I look around the room and note my ex-husband deep in conversation with my dad (probably about tractors). My husband is handing birthday cake to my ex in-laws. My youngest child is bouncing on the trampoline with my ex-husband’s toddler who was born four days before her.
It is a picture of domestic bliss.
Why then – if blended/step families are the new normal – are people so shocked by the functional, respectful relationship I have with my ex-husband and his family?
A guest at the birthday party whispers to me, “It is so lovely for your children to have both families here – but how do you do it?!”
“Oh it’s easy!” I answer. “We all really like each other – we love sitting around nibbling canapés together discussing our hopes and dreams for the future.”
It’s hard. Sometimes it’s really hard.
To arrive at this place where we look like an advertisement for Awesome Co-parenting Australia has taken time, persistence and commitment to the rules.
Rules? What rules?
Well, our rules are not actually as they appear here. They are not a beautifully laid out set of instructions on how to have happy divorced kids. They are not something we signed off on ten years ago when we divided up the property and the bank account.
Our rules are a set of principles we stick to when the going gets tough. By that, I mean times when you cannot, for the life of you, see eye to eye with your ex and you start dreaming about a big bus that suddenly loses control and starts heading for….ahem, sorry.
You should be aware I am not a parenting or blended family expert. I am not a child psychologist. I am not a divorce counsellor. There are very smart, qualified people out there to do those jobs. I am just a mum that has spent fifteen years trying her guts out to make the best of a not so perfect family situation. This equates to a full fifteen years in the trenches of co-parenting warfare.
I have also experienced the heartache of separation and child custody dramas three times.
Not really something you want on your CV.
The first was with my ex-husband, we met when he was slogging it out in the court system for the right to see his daughter (I have a fax machine phobia thanks to this one). Next, my ex-husband and I separated. This was much more civilized – but I’ll get to that later. Lastly, my husband and I met when he was in the middle of a brutal two-year financial and custody battle I thought would never end.
The upshot of this? I currently share the parenting duties of my four children with my husband AND three co-parents. Yes THREE. Oh joy. This is not what I was dreaming of when I was a little girl doodling pictures of me with future prince charming and 2.2 children.
But this is my lot. So the mantra I carry with me is:
If you can’t be good at marriage – be bloody awesome at divorce.
After many years of observing some stellar co-parenting and plenty of not-so-stellar co-parenting, here are my rules to have happier divorced kids:
- Don’t give kids choices
Children should not be allowed to make decisions when it comes to spending time with a parent. It is our responsibility as co-parents to jointly make these decisions in the best interest of the child. Why? Because it is a NO WIN situation for a child.
For example, let’s say we give a child the option:
A) Do you want to go out for dinner on Friday night with Mum?
B) Do you want to go to the movies with Dad?
There is no option C here that allows a child to make a decision that will please both parents. Option A and option B will disappoint somebody. Kids feel that responsibility – hard. It is up to us, as co-parents, to shoulder that responsibility for our children.
Fifteen years and I still stuff this one up. Sheesh.
My kids are getting older and we are slowly allowing them more freedom and responsibility in their life. I recently let this spill over into our co-parenting world.
I unknowingly organised a birthday dinner for my mum on the same night my eldest told his dad he would work on the farm (milk the cows). Normally I would ring my ex-husband and make a joint decision which event our son should attend. Instead – I got lazy – and given I wasn’t stressed about the choice I told my son he could choose.
It’s great I wasn’t stressed – but I found out days later my son was tearing himself apart trying to make a decision. You know how I found out? He was old enough to tell me. He said, “Mum, I don’t want to choose because I am going to upset either you or dad”.
I had slipped up on our golden rule and it caused my son days of angst. My guilt was immense. I also freaked out trying to remember how many times I might have made this same mistake when they were younger and unable to articulate their feelings.
I immediately rang his dad and we made the decision for him.
He milked the cows.
- Settle the finances/custody battle quickly
The period of time you spend in a custody or financial battle will probably be the worst of your life. I can personally vouch for this. You cry a fair bit. You feel like crawling under the couch and pretending it’s not happening. Basically – it sucks. This is because it is a time of self-preservation, you are forced into a situation where you must fight – and fight hard – for yourself. Nothing nice ever comes when people are thinking of themselves.
