I Love My Kid, But… is Refinery29 and Red Baron's exploration of the honest, often unspoken, realities and challenges that come along with parenthood.
When my ex-husband’s name flashes up on my phone, early on the Saturday morning of Easter weekend, I expect to hear my daughter’s voice at the other end. She often calls me when she’s with her dad — to tell me she misses me, complain about her big brother, or ask me what her baby sister is getting up to this week.
But it’s her dad’s voice this time, and I know from one subdued syllable — “hey” — that something is wrong. Our energetic, fearless 9-year-old girl fell off a zip slide last night and broke her arm. She’s waiting to go into surgery. He didn’t call me at 2 a.m. when they arrived at the hospital because he knew I would insist on driving there. Oh, and I’m 115 miles away.
This is when co-parenting is the hardest for me. I can handle the stuff that goes AWOL — the jackets, the socks, the homework books — somewhere between my kids’ two homes. My ex-husband and I can put up with each other’s most irritating traits because we don’t have to share a bedroom with them anymore. I can deal with the absences — or at least I’ve learned to, over the last seven years, because this is our normal. But what I’ll always struggle with is not being there when something goes wrong.
My natural parental instinct is to fix things. I can’t fix my girl’s arm, broken above the elbow in three places in a break so bad the bone has penetrated the muscle. I can’t even be with her, at least not for another three hours. I take the quickest shower of my life, throw together an overnight bag, then get in the car and drive.
By early afternoon I’m sitting at one side of my daughter’s hospital bed, my ex-husband on the other. “How could you let this happen?” I want to yell at him. And, “These things always happen on your watch! See that scar? The one scarily close to our daughter’s eye? That happened when she was on holiday with you!”
But I don’t say any of this stuff, because I know I’ll stop blaming him eventually. Plus, our daughter is crying.
It’s taken my ex and I a long time to get to a place where we can be civil with each other. When we first separated, seven years ago, neither of us imagined we’d ever have anything resembling a genuine friendship. We’d have laughed if anyone had suggested it.
Our two-year marriage hadn’t contained the right ingredients to give it the best chance at success; one of the biggest problems was that we disagreed on what those ingredients were. When it ended, we didn’t have the relief that comes with cutting all ties. Two little people kept us connected, whether we liked it or not. Communication between us took the form of combative, resentful emails — by far the most frustrating way to argue.
We didn’t have the relief that comes with cutting all ties. Two little people kept us connected, whether we liked it or not.
We had to work hard to recognize that there were faults on both sides. There always are. Then we had to work on forgiveness. On patience. On being mindful, especially in front of our two children. On not sweating the small stuff, like The Mystery of the Disappearing Socks. Over time, we managed to talk about the differences between us without it descending into chaos. Seeing ourselves through the other parent’s eyes — in a way that I don’t think parents who live together always do, because the view is different when you’re under one roof — has given us both a certain level of self-awareness that’s been a surprisingly rewarding (and positive) repercussion of our divorce.
The most important thing we’ve had to do is put our kids first. It’s easier than it sounds. In real life — co-parenting life — that means thinking before we speak to or about each other, letting a lot of little things go (again, the socks), and remembering that at one point we did love each other.
Right now, my daughter’s well-being comes before any issues between her dad and I.
The next morning, my ex arrives, arms full of Easter eggs. As always, a piece of chocolate puts a smile on our daughter’s face, if only for a moment.
We wait for various people to check various things (blood pressure, oxygen, swelling, pain levels). In the meantime, my ex and I spend more time together than we have in years.
We talk about normal things: my work, his work, my family, his family. It’s always strange to talk about a bunch of people who no longer feature in my life but will always be a big part of my children’s lives. Their grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins on their dad’s side are far from me geographically as well as emotionally; there’s no chance I’ll ever bump into them at the supermarket or the school gates. On the other hand, my family all live in our town — my ex even meets my dad for breakfast now and again. I realize that I enjoy learning what his parents and siblings have been up to. They’re good people. The more good people in my children’s lives, the better.
As the hours pass, I realize how lucky I am to be in this place. Not in a hospital ward on Easter Sunday, but sitting opposite my ex-husband with no trace of bitterness, resentment, or fear.
I know other people who co-parent with an ex, and more than 30 seconds of obligatory together-time is too much for them to bear. They can’t have the most mundane conversation about new school shoes or a dental appointment without it disintegrating into a full-scale fight about money or responsibility or some other thing that’s constantly threatening to rear its ugly head. I’ll never lose sight of the fact that this was us five years ago. It makes me even more grateful for our new place.
Three months later, my ex-husband and I are watching our daughter swim. After so long in a cast, her recovering arm is still weak; she’s still slower than everyone else in her class. But she’s working hard to close the gap, and she’ll get there.
By reframing my expectations of co-parenting — we’re going to make mistakes, there are going to be breakdowns in communication now and then, and some days are just going to suck — I’ve been able to focus on what matters. My kids know I’m there for them, even when I’m not.