Lottie is a writer. I found her latest story on my dresser last week, and paused at the back cover. On it, she’d illustrated a picture of herself and written “About the Auter: Lottie Chapman is eight years old, has seven brothers and sisters and six chickens.”
That was a big moment for me, standing there in my bedroom holding Lottie’s book. Gabe, Billy and I have worked hard to make sure our children have a broad, inclusive definition of family.
We are a coparenting team, working to make sure our kids have the best possible experience in this blended family adventure we’re all living. We want them to feel included and at home in each house, free to speak about the other side of the family and not forced to choose sides. We want to joyfully recognize and welcome their siblings. Small indications that it is working matter.
Coparenting isn’t neat and it is not for the faint of heart. We weren’t always good at it. When Billy and I first separated, we scheduled a weekly family dinner with the children. Eating together as a family in the chaos of our separation felt weird and artificial and familiar and comforting at the same time. The conversation swung wildly from overly cheery to sullenly disengaged. Billy and I were still fluent in couple-speak, and so the wordless glances we exchanged as the kids babbled about their day often communicated volumes and distracted me long after the dinners concluded. Still, we stuck with it. The kids were vocal that they liked that time together and even though we agreed on very little at that time, we agreed that making them happy in that small way was important.
There came a time in our separation where the dinner tradition faltered and I thought we’d lost our way. Billy and I were each angry with the other, and working through a number of very hairy divorced-people issues. He pulled away from our interactions and I was worried about the effect on the kids. My worry made me push him to interact, cornering him to discuss issues and emailing him long missives. The more I pushed, the more he pulled away. The more he pulled away, the more anxious and angry I got. It was a scary cycle. We got to a point where we couldn’t speak as we exchanged kids, and they began to suffer.
When we weren’t speaking, I still tried hard to follow some basic coparenting guidelines. I didn’t talk about Billy in anything but positive terms. I focused on his humor and love of trivia and fun-loving nature and spoke proactively to the kids about the good I saw in their dad. I kept him updated on what was happening at my house, and shared what I was buying the kids for Christmas, who was having trouble sleeping and what the pediatrician said about Caden not riding a bike yet. I fought back the guilt (a familiar battle), and didn’t give into the children on other things because I felt like we were failing them on this thing.
I sent him an email asking him to consider our options. We could wound the children once, with our divorce, and then focus our attention on raising them together as a team, as we’d planned. Or, we could continue to argue and disagree, and wound them repeatedly. I’d like to say I thought of that myself, but I think I read it in the mountain of self-help books I’d bought as talismans to sit on my nightstand and ward off divorce trauma. At any rate, I was terribly proud of myself. The email didn’t work. We continued to avoid each other.
I left the door open for Billy to re-enter when he felt like it. I asked him to dinner as a family, invited him to sit with me at kid events, and sent pictures of the kids when they were with me. Often, these texts were totally ignored. Occasionally I got pictures of the kids when he had them out and about on his weekends. One day, Billy agreed to meet as a family for dinner. My inclination was to ask him why, and what changed, and could we put dinners back on the calendar every week until forever, but I remembered that my pushing Billy didn’t ever deliver the result I wanted. We had dinner, and it was again weird and artificial and familiar and comforting. The following week, I invited him again, and by the third week, he texted me asking “we on for fam dinner?”
We were back on track. We met often for dinner and began sitting together at all kid events. Gabe was in the picture now, as was Stephanie, Billy’s new love. It was weird and uncomfortable for everyone.
We stuck with it. The kids got used to saving a ridiculous number of seats for all of us, and we got used to exchanging pleasantries at ballet recitals and school plays. It got easier simply because the newness wore off. Then it got easier because I could see the effect on our children. They looked relaxed, lighter even. They’d bound up to us after their event and talk excitedly to everyone there. After her recital, Lottie beamed when Stephanie gave her flowers and told her that she was a beautiful dancer, and I was instantly and overwhelmingly grateful to this kind woman for making my little girl happy. We were becoming one team, united by the goal of raising whole children.
Our coparenting has evolved from that deliberate start. It is more casual and comfortable. We no longer have weekly family dinners, simply because our schedules and numbers don’t often allow for that. You’ll still find us all together on birthdays and Christmas morning. We sit together at kid events, sometimes to our children’s’ collective embarrassment. Billy and I visit at kid transitions, often coming in each other’s houses and catching up with each others’ spouse and stepchildren. We traipse into kids rooms and look for lost library books. We clean closets and redistribute clothes between the households. We meet for ice cream to celebrate special occasions and chat on the phone amiably if we have something to share.
We continue to coparent when we’re not together. We acknowledge the other household in positive ways. I am happy when fun things happen at Dad’s house because that means my kids were happy. I still talk about how funny Billy is and how good he is at his job. I’ve heard him say similar things about me. Billy and I still communicate early and often on all things related to the Chapman three. We have each other’s back publicly on discipline, (even if we disagree privately, as we sometimes do). Our kids belong in these two homes and are made up of these two halves. By acknowledging the good in each, we keep them whole.
It is still sometimes not easy. Making room for new adults in your children’s lives can be tough. Shortly after Billy and Stephanie got married, Lottie told me she had two moms, one in each house. I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from correcting her to “one mom and one stepmom.”
I took a deep breath and told her the truth: that I was glad she had two women in her life who loved her and played the role of mom. That she could love Stephanie lots and lots and I knew that didn’t mean she loved me any less. Then I took gentle care of myself for the rest of the evening until my heart caught up with my mind’s forward, mature thinking. It did – that’s truly how I feel. I want that little girl to feel completely at home in each house, to bask in the love of each woman in her life. I just needed a minute to transition from the “me-first” instinct to the Lottie-first truth. She is stronger for the love of many, all our children are.
Billy and I are still far from perfect. Just last week, we had a tense conversation about managing Simon’s online time more proactively (more on how we do that here). By tense conversation, I mean I hammer-texted him in annoyance before I thought about a better approach. He fired back, and we both had to take a minute to refocus. We’re still learning.
We’re still talking to each other and sorting through the tough stuff and making mistakes. We’re still sitting down together around a table with the children we love. Children who are calmer and more secure than they were when we weren’t speaking. Children who are learning by example that you can go through something big and painful and still be a team, that you can expand your definition of family to include lots of people without diminishing anyone, and that family can be forever. Coparenting is the choice we make, day in and day out, to teach our children those lessons.