A long time ago, after college graduation, two of my ex-roommates attempted joint ownership of a beloved armchair. It sounds ridiculous (because it was), but each had developed an emotional attachment to the chair after splitting its cost back in sophomore year. I couldn’t blame them: It reclined, it was nearly leather and it had built-in cup holders.
But there were logistical issues. Who would transport the chair? Who would pay to fix it when it broke? Who loved it more? Who stained the seat cushion? Who would get it on Super Bowl Sunday?
I learned few things from my college roommates. The armchair co-ownership annulment, however, stands out as the one life lesson that stuck with me. It was like a page from chapter one of a beginner’s guide to co-parenting, complete with all the common pitfalls divorced parents often face. Children are not furniture. But the Tale of the Perfect Chair reflects the principles of compromise and understanding that are vital to any two parents, whether married or not.
My ex-wife, Jill, and I have spent the better part of a decade fine-tuning our shared parenting skills. We have one amazing daughter, Sadie, around whom our joint worlds happily revolve.
I can’t say that we’re experts: Parenting experts are a myth with fewer sightings than Bigfoot. But we have, over time, established an effective and balanced parenting system that I like to believe has had at least something to do with our daughter turning into the wonderful young lady she has become. Jill agreed with me on this, although she seemed hesitant to accept credit.
“I get Sadie unleashed,” she said, suggesting a Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario in which I am exposed only to the sunny side of our 15-year-old while she suffers Sadie’s hormonal wrath. I think she was hinting that it’s important for divorced parents to recognize if one of them is shouldering an unfair amount of the psychological load.
The beginning, of course, wasn’t easy. Marital separation inevitably ushers in a period of mistrust and uncertainty. Even the smoothest divorce goes a lot like a tattoo removal: It can be painful, take years to heal and might leave a scar. The impact to the involved children will depend on how equipped the parents are to navigate through the transition that follows.
One common mistake is assuming that once you sign the paperwork, the difficult part is over. The lawyers walk away after ironing out a plan, and you get filled with a sense of relief, as if every difficult parenting decision has been clearly etched in stone.
The reality is that the written agreement is merely a set of guidelines. Even if both parents see eye to eye on the weightier issues—religion, politics, breakfast cereals, etc.—new obstacles will continue to test your ability to maintain separate lives while jointly solving problems. There will be cavities and skinned knees, school projects and broken cell phones. Separation agreements almost never dictate at what age the children can start watching Game of Thrones or how frequently they should eat carrots.
These are the parenting decisions that matter, the ones that are so much more meaningful than deciding whether Mom or Dad gets the kids on Arbor Day. The good news is that there is a solution: Listen to each other. Couples often part ways due to a breakdown in communication. When children are part of the equation, open dialogue becomes even more vital than it was during the marriage. Conversations, texts and email are the simple keys to success.
Patience and empathy help, too. Remember, you are in this together. Just because you are divorced doesn’t mean that you can’t rely on one another. In fact, it is even more reason to do so.
Also, listen to your children. Their needs, both practical and emotional, can get overlooked when parents are forming new boundaries and hashing out their own feelings. I recently asked my daughter how having divorced parents has affected her, knowing that she gives an honest and insightful response.
“Well, I always get two Christmases,” Sadie responded.
Teen sarcasm aside, I think we are doing OK. I’ll admit that our daughter has not mightily tested the limits of our parenting abilities. A kind, generous girl who refuses to swear and gets straight As is not exactly the definition of a problem child. But I like to believe that her character is a reflection of our influence.
Like all parenting, co-parenting is an ongoing learning process, and I don’t expect to ever have it completely figured out. But, through time, perseverance and support from relatives, we’ve evolved into a modern, if unconventional, family. We even spend most holidays together and often vacation in a large group.
“We aren’t normal,” Jill is quick to point out.
She’s right, but divorces don’t come with universal solutions. It’s up to the parents to find the version of normal that works best for them and, most importantly, their children. Remember, a child’s needs are not changed by a divorce. She will still want the same simple things she always wanted: love, recognition, safety, stability, comfort, hugs. In other words, marriages sometimes end but parenting is forever.
Neil Davis works at Bristol-Myers Squibb and lives in Liverpool with his daughter.