But we all have the option to choose HOW we behave throughout this period. Twice I have observed this process turn reasonable human beings into bitter, self obsessed morons. Both times I saw lawyers stir the pot to line their own pockets. Both times I saw any chance of a positive co-parenting relationship dissipate as quickly as the cash mounted up in the lawyers’ bank account.
I can tell you with assurance my stepchildren could be gifted with a home deposit or small BMW on their 21st birthday if their parents had not burned up the cash hating on each other during settlement.
For this reason, my ex-husband and I made a pact – there would be no lawyers.
We booked a time slot with a mediator at Relationships Australia – Tuesdays at 11am (it’s been nine years and I can still remember the time).
“How many weeks would you like this for?” the secretary asked.
You should have seen her face when we told her to book it indefinitely,
“…because we are coming back every Tuesday until this is done.”
I remember after one particularly long session we called a time out. We were getting nowhere. We were both frustrated and wound up. The mediator suggested we go for a walk to clear our heads. I walked around the block and as I came back I saw my ex-husband sitting in the gutter. I wandered up, sat beside him and said, “Let’s meet in the middle”.
We walked back into that room together. We stopped talking about the value of lawn mowers and who earned more money in what year, and finished it. We accepted there are no winners when you are splitting up your assets and your children’s lives – everyone leaves with less.
- Never trash talk the other parent to the children
Ooooooh this one is hard. Please note, this says “to the children”. Feel free to go your hardest with your best friend or mum. Trash talk that ex until your blue in the face. But don’t even think a negative thought in front of your children.
Why? Because kids can read you like a book. Even when they are little and you think they don’t understand – they do. They feel your disapproval and they will feel responsible. They will also feel the need to protect the other parent.
Think about it – sometimes my husband drives me batshit crazy. He leaves his socks on the kitchen floor and I rant about it to my girlfriends over coffee. But god forbid if anyone else were to trash talk my husband.
It is the same for kids. Every child has the right to believe BOTH parents are good, valuable human beings. Even if your ex is a car thieving Ku Klux Klan member, you have to allow your child to discover that on their own. And when they do – you will be there for them. And even then – you STILL can’t trash talk the other parent.
Yeah, hard I know.
- Be nice
Not only am I saying you can’t trash talk the other parent, now I am saying you have to be nice to them. Can it get any worse?
By nice, I mean the simple stuff. Be courteous. Be polite. Make small talk.
I went to meet one of our co-parents at the normal drop off point midway between our homes. It is never a fun thing to do – this co-parent isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy, although we generally trade good mornings. The child and I arrived and got out of the car. We waited. And waited a bit more. Then I had the realisation the co-parent was not going to exit their car.
I felt rage bubble up inside me. I wanted to knock on the car window and yell,
“Are you freaking kidding me? It’s been ten years – and you are not even going to get out of your car and ask how your child’s weekend has been.”
Instead, I kissed the child goodbye and told him I loved him. He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders as if to say “sorry”. I cried all the way home because I couldn’t erase the image of his little embarrassed face.
It’s the little things people – pretend to be nice if you have to.
- You are never more important than the other parent – ever
Sorry ladies, this one is for us. I am going to tick a few people off here, but in general, too many women fall into the not-so-stellar co-parent category because they believe they are more important or valuable in a child’s life. To justify my position I will write a whole post about this in the near future. In the meantime, here is some food for thought…
We are not more important than dads just because we pushed a watermelon out our hoo-hoo, or even because we are the primary carer.
Sorry gals – the mother badge does not come with a license to elevate us to a higher status. I see too many women treating their child as a commodity – they break their child’s world up into chunks of time and it becomes a competition to see how much they can keep for themselves. Because that’ll show the bastard.
Hence, all too often it is men in our society that are fighting for their right to see, know and love their child. The effect on men is soul-destroying. I have seen it with my own eyes. I have felt it with my own heart.
I don’t care about our ex’s flaws. For the rest of our life, they are the father of our children. We can’t change that (unless you have a time travel machine, and if you do please let me know).
Only once we view a co-parent as an equal can positive co-parenting relationships be established. It’s that simple.
