In the bad old days of divorce, back when I was the happy product of a broken (and mended, rebroken, et cetera) home, mothers almost always got full custody of their children. Fathers often moved away, and contact between the divorced parents was minimal. Mercifully minimal. Those days are gone, and while I don’t truly lament their passing (kids need their fathers, and vice versa), I do think the shared-custody-after-divorce paradigm is much, much tougher on parents than most people acknowledge.
It’s difficult enough to have to see your ex-spouse on a regular basis–not just at the neverending pick-ups and drop-offs, but also at every damned event (of course you’ll both go to the piano recital, the soccer tournament, the parent-teacher conference! Back when you were married, you’d have divvied up the appearances, but the stakes are different now. In the constant subtle jockeying for superior-parent status that occurs in every shared-custody family post-divorce, you’ve gotta fight for your right to chaperone the third-grade party.)
And of course you’re stuck consulting each other, constantly, about every damned thing that crops up in your kids’ lives. This means daily emails, lots of phone calls, lots and lots and lots of interaction with the very person you’re trying to move on from. I’ve written before about how much I love it when my ex husband is out of town. It’s a delicious taste of how easy life is when I never have to take him into account, though you’d think it would be harder to do all the grunt work on my own. It’s not.
Heresy: the bad old days were harder for kids, but easier for parents. This co-parenting after divorce thing is, to put it bluntly, a real fucking drag.
You can, however, game the system. Here are five ways to minimize contact with your ex while your kids are growing up. Add your own in the comments section, please!
1) Keep a bank account in both parents’ names. This was my brilliant idea, and my lawyer liked it so much she said she was going to recommend it to all her clients. Instead of keeping track of the constant dribble of minor kid expenses (field trips! class photos! teacher gifts! baseball socks! summer camp! goggles! cell phones!) and settling up eventually, each parent simply writes checks on this account. You only use the money for pre-approved child expenses, you both have full access to all info regarding the account, and you seed the account with a certain amount of money whenever it runs low. (If, say, you divvy up expenses 60/40, the person who pays 60% deposits 600 bucks to the other person’s 400 whenever necessary.)
Sure beats lying awake at three a.m. calculating the exact percentage of seventeen dollars and forty-five cents (class photo), one hundred and sixty dollars (soccer registration) and fifty-five dollars and eight cents (school supplies, sundries) your ex-spouse owes you, every night, for three whole weeks, until you finally settle up. Not having to keep track means not having to think about things. When you wake at three, turn the bedside light on and read.
And if you have to pay for something with cash? Go right ahead, and then write yourself a check.
2) Encourage your kids to contact the other parent directly. This works better if the kids are older, and best if everyone has a cell phone. However, even if you’ve got teenagers who are wired to the gills, old habits die hard, and your ex may call you to find out how Junior’s weekend was, or how the game went, or what the pediatrician said, and so forth. Unless you need to be involved, unless you need to mediate, unless there’s some adult topic that needs to go over the kids’ heads, remove yourself from the equation. If your kids are old enough to talk, they’re old enough to talk to each parent separately.
It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that my kids could call their dad directly. It took him an even more embarrassingly long time to realize that he could call them. He’s just started doing it, and my life is much more pleasant. Whole days go by when he and I don’t communicate–and yet he’s in touch with the kids, and they’re in touch with him.
3) Use an online calendar. Obviously this won’t work unless both parents enter information (and check the thing, too) on a regular basis. But think of the advantages! No squabbling over vacation dates. The more anal you are, the more organized things magically get–without any direct interaction. You can obsessively color-code things, flag them, have email reminders automatically sent to you, to the other parent, to your kids, to everyone’s phone, or whatever you desire.
No more “You never told me your mother was in town,” no “Did you get the email?” Just log on and see for yourself. Paradise.
4) Bags by the door. I gave what my WASPy family calls “Bean Bags” to each of my kids last Christmas, (in size Colossal; the kids themselves could stow away inside) and they have been, to use my delightfully WASPy grandmother’s phrase, “highly successful”. My kids go back and forth a lot, and they are constantly encumbered by schoolbooks, gear, and various essential crap. The bags hold everything, and can be hauled to and fro with relative ease.
Even if your kids commute from house to house on their own–if they leave your house for school one day a week and end up at his, or if they flit hither and yon by foot, subway, or bike, having what they need (for eventual collecting) contained in a huge canvas vessel by the door is a joy. Look, I don’t want to poke through my ex-husband’s house looking for some damned thing every week, and I certainly don’t want him poking through mine. If it’s going to the other house, it goes in the bag, or it doesn’t go at all. You’d be amazed how quickly kids catch on.
5) Text the ex. We’re old. Our fingers are fat. We can’t see so well. And we text slowly. The odds of writing something snotty or vituperative are far lower when you’re painstakingly stabbing your message out on a teeny, tiny phone than when you’re emailing. “U 4got 1 cleat” is hard enough; it’s not worth the trouble of adding “AGAIN, you stupid git.” And “k thx” is ever so much nicer than “Oh, get off your high horse, you fucking cow.” Brevity is the mother of civility.
And that’s all I have, for now, though I’m always looking for tips. The moral? The less you interact, the more decent your interactions will become. The less you think about your ex, the happier you’ll be. And the more your kids develop a relationship with their other parent that doesn’t include you, the happier they’ll be. There does not appear to be a downside to distance.