* A couple of disclaimers before we get started:
I do not think that I am the best parent in the world – I screw up too.
When I post about my kids, ex, family, co-workers, etc., they ALWAYS read it first, and have approval or veto power. If you are reading it, they said its ok!
In my posts, I have not shied away from the fact that the father of my two boys and I divorced many years ago. I wrote a previous blog about what a good father he is. I mention my boys a lot. It has become increasingly clear to me over the years that our situation is not the norm, so I’m going to share some intimate details, not to brag, but in the hopes that I might be able to make some things a little (or a lot) better for some children.
About a year after our divorce, I was at my oldest sons’ basketball game. I was with the new man in my life, both of my parents, our youngest son, my ex-husband, and his brother. We were all sitting together on the bleachers in two or three rows behind each other, knees touching backs. A parent of another student, whom I had known for several years, gave me a look that freaked me out. It was somewhere between a silent scream and a stink eye. She left the bleachers and walked out of the gym. I was beside myself – what did I do to her? She looked like she wanted to punch me! I followed her out and said, “Are you ok? Are we ok? You look really mad at me, and I have no idea why.” A tear rolled down her cheek, and she said, “I’m so sorry. Of course I’m not mad at you. I’m just so jealous! My ex and I hate each other. We fight constantly, we’re always in court, and it’s a nightmare. It just makes me feel bad when I see all of you getting along like that. How do you do that???” This was one of my first indications that Gordon (the ex) and I were doing something right, something that other people wished that they could do. Over the years, our situation has been commented on by so many people at so many different venues, I feel almost obligated to share.
When Gordon and I decided that divorce was our next move, there was no screaming, yelling or slamming of doors. It had been a long time in coming, we both knew it, and we both accepted it. When the subject came up, I poured us each a rum and coke, and we took them to the deck so that the boys could not hear us. An hour later, we had agreed on custody, divided all of our money, divided all of our bills, and divided all of our property. We decided that our inability to get along and work things out was our problem, and certainly not the boys’. We decided that if we were going to divorce and turn their little worlds upside down, that we would do it like you rip off a Band-Aid. Quick, with a little pain, not causing a long-term bleeding wound. We made every decision about the boys based on their happiness and well-being, and we made every financial decision based on reality: who made the most money, who could afford the house payment, etc. In the end, we realized that we both made approximately the same amount of money, and we wanted 50/50 shared custody, so child support was a non-issue. He would take care of expenses at his house during his week, I would take care of expenses at my house during my week, and mutual expenses (medical, dental, etc.) would be split equally between us. That’s too easy and reasonable you say? I swear to God it’s the truth.
We made an appointment with a divorce attorney who was our friend. Long story short, he told us that he was required by law to inform us that it would be in each of our best interests to have separate attorneys so that we could be assured that we both got the best “deal.” We informed him that we had already worked out all of the details, and merely needed it put into a legal document. He shook his head, told us that there was no law against it, but that it was hardly ever done. Our response was, “Well, why be normal?” The only thing that he questioned us about was our decision to share custody 50/50, one week with dad, one with mom. He told us that we should be prepared to amend that at some point, because in his experience, kids got tired of packing a suitcase and going back and forth. *Keep this in mind, I’m coming back to it later.
Because Gordon and I were not fighting about money, property, custody, or child support, we were able to focus exclusively on helping the boys work through this life change. We were able to have important discussions about how this was going to work. As we were discussing the one week on/one week off situation, I had asked about swapping the boys out on Sunday nights like most of the people we knew did. Gordon said that he had been thinking about that, and did I mind if he made a different suggestion? Well of course I didn’t – what did he have in mind? Gordon stated that he thought it would be best if we exchanged the kids on Friday evenings, after school. He said that he couldn’t understand why parents would want to get their kids Sunday night, after they have maybe had a hectic weekend and were tired, when you just had to tackle the “back to the routine” the next morning. As we talked, I began to see the logic. I’m mom, I get my kids at 7:00 PM Sunday night. I’m responsible for getting them up in the morning, and getting them to school with all of their homework done, all of their permission slips signed, and lunch money. And I have them for two hours before they go to bed. What if I open the backpacks and realize that homework isn’t done? What if I find a notice sent home on Friday that a kid needs a dozen cupcakes for Monday? No wonder some parents always look like an uncaring failure – they are kind of set up to look that way, aren’t they? Gordon and I didn’t have any concerns that the other parent would intentionally send a kid back Sunday night after two sleepless nights and a gallon of Mountain Dew, but still…..
