"I would never be able to do that," she says to me and shakes her head insistently. "There is no way I would give up my child for half the week. I cannot live without her. I would rather exist in my sexless, loveless marriage fueled by anger and resentment than give up my child. What kind of mother does that?!"
"Well, me, actually," I remind her. She doesn't realize she put her foot in her mouth and doesn't really care. She is all knowing and stands on a soapbox with a megaphone overcompensating for a terrified heart trapped in a cage of hopelessness. She exists on a diet of working overtime, Xanax, and wine. Drunk is her happy place. Her daughter is her best friend, companion, and confidante and she is only seven years old. The daughter mimics the mother in harassing the father on his laziness, on his drinking, on his unemployment. She has made a mockery out of marriage, yet she callously and judgmentally threw daggers at my life.
I left my husband when my son just turned three years old. He wasn't a bad man, just the wrong husband for me. Towards the end of our marriage, he said, "I'm happy to sleep in separate bedrooms the rest of our life." Leaving my husband was the hardest, yet best decision I ever made. I knew I had made a poor marriage choice, but I didn't feel like I deserved lifelong punishment without parole.
He wasn't the right husband for me, but he was the perfect father for my son and I didn't have any intention of punishing my son for my choices. I wanted to be fair and equitable, not spiteful or vindictive. We arranged a perfectly split co-parenting schedule. I had my son Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and I would bring him to school on Wednesday; his father picked him Wednesday afternoon and he would keep him, Thursday, Friday. We alternated Saturdays. Three and a half days down the middle. We alternate birthday years but both parents get to see him on the day. We split up holidays; he gets Memorial Day, I get Labor Day, he gets Father's Day and I get Mother's Day. We each get him on our birthdays.
During divorce mediation, splitting up the calendar was painful, a paper cut on every finger every time I flipped over a new month. Each month we divvied up, I felt guiltier and guiltier. What was I doing to our son? I was a person accountable for my actions; I understood I made this bed and yet instead of sleeping in it anymore, I flipped the whole thing over and said, "No more!" I was miserable for three years and finally taking steps towards creating the happiness which was vacant for so long.
Successful co-parenting requires a diligent and dedicated commitment from both parents. We both agreed to put the ever-present burning cauldron of anger, resentment, and disgust on the back-burner, because while we were ironing out the wrinkles of life, our kid was watching and listening closely. We took a divorce oath, which I hoped I'd be able to uphold better than my marriage vows: let's never put our son in the middle. I wasn't always successful and there were times my son blatantly said, "Can you just ask daddy directly?" These are the days I regret the most; where I put my feelings over his for a brief moment; made him feel like his heart is literally being ripped in two parts.
Being a co-parent doesn't mean I'm half a parent. It doesn't mean I love my son any less. Co-parenting turned out to be a solution for an unfortunate situation and it ultimately allowed me to flourish as a parent as it gave me a much-needed mental and physical break. When I was with my son I was 100% present, not pulled away by my phone, by an alternate life, by multitasking to fit everything in at once. When I was with him, I was more alert, more attentive, more focused on his needs. I'm not advocating divorce to get a break from your kids; a babysitter would be a much cheaper solution but this was a lifestyle where my son could continue to be nurtured and primarily cared for by his parents even though we no longer wanted to live together anymore.
Co-parenting isn't about taking something away from your kids (the notion of a "normal nuclear family") or crippling them with a lifetime of unresolved therapy. It's about putting your children first in a life restructured to accommodate everyone's needs. Coparenting is a key to unlocking the cage of many unhappy marriages.
No matter how angry we were at one another, we ALWAYS put our son first. We flexed our schedules to accommodate school events and always attended school functions together. We met with every teacher at the beginning of the school year and told her about our son's two homes, both 100% equal. We assured them he was very used to this arrangement and does not even remember a time before this. His school even had a "Banana Splits" program for divorced kids once every two weeks during lunch time. My son flourished in the arrangement, enjoying different benefits in both apartments; a dog at his house, central park at mine. We worked overtime to provide him with a comfortable life, flooded with attention and love.
The irony of co-parenting for me is I spent more quality one on one time with my son than any other mom I knew. Aside from the times, he was at school, my son was either with me or his father 100% of the time. HE'S NEVER HAD A BABYSITTER. Every weekend he and I were buddies on adventures around New York City. At least three days a week, we had dinner together - really together because I knew when he was with me, I needed to value every second. I didn't want to plug him into the TV to get a break; I had the break on the three nights he wasn't with me.
I was able to pack in so much personal healing and growth in those post-divorce early co-parenting days. I reclaimed control over my life as an adult without having to answer to a controlling husband. I thrived at my career (employee of the year, yay) and rediscovered what I enjoyed (rollerblading in central park and sitting on a fire escape listening to latin music blaring from the cars going across town) and most importantly, I slowly strengthened the muscles of my heart to find love again.
I was lucky to meet my current husband early after my split, but we progressed our relationship slowly, filtering his integration into my son's life slowly. We didn't move in together until four years later. Now he is blessed with TWO active, loving, and present fathers. Instead of coming out of the divorce scarred, my son came away with three parents who work overtime to make sure he would never find any reason to doubt our love.