For years, I’ve been waiting for someone to come clean about co-parenting. Celebrities and social media would have us believe it’s easy, even enjoyable, and I’m tired of contributing to that narrative. It’s not true. As a co-parenter and frequent social media over-sharer, I’m guilty of perpetuating the notion that anyone can seamlessly transition from a couple to co-parents with grace, dignity and ease.
Sure. There have been happy moments in my co-parenting journey where that felt true, but those moments are not the majority of my experience. Shared family vacations and weekly dinner dates didn’t happen without endless negotiations and blurred lines along the way.
So, here we go, I’ll say the thing that no one else wants to say: Co-parenting sucks.
My son was 1 years old when I moved out of the home I shared with my husband and ever since then his father and I have tried multiple ways to co-exist.
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).
I could write the Kama Sutra on co-parenting. After five years, the conclusion I’ve come to is that there’s nothing natural about this. Successfully sharing the person who brings you the most joy with the person who brings you the most pain is nothing short of a miracle.
I always laugh — and then scream — when people suggest getting divorced is taking the easy way out. 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. There’s nothing easy about this easy way out. In fact, the only thing that’s easier than leaving a relationship that isn’t working is choosing to stay in it.
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.
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 couldn’t admit this to anyone else because I was too busy pretending I knew what I’d gotten myself into, pretending for my son’s sake and for my own sanity that my divorce didn’t faze me.
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.
And what’s left in the ashes is harder to accept than I imagined.
Co-parenting means my child will grow up always missing one of his parents. When he says to me in tears, “This isn’t fair,” I tell him that he’s right, there’s nothing fair about this. When he says, “I miss daddy,” I want to cry with him and say, “I miss daddy too.” But I take a deep breath and I tell him what I know is true: “Anything less than always will feel like not enough time together.” There is nothing natural about the fact that my son will grow half his height while I’m not watching or that he’ll tuck half of his baby teeth under the pillow at a different home. He won’t get the little sibling he wants anytime soon, and if he ever does that child won’t share his father’s eyes or my lips and he’ll only spend every other Christmas with him or her.
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.
A married friend once told me how much she envied me. “At least you get some time off,” she said. The comment wasn’t malicious, but it was misled. How could I explain to her that there is no such thing as time off when you’re a parent. 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.
It’s in these moments that I wonder what is wrong with me. And I’m not entirely convinced that there is something wrong with me because I don’t know how other co-parents cope. We don’t talk about it. We nod and we smile and we fill our calendars on our “days off,” and for the rest of the world we put our most evolved foot forward. At least, I did. I kept up the act: I’m fine, you’re fine, we’re all fine.
But for a long time, I wasn’t fine. And now, I’m done trying to convince myself that I’m part of a secret society of mothers who stay best friends with their exes, travel together with their exes and regularly reunite for a bedtime story or bath time routine. This might be the reality for some divorced parents, but it isn’t mine — not yet, not really and maybe it never will be. Slowly, I’m beginning to accept this fact.
What I know now and desperately needed to hear then 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. You’re not alone in that space. I’m right there with you. And my guess is that we’re not the only ones.