We agreed to the Friday night exchange, and found it to work wonderfully. The “fresh” parent got to start off “their week” with relaxation and fun, and then tackled the work/school week. The “fresh” parent had two days to go through the backpack, get homework done, etc. I recommend this to everybody.
Gordon and I also agreed that our “weeks” were not rigid. Although we had a schedule, it was clear from the beginning that job requirements, holidays and illnesses would require flexibility. We also agreed that a week might be too long for the kids to not see one parent, so it was immediately established that any child suffering from “home sickness” for the other home was not just allowed, but was encouraged to call the other parent. The “other” parent was permitted, at any time, to ask to take the kids to dinner or ice cream during their non-custodial week, provided that they weren’t interfering with a previously scheduled activity. Ergo, many times over the years, my youngest would call me from dad’s house, missing me, and I would go get him and spend an hour or two with him until he felt back to normal. In this way, Gordon and I established firmly that both parents were equally important, and the children did not have to choose. They had equal access, at any time, to both parents. I believe with all of my heart that this arrangement reduced their stress levels and anxiety. If they needed daddy, they called daddy. And yes, when the kids were small, Gordon and I referred to each other as mommy and daddy, because that is what the kids called us. Speaking of each other as “your mother,” “your father” would have been disrespectful.
We also decided immediately that what the kids had, as far as clothes, shoes, toys, books, stuffed animals, games and electronics were concerned, belonged to the kids. It did not matter who had paid for them or gifted the item, the item belonged to the kid. Therefore, the children were permitted to take ANYTHING from one house to the other, at will. By agreeing to this, not once in all of these years did Gordon and I put the children in a position of not having something that they wanted/needed because it was at the other home. In fact, many times one of our kids would get to the “other” house, realize that they forgot something, and a quick phone call resulted in the item being picked up/dropped off within an hour. No sweat, because there was no reason to make a five year old cry over a missing stuffed animal.
While this won’t “work” for many families, I think this is a nice example of how we have worked things out over the years. Gordon is a High School teacher. He has always had to be at his school BEFORE the school bus came for the boys. For five years, he brought the kids to my house for me to put them on the bus, and for five years I got home from work before the bus came, and Gordon came and picked the kids up at my house on “his weeks.” If you think that through, you’ll realize that even with 50/50 custody, I got to see my boys 12 out of 14 days during the school year, at least for a few minutes in the morning before school, and for about 30 minutes after school. How lovely for me, and how nice for Gordon that he didn’t have to hire someone for bus duty.
Now, before you start thinking, “Well, how special for you Pollyanna!” let me make some things perfectly clear. Gordon and I have dropped the ball and argued. On one memorable occasion, Gordon brought the boys over for the morning bus, he said something that I took offense to, and we were off and running. I said something hurtful, and told him that from now on, he could just stay in the car and not walk the boys in. He left nearly in tears, and the minute I slammed the door on him, I realized that I had just violated over a year of peace and all of my promises to my kids. I walked into the living room to find both boys huddled together on the couch, heads down, trying not to cry. I could’ve smacked myself. I got in between them, held them close, told them that I was sorry, and that I would fix this. I told them that instead of taking the bus, I would take them to school (giving us an extra 15 minutes to regroup), and that I was going to the computer to send their dad an email apologizing and telling him that of course he could walk the boys in, and that nothing had changed. I sent that email, got the boys to smile, and took the kids to school. All four of us had just had a crappy morning, and it was totally the adults fault. When I got to work, there was an email from Gordon – it had passed mine in internet world – literally written at the same time as mine- saying that he was very sorry, and that he would respect my wishes about not coming to the door, but that he thought it was better for the kids if we could get past this. Needless to say, that afternoon Gordon came to the door, as usual, to get the kids, and we apologized in person. The kids got to see that even if dad and mom had a disagreement, they were willing to let it go in order to keep things solid and sane for them.
You also might be thinking that Gordon and I are so similar, that it must be easy to work this stuff out. Ummmm, no. There is a reason that we are divorced. We have so many differences that people used to ask how we ever got together in the first place! Just off the top of my head, here are some of our differences:
One of us smokes, the other doesn’t.
One household drinks more alcohol than the other.
One household takes the kids to church while the other doesn’t.
