Alternative Family

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Co-Parenting from the Inside Out
Excerpt

I heaved my suitcase into the back of my rusted Corolla and sank into the driver’s seat. I was parked in the driveway of the suburban Winnipeg house where I had become the mother of two sons, then aged five and eight. On that November night the curbs were edged with dusty snow, the brown lawns sullen and hard. On that night I was leaving my home and my marriage of fifteen years.
I backed onto the street and drove around the curve, crying so hard I couldn’t see. As soon as I was out of sight of the house, I pulled over, sobbing, my head in my arms on the cold steering wheel. My sons, David and Steven, had known for a week that my husband, John, and I were separating, but this was the first tangible step to reshaping our family. I knew their dad would care well for them that night. Still, it had taken every ounce of my resolve to kneel, look into their sad, bewildered faces, and hug them goodbye, saying, “I will see you tomorrow.” Leaving the house was such a significant step, it felt unreal and desperate. After a few bleak minutes, I took a shaky breath, restarted the car, and drove slowly out of the neighbourhood toward my temporary refuge.
The ship that had been my married life had foundered and I was throwing myself into black, cold water. I didn’t know how this next phase would work, just that our family life as it was couldn’t continue.
In the previous year, I had realized that our marriage was frayed to the breaking point. Years of escalating arguments had led John and me to try counselling, but after three months, John stopped going. When I asked, “What is it that’s not working for you?” he answered, “I just don’t think it’s going anywhere.” It felt like I was standing on one side of a twoway mirror with John on the other side. He could see what I was experiencing, but my view of him was opaque, shielded. I felt more and more helpless, trying to peer through the glass. Very lonely.
Finally, one sunny Saturday morning, sitting across from each other in our matching blue wing chairs, we had our first honest talk in years. I comprehended what I hadn’t wanted to see: John’s commitment to our marriage was gone.
As this horrifying realization sank in, I felt like I had been punched in the belly. I spent that day sitting, walking, staring into space, trying to rearrange my world. We carried on for the next few weeks in an atmosphere charged with things unsaid as I gathered my nerve and looked at options. One thing was clear to me: while John would be content to carry on as before, as if nothing had changed, I could not. I peered briefly down that future path and saw myself there — a bitter, weary woman with no joy in living.
I started examining other choices. I knew the boys loved us both and would need time with each of us. For them to be brought up well, they would need parents who were healthy human beings. For me, in addition to lots of time with David and Steven, I would need time to myself each week, real downtime, or I would be a terrible mother — constantly shrewish and irritable. So, co-parenting seemed the least disastrous option. I confess I wasn’t all that concerned about John’s needs, but a part of me registered faintly that it would be good for him to keep connected with the boys.
I knew that John was good with David and Steven, that he loved them. Even through my haze of hurt and anger, I could see he had gifts to offer them, different than mine. I drove them to music lessons, curled up with them nightly to sing lullabies, and made sure they ate vegetables. He took them to his family farm and expected them to do physical labour, carried them on his shoulders, and got them giggling as he wrestled with them. Whatever else happened, John was the boys’ father, and they needed to grow up knowing and taking pride in both of their parents. I never doubted the importance of this in the long term.
Once I actively began to consider leaving, I carried tension throughout my body, wondering if I could make good choices. My throat felt tight, my breathing shallow. I kept rolling my shoulders to try and loosen them. My work colleagues never gave advice, which I appreciated, but they saw me each morning haggard from lousy sleep. Puffy bags under my eyes made me look closer to sixty than forty. In our small office, sympathetic looks told me people knew I was grappling with whether to leave my marriage. For my fortieth birthday, co-workers threw a coffee party, covering my office ceiling with exuberant red and white helium balloons trailing ribbons. I almost cried at the absurdly cheerful sight. A colleague said, “You’ll know what to do when the time comes.” Her confidence helped me keep listening to myself to find my next steps. I needed every ounce of confidence-building that came my way.
John and I tiptoed around each other for weeks, keeping a buffer of politeness between us.
“Will you be able to take Steven to his practice tomorrow night?”
“Sure.”
We seemed stuck, unable to go back or forward. I felt increasingly fragile, as if my inner core was dissolving in the endless effort to keep a normal facade.
Finally, one evening, as I was folding laundry in our bedroom, John came in. I suddenly couldn’t do this any longer. I blurted, “If we separated, would you consider co-parenting?” I was scared to ask the question, as if naming the possibility of separating might make it more real. John didn’t look at me.
After a few long seconds, his answer came: “Okay.”
It was a huge relief to me. There was a viable, if terrifying, way forward. No one I knew was co-parenting. Considering it felt odd, as if I were peering into strange new territory. I talked over the possibility with friends, but no one had done anything like it. I looked in bookstores, but at that time there was little on the shelves.
Co-parenting never felt like a good choice. I had wanted so much to keep the family together that anything else was a sad and scary unknown, something that didn’t fit the dream of family. However, the dream was gone. Shared parenting offered the fewest bad outcomes.
When I asked myself if co-parenting would work, I started by assessing our resources. First, I felt fairly confident that I could earn a living if we split. It wouldn’t be fancy, but we could survive. I also believed that John could stay solvent, so we each could provide some financial base. This was critical. Another factor was family support. My parents and siblings lived three thousand kilometres away in British Columbia. I wasn’t willing to uproot myself and the boys, or ask them to choose between their dad and me, in order to move closer to my family. Therefore, their dad’s relatives, right in Winnipeg, were an important resource. I felt genuine affection for his family and believed they would provide social support for both the boys and their dad.
Next, I needed to look at where I would live with the boys, and where their dad might live with them. I couldn’t imagine staying in our house, with its echoes of heartache. I thought we should sell the house we jointly owned, both move to a nearby, less expensive neighbourhood, and find homes within walking distance of each other. John, on the other hand, first expected that I would stay in our house. When I said absolutely not, John announced he would stay there. He didn’t want to introduce any more change into the boys’ lives than they were already facing.
This turned out to be an excellent decision because it gave the boys social stability. I am grateful now that John insisted on staying in the house and that I didn’t oppose him further. I can see how pain dominated my thinking, limiting my readiness to consider all options carefully.
What would it be like to see the boys only part of the week and have them move back and forth? I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like for any of us. I supposed we would all survive, but beyond that it was uncharted territory.

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