March 7, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Every so often we hear from a parent (almost invariably a mother) who writes to tell about her experiences in a shared parenting arrangement. Those generally fall into two categories. The first is the parent who lets us know all the benefits of shared parenting, of not having 100% or 80% of the parenting time, of not being forever exhausted, of never having the time to earn the money to support the parent and the child and save for retirement, of the joy of knowing that the child hasn’t lost its father in the divorce process.

The second is this type (Time, 3/5/18). For writer Jessica Ciencin Henriquez, co-parenting “sucks.” If I were her, I’m sure it would “suck” for me too. That’s because for Henriquez, her life post-divorce seems to be all about her. Her rather lengthy piece dwells, not on the child’s well-being, not on his need for both parents and certainly not on the science that shows that shared parenting is by far the best arrangement for most couples when they split up.

I can’t think of anything more difficult than failing at marriage, and then having to raise a child together without having the necessary time and distance to recover from every micro and macro heartbreak that has occurred…

When I filed for divorce in 2012, I wasn’t yet ready to let go. I still felt so much love for the man I was leaving and I was still gripping onto the idea of a perfect family. What I didn’t understand back then is that the love I have for my son and the love I had for his father would always be tangled up together in knots...

I didn’t know back then, when I was one foot in the fantasy and one foot out, how much I would dread dropping off my son with his father. How do I describe how alone a home feels when a child has left it? Maybe you already know this feeling. Maybe you too have sat, or collapsed, on the living room floor and looked at old photos and videos of your child. Maybe you too have given in to the unexpected and overwhelming feelings of nostalgia and self-pity and regret…

The minute my son is gone I wonder where he is and what he’s doing. I wonder whether he’s hungry, tired or sad. I fill up my calendar so that every hour we’re apart is accounted for because if I don’t do this there’s a good chance I won’t get out of bed. 

On and on she goes. I, I, I, I, etc. So yes, I’m sure that co-parenting, never easy, becomes all the harder as long as it’s only about Mom. As long as there’s nothing to keep one’s attention focused but one’s own sense of loss, I’m sure co-parenting can be a bear. But if Mom were to wake up and notice that there’s a little person who needs and deserves her best, who needs her love and support now more than ever and, unlike her, isn’t an adult capable of handling serious emotional trauma, she might grasp better the need for shared parenting. If Henriquez would get over herself, she might be able to notice the raison d’etre of shared parenting – children’s well-being.

But that would require Henriquez not only to be less self-centered than she is, but more of an adult. Throughout her piece, she bemoans the loss of “the fantasy.” I take that to mean the ideal marriage with children she probably dreamed about as a kid.

We tried really hard to be the world’s friendliest exes and in photos it was believable, but in reality we were actually two people desperately clinging onto the fantasy of what we thought our family could look like. A fantasy where there was one Christmas, not two, no separate mommy time and daddy time, no elaborate and colorful calendar to help us keep track of where our child would be sleeping on any given night. It would take years to face the facts of separating. No matter how much my ex-husband and I love each other, how much we’ve forgiven one another and how much we’re willing to work together, divorce means we set fire to the fantasy.

The problem of course being that adult life rarely lives up to anyone’s childhood fantasies. Children don’t grasp what it means to be an adult, but most of them grow up to be adults who do. Henriquez looks very much like a person who has become an adult but has not “put aside childish things.” Demanding that one’s adult relationships live up (down?) to one’s childish imaginings is as sure a way as I know to make them fail.

The good news in all this is that, for all her failures, Henriquez and her ex seem to be truly trying to make co-parenting work.

We’ve tried mediation and meditation, and seeing each other in moderation. We’ve lived separately, together and have even tried nesting (a name for the cohabitation set-up where the child stays in one home while the parents rotate in and out). We’ve tried cooperative parenting and parallel parenting, going no-contact and going full-contact (a name for the emotional set back where you start sleeping together again against all better judgment).

And nowhere does she say that she should have the child and Daddy can disappear. Nowhere does Henriquez suggest that their son doesn’t need both parents. Her complaints are that it’s hard to make it work. I’m sure it is. But as long as everyone realizes that putting forth the effort is not for Mommy, not for Daddy, but for their son, they ought to be able to make their arrangement work.

Henriquez understands that, when two people have a child, they remain a family, whether divorced or together.

I didn’t realize that divorce doesn’t really exist when you have children. If it does, it looks something like this: “I now pronounce you ex-husband and ex-wife, you may keep seeing each other for the rest of your lives.” That’s where I am now, the separate but together forever until death do we part. That vow doesn’t go away even after all of the other vows have been broken.

She ends with good advice.

What I know now and desperately needed to hear [when I divorced] is this: Let go of the family you thought you’d be and accept the family that you are. Redefine your reality. It won’t be easy and there will be days when it feels nearly impossible. You will feel guilt, but you are not guilty. You will feel shame, but you did nothing shameful. You will feel regret, but you did the right thing. There is a space that exists between the family that you were and the family that you’ll end up being.

I suspect that, when her son grows up, he’ll appreciate the fact that his parents worked to give him the parenting he deserved, despite how hard it was for them. Henriquez doesn’t seem terribly mature, but, to her credit, she’s maturing. And above all, she and her ex understand that their son needs them both.

 

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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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