One of the most common refrains on dating websites is people saying that they have no drama in their lives and that they are looking for the same in potential partners. Putting aside my instant suspicions of such claims (what is life if not dramatic?), I can’t help but think that what the majority of these people are usually referring to is the drama of the ex, that enigmatic past figure that presently casts an ominous shadow over future relationships.
This potential complication is particularly acute when there are children involved. Custody schedules, pickup times, school drop-offs are but a handful of potential flashpoints that threaten to disrupt the family dynamic, thereby creating the ‘drama’ that is so feared on the dating networks. And while I may sound a tad dismissive of the screening for such friction on dating sites, given that it is an expected part of the single-parent life, I still feel it is absolutely normal to worry what effect post-marital issues might have on the kids. It is a short phonetic journey from ‘drama’ to ‘trauma’, and I have a number of friends who have described the pain of growing up in a split family, innocent pawns in the post-separation battlefield. For that reason, I feel lucky to enjoy a very open and harmonic co-parenting relationship with my ex-wife, one which involves daily phone check-ins, frequent family movie nights, and a unified front against the Machiavellian (yet strangely adorable) plotting of two-homework averse/screen-time addicted kids.
Breaking up is never easy and there are myriad reasons why marriages fall apart, as well as considerable regrets at the realization that a certain shared vision will never come to pass. With children involved, there is yet another emotional dimension involved, one infused with a heavy seasoning of guilt and anxiety. There is nothing more beautiful than the unbridled innocence of childhood and the thought of puncturing that blissful bumble is a very heavy one to carry. To help mitigate against this, my ex and I took the somewhat unconventional route of attending post-separation counselling, trying to plot the most optimal path to help our young kids (five and two years old at the time) navigate the sudden change in their lives. Among the many pearls of wisdom dispensed by our counsellor, one has stuck with me all this time: you might now be two households, but you are still one family. It was such a positive and proactive way of highlighting the crucial importance of working together as a parental unit and of always putting the needs of the kids first, cliché though it may sound.
For the most part, I think we have done a good job of heeding our counsellor’s advice. Our custody schedule is 50/50 but we always make allowances for spontaneous adjustments – just last Friday on the first night of my kid-free weekend (I still don’t like saying ‘kid-free’, parental guilt being hard to shake…), my daughter came over for a Daddy-Daughter night. Eight episodes of Modern Family later, we both crashed on the floor, with full hearts and bellies (copious amounts of chips and gummies were consumed…) Meanwhile, I’m told that my son was treated to a incredibly decadent ice-cream with his mom (indulgence oneupmanship if I ever I saw it!) This flexibility has been especially important during the last 18 months of pandemic. Changing work and school dynamics have only underscored how helpful it is to have a relationship where we can switch things up, striving as a team to make life as fun and stimulating as possible for our kids, while also trying to maintain a semblance of normal, whatever ‘normal’ means in this day and age.
While I do believe it’s important to have a set schedule to give both kids and parents a reliable life structure, occasional breaks from the routine are important because they freshen up the dynamic (and can be employed as useful bargaining chips when trying to get homework done!) With that in mind, here are some of my suggestions for keeping things vibrant, fun, and dynamic for two-household families:
- Games and/or movie nights: get the kids to team up versus the adults in a game of Monopoly (my son has already displayed a ruthless real estate streak, regularly finding ways – both legitimate and underhanded – to establish his own Boardwalk and Park Place duopoly and then build property with a quasi-Brad-Lamb zeal..)
- Regular, yet unscheduled, nights with just one of the kids (e.g. Daddy-Daughter night): obviously, this only applies for families with more than one child, but it is an excellent way to get some lovely individual time with your kids, away from the incessant sibling squabbling.
- Inter-city road trips: I have a lovely pre-pandemic memory of a family bowling trip, which predictably ended with my hyper-competitive son emerging victorious. Sadly, such excursions are more difficult these days, but here in Toronto, there is no shortage of parks and public spaces that provide a welcome respite from the screens (just don’t let your kids know about the existence of Pokemon Go…)
- Frequent phone check-ins: while recognizing that there is a fine line between friendly checking-in and passive-aggressive surveillance, I feel it is really important to maintain a daily dialogue about what is going on in the kids’ lives. Beyond ensuring the necessary consistency in the application of rules and routines, it is also great just to chat about the kids, the most amazing collaboration I’ve ever been involved in. One of the many things I miss from the days of marriage (and there is nothing wrong with admitting to yourself that you miss something while simultaneously recognizing that things are better his way) is the shared moments of joy when one of my kids does something cute; having someone to enjoy this moment with. It’s not the same post-marriage, but keeping an open, friendly, and regular line of communication with my ex has provided countless moments of laughter and love, moments that affirm time and time again that our kids will always remain our top priority.
None of the above would be possible, however, without the free-flowing dialogue and easy accessibility that my ex and I have. Of course, there are some breakups which simply do not allow for such an amicable, post-marriage relationship, and it would be insufferably glib for me to suggest that all former partners must maintain cordial and trusting relations. Rather, I am taking stock of how lucky I am to be in a position where my dreams and aspirations for my kids align so well with those of my co-parenting partner. Two households, but one family. Six years and one pandemic later, those words resonate more powerfully than ever.