- Don’t let kids miss special occasions or opportunities
We have always believed we can use our blended family structure to add value to our children’s lives. For example, when the kids were little we would talk about double the family – double the love. We even talked about double the gifts at Xmas (you gotta use every angle you’ve got!).
Therefore, at the beginning of the co-parenting relationship my ex-husband and I agreed it was important for the kids not to miss special occasions or opportunities at either home – because if they did, then our blended family status would be impacting negatively.
The way it works with my ex-husband is a give and take situation. Even though we have a permanent custody arrangement, the kids also go back and forth regularly depending on “special events”.
We have never kept track of this time – it’s unimportant.
In ten years I can’t think of a significant event that my children have missed on either side of their family. Sure there has been times when there has been clashes, which is when it us up to us as co-parents to put our own wants and needs aside and work out which event is more important for the child.
Not all co-parenting relationships work like this.
I recall standing in a car park picking up one of my stepchildren. The co-parent was saying something about the child not coming to our house the following weekend.
“Wait. What? Why?” I asked. This was news to me.
“Because a few weeks ago you had an extra night so you could attend a birthday party”
“Yes,” I said. “What does that have to do with next weekend?”
“You had the child for an extra night, so you owe me a night”.
My brain exploded.
Like, I was seeing stars.
What I wanted to say was…
We owe you an extra night? WTF? You have this child the large percentage of the time and we OWE YOU AN EXTRA FREAKING NIGHT?
Are we talking about a child here, a small human being, or a tradable good?
But I said nothing. I breathed deeply, turned, and walked away.
You cannot reason with that mentality.
- Don’t pack a bag for your child to go to their co-parents
Don’t pack a bag? Whaaa…?
Yep, even if the child is visiting the co-parent for one night. Don’t pack a bag. No jocks. No socks.
Why? Because our children must be allowed to feel like the “other home” is indeed a home. They need their own belongings at both homes. They need things that they can call their own – even jocks and socks.
If we send a child’s possessions from their main residence it becomes like going on a visit or a holiday. They are not going on a visit – they are going to live at their other home, even if it is just for one night.
We should be clear here that I am not talking about security items. For example, when my daughter was little she had a favorite teddy. You know the ones that you buy three more of just incase teddy No 1 goes missing? These are not what I am talking about.
I am talking about everyday items. For example, we have a co-parent who still insists on turning up at transition with the child’s pillow (amongst other things) because it will remind them of home. I try very hard not to roll around on the ground laughing – mainly because I am wondering how long it will be until the child eventually tells the parent they have never taken the pillow out of the boot of our car.
So here is something to ponder – is the pillow about the child or the parent?
- Never beat yourself up about stuffing up rules 1 to 7
Now might be an appropriate time to mention I have broken every single one of these rules. On many occasions. I am probably breaking one of them right now.
It’s important to acknowledge we are all doing the best we can. Our children are flawed, we are flawed – there WILL be times when we have unhappy kids and unhappy co-parents, it goes with the territory.
When I do find myself breaking these rules I try to ask myself why?
If I am honest with myself, I often realise I am pointing the finger at a co-parent. Because I could be soooooo, like, perfect at this co-parenting gig if only the other parent was more flexible, more thoughtful, less controlling, less of a self-absorbed a#@hole….
But here is the thing, I can only control my behavior – no one else’s. So I give myself a stern talking to and get back to the rules. I have no choice.
Because my kids are depending on it.
I want to acknowledge every blended family is different. As always the safety and the wellbeing of the child come first – there will be plenty of family situations these rules don’t apply to. It’s why my motto is blend it your way – this refers to taking the bits that are meaningful to you and putting them to good use.
I would love every single one of you to add to this list. Tell me what I’ve missed. What do you disagree with? What are the things that add value and bring peace to your blended family?
If my list of rules has helped in any way please share and comment here or come on over to the Booken Blend Facebook page.
See you in the trenches,
If you want to read more about our blended family shenanigans you can check out How the fourth child (the “our” child) changed everything, how we look like a bad bold and the beautiful episode or one of my favourites How I went from contentedly divorced to happily married (because I get to talk about the time he held my pink coat all night – awww).