Settling down to raise a family… with your ex

Two years ago, my wife and I decided to go our separate ways. The problem was that we had a two-year-old and three-year-old, so it wasn’t feasible for those ways to diverge overly much.

After selling the family home, we both moved into the same apartment block — separate apartments, on different floors.

We didn’t think of it as embarking on a grand experiment in amicable co-parenting. We were simply trying to minimise the disruption to our children’s lives, in that guilt-ridden way the newly separated do.

Also, my ex had a corporate job that required a lot of travel, often at short-notice. So, it seemed sensible for the children to be able to shift residences as frictionlessly as possible.

‘Playing’ happy families

Nowadays, the kids often flit between our homes two or three times a day.

On special occasions, such as Christmas and birthdays, we always spend time together as a family.

Even on non-special occasions, such as when one of us has ordered pizza or cooked too much food, we’ll spontaneously decide to have a family dinner together.

We each have keys to each other’s apartments.

Though we signed off on a conventional week-on/week-off custody arrangement, we’ve never adhered to it.

I take the kids when my ex is travelling, she takes them the majority of the time when she’s not.

We often show up together to our kid’s doctor’s appointments, school events and sporting activities.

I’m hesitant about painting too rosy a picture here.

Even under the best of circumstances, the break-up of a marriage involving children is a harrowing experience. Inevitably, there’s a certain guardedness and weariness to any post-split relationship.

Approximately once a month, we will have a blow-up about something or other.

Both of us have periodically wondered aloud if it would be better for all involved if we disentangled our existences.

Maybe one day we will. But so far, we seem to have achieved our goal of reducing to an absolute minimum the distress caused to our children by our failed marriage.

Surely that’s a good thing?

Maybe or maybe not, depending on whom you ask.

Judgement daze

Which brings me to the point of this article – why are my ex and I considered the weird ones?

Why do I always feel awkward explaining to people that I live a 30-second lift ride away from the mother of my children?

After all, no one raises an eyebrow about individuals who make their child feel like the bastard spawn of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton while waging total war against their erstwhile beloved.

But put your grievances aside and act like a grown-up and people suspect there’s something unhealthy or untoward going on.

I decided to consult a psychologist to see if my ex and I’s decision to interact in a respectful, even amiable manner would screw up our children up for life.

“There are some parents, particularly those in high-conflict relationships, who shouldn’t co-parent,” says Clare Rowe, an experienced child and family psychologist.

“Even if it hasn’t been a high-conflict relationship, co-parenting may be inadvisable if interacting is distressing to one or both parents.”

“All that noted, if co-parenting can be undertaken it has a huge amount of psychologically protective factors for kids. Ideally, you want to maintain as much normality as possible and aim to parent much as you would if you were still together as a couple.”

So, this co-parenting caper is all upside then?

“No, it can be confusing for children,” says Rowe. “If they see their parents happily spending some time together, they will naturally wonder why they can’t always be together.”

Yep, that’s something that keeps coming up.

“Then be prepared for your children to keep asking you, ‘Are you and mummy going to live in the same house again?’

Rather than taking the easy way out and saying ‘maybe’, you need to state, ‘No, that is never going to happen.’

You need to let your child get upset then process that.Giving them false hope keeps them in an emotional holding pattern where they can’t move on,” Rowe explains.

Fluid parenting arrangements

Rowe also warns against taking co-parenting to extremes.

“The nesting idea – children staying in a home and their parents rotating in and out of it – is something people have been increasingly experimenting with.

On paper, it’s a good idea and can work as a short-term fix, especially immediately following a separation. But from what I’ve seen it never works out long-term, especially once one of the parties re-partners.”

It’s not just the nesting arrangement that’s likely to fall by the wayside once time moves on and circumstances change.

“Parents of young children may do a lot of co-parenting early on then become more distant once their children become more independent,” Rowe says.

“Alternatively, parents may have nothing to do with each other for a long time then establish a friendly co-parenting relationship once their feelings of anger and hurt have faded.”

Whatever arrangement a separated couple decide is most appropriate, Rowe agrees with me that onlookers should resist the temptation to volunteer their two cents’ worth.

“Often it’s those who are looking out for you who will feel you’ve been wronged and be hurting on your behalf,” she says.

“They may find it odd that you’re maintaining a relationship with your ex and take every opportunity to say so. But if maintaining that relationship is the best thing for your children, you should feel proud that you’re a good enough dad or mum to put your kids first.”

Amen to that.

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