One household is into sports, the other, not so much.
One house is typically cleaner and more organized than the other.
One house has more money than the other.
One house likes to travel, while the other house is more homebody status.
One house makes the kids do a lot of the housekeeping, the other does not.
The list goes on and on. However, rather than Gordon and I thinking that these differences are “bad” things, we choose to think that the boys are being shown two different lifestyles, and that both teach them different things. As adults, they can choose their own priorities.
In truth, Gordon and I have decided to not “keep score,” over anything negative. We don’t keep track of days/weeks, and we don’t show each other receipts. If anything, we “keep score” over the positives. We remember the favors that we have granted each other, the times when one wanted the kids for the weekend to go to Cedar Pointe, but the other wanted them for a family reunion, so family reunion it is, since an amusement park is open every weekend. We remember that the last time a kid had strep throat, the other parent volunteered to take a day off of work to care for the kid, even though it wasn’t “their week.”
All of this boils down to CHOOSING to put the kids first – ensuring that their lives are as happy and uncomplicated as possible. It is now seven years later. The kids are 17 and 12 – young men. They are nice, polite, respectful, hardworking, award-winning guys. While part of that may very well be the personalities that they were born with, I would also like to think that part of their success is related to having two parents that they know love them equally, two parents who would drop anything to go them.
Dr. Phil McGraw (Dr. Phil on TV) just put up a meme on his website that puts it beautifully. It is a picture of two kids walking down a road, holding hands. It says, “2 Rules about Children – 1. Do not ask them to deal with adult issues. 2. Do not burden them with situations they cannot control.” Amen. Kids only get to be kids for a very short period of time, and asking them to choose between the two people they love the most is so very unfair to a little heart.
So, you remember I said towards the beginning of this post that our lawyer told us that eventually our kids would not want to go back and forth between two houses? Keeping that in mind, I sat the boys down every six months (after school ended in June and around Christmas) and reminded them that our current custody agreement could be changed if they so desired. For five years, ten discussions yielded a desire from both boys to continue the week to week joint custody. They never wanted to change it. In year six, I moved to Ohio, and the oldest stayed with Gordon while the youngest came with me. In year seven, the youngest returned to his dad for the school year, giving him primary custody of both kids, and I began writing a child support check. I get the boys on weekends, holidays, and for as long they want over the summer, and we talk on the phone or text daily. It’s not always easy for me being an empty nester, but these changes have been in the boys best interests as far as friends, school and consistency are concerned, and we make it work.
A study came out in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in April, 2015, that indicates very clearly that children of divorced parents who share custody have fewer emotional and behavioral problems, report less stress and anxiety, and typically do better in school than children who live with one parent solely, or who see one parent only on the occasional weekend. My lawyer (who is a great guy and very smart) was wrong about children “not wanting to pack a suitcase.” It turns out that packing the suitcase and switching from one house to another becomes a normal, regular part of the routine for kids, just like school, scouts and sports practices, IF it is handled correctly. The “packing of the suitcase” is only stressful for kids if a parent is standing over them refusing to let them take items they want, complaining about the other parent, and if the drop off/pick up is stressful and unpleasant.
For anyone who finds themselves in this situation, thinking about separation or divorce, or who currently has kids and custody issues, I would encourage you to think about all of these things from your children’s perspective, and how you yourself would have felt about this when you were a child. Children are not prizes to be won, and children are not chess pieces in a game to be maneuvered. Children are to be loved and protected, guided and formed into the adults that you want them to be. When you focus, truly focus, on making things the very best that you can for your kids, and allow the past to be the past, your children will thank you eventually for being the grown-up and the parent they could count on.
* So, as promised, I sent this post to Gordon, and both of my sons for approval. My oldest read it, and texted me, “I don’t remember that argument between you and dad. I really like this blog.” My youngest was at my house, so I printed it out and had him read it. He said, “It’s good, and you and dad did a good job. I don’t remember that argument though.” And then, Gordon emailed me back, and said, “Good job, this is important for people to know. I don’t remember the details of that argument though. I remember the slamming door, and going to work upset, but I don’t remember the details….” Yeah, exactly. Because that could have become one of the defining moments of our divorce/custody issues, and the kids could see that as a lifelong memory of mom and dad going at it….but they don’t even remember it, because we fixed it, that day, and made everything in their little worlds right. Make everything in your little people’s world right.