can help your family survive this event. We don't pretend that we all haven't been sad at times at the fact that we no longer live together: Lillian made clear when she was younger that she didn't like us being in two houses. But since we knew we had to be in two houses, we tried to our best to make each of them home for her.

Establishing guiding principles -- when we were splitting up, we both felt that Lillian's need for two involved parents was more important than any other consideration when deciding where to live.

Our geographical separation was gradual and never very great. On the one hand, we were lucky enough to be able to live near one another without fighting all the time, but on the other hand, this set-up was the result of constant decisions and sometimes difficult compromises on both of our parts. We separated in 2001, when Lillian was about to turn four. We lived in Maine, having moved there in 1999 for Jonathan's work. We both liked Maine, and it was closer to our extended families, but when that position ended in 2002, neither of us had a job there. We both had connections back in Chapel Hill, where we'd met and lived previously, and we could both imagine living and raising our child there. Jonathan was offered a job at UNC, and Anne had a good prospect for work. It wasn't perfect, but it was a good compromise. We decided to move to Chapel Hill.

Then, Jonathan was offered a better job in New York City, the city in which he had grown up and where he had many friends and family. He was literally driving his moving van to North Carolina when he got that phone call. In any relationship, such a decision would be difficult, but it is more difficult when you're not really planning a life together.

But when we thought about how we could both best parent Lillian, it was clear that the decision we'd made first was the best one: move to the small city of Chapel Hill, where we knew people, where finding good child care and extracurricular options is relatively easy, where housing and living in general are affordable, and where we would both easily find employment. In terms of his work, Jonathan "took one for the team," as it were. We were able to have these conversations without anger and resentment, and neither of us had another partner to consider. Still, it was significant that Jonathan gave up his strong desire to live in the city -- and a more fulfilling job -- for the family unit.

We've both been fortunate to be able to live in Chapel Hill and take better jobs after we returned there. Not everyone's circumstances will lend themselves to a stable two-household arrangement in the same town. And framing all of this in terms of the cold-blooded process of applying simple principles to decision-making sounds like something you might read in a business management manual. In divorce, as in all deeply intertwined interpersonal relationships, it's all much more complicated than that. But ultimately, what we really mean when we urge folks to try to identify a couple of first principles to use as guideposts is this: There are countless reasons to feel hurt, angry and resentful in the aftermath of divorce. And keeping those feelings from affecting your children takes real work and restraint. But identifying first principles is one way of making it easier on yourselves. If the principle is that you both want to be in your child's life on a daily basis, then giving up some things you might prefer doesn't become an excuse for resenting your ex and blaming them for everything about your life you don't like. Instead, it becomes an act of living out your values by prioritizing the things that matter most to you. And the more you can use those first principles, the easier it will be to make decisions that benefit your children and don't leave you feeling aggrieved for doing so.

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