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“I remember there was no conflict when they were married and how awful it was to leave my home, my school, my friends. We had a great garden and big trees and then we went to live in an apartment. I still remember the climbing wisteria and how much I cried and how angry I was at both of them for disrupting my life and being so selfish.”

-- From an interview with ‘Sara’ at age 20 commenting on her parents divorce 10 years earlier, quoted in The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study. Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee, 2000, Hyperion.

 

OUR STORY

We sat together on the small living room couch and our daughter, Whitney, lay across both of us. Her gangly tomboy legs were in my lap and her head in her mother’s. “We have something to tell you,” one of us said. “We’ve decided that we shouldn’t be married anymore.”

There were more words spoken, but I don’t remember them or maybe didn’t hear them. I watched her soft hazel eyes widen and then fill with tears. The drops rolled down from the corners of her eyes, across her nose and onto her mother’s fingers as they cradled her head. Breaking the heart of an eight year-old who you love so dearly can only be done once.

Before that agonizing conversation, Sandy and I had already decided we would not be sending our daughter back and forth between separate houses. We had decided that it would be the two of us who would move in and out. Whitney would stay put, with her dog, her room, her backyard, her neighborhood and her house.

After all, this was a problem between the two of us; a marriage we could no longer manage. We had made promises to each other that we could no longer keep, but we were desperate not to break promises to Whitney, even if they were unspoken.

And so, this is not to be the story of our marriage, but rather the experiment we began when that marriage ended. We decided that until Whitney was ready to leave home, that the family home would be hers. We would be the transients.

There would be no wondering in which bed she would be staying on the weekend. She wouldn’t have to think ahead to make sure she had the right clothes for the right occasion for this house or that event. She wouldn’t miss Daisy, the dog, when she was at a different house. Her friends could find her, and her family would always know where she would be. She’d be home. In her home. In her own bed. With one of us at home with her.

So, how to make this work? It seemed like such a logical idea that certainly many other couples had already made this decision. There would be a guidebook, precedents or at least others who had already done this. We went looking.

First, one of us, maybe me, got a lead on family lawyer and made an appointment. Sandy and I would go together. We’d already decided on the money issues and had the plan for the house. So we’d go together to a lawyer as a show of solidarity. Sure, we weren’t getting along about much of anything else, and we could sometimes hardly stand to be in the same room with each other, but we were determined to do this right.

We met Heather on a Thursday in her office. Even the waiting room was daunting. Several nervous people were there, but no couples. In fact, there was no one who looked remotely happy. It reminded me of the tense misery in a waiting room outside a hospital ICU, with better magazines but no families.

Heather listened to us and looked at the outline I’d typed up. We expected that she’d have some ideas. Instead, her first words: “I can only represent one of you,” she said, flatly. We looked at each other.

“No,” I sputtered, “we’re in this together.” No response. I started again, “We just want to do what’s right for our daughter.”

“Doesn’t matter. I can only represent one of you. Which will it be?”

The “which” made me cringe. “We’ve already decided on everything. We just want dissolution and need some help with this … unique… child-sharing arrangement.” I looked at Sandy for some reassurance.

“Legally”, Heather said, looking over her glasses, “I can’t represent both of you when you might have divergent interests. I know what you are saying, but just pick one of you to be the actual client and we can look at this ‘thing.’”

We decided that Sandy would be the client and we talked about fees and legal responsibilities. Then we finally got down to looking at the outline.

“I don’t think it can work. What’s more I don’t think the court will accept it,” she pronounced, now speaking only to Sandy.

“Huh, what’s wrong with it?”

“Well, for starters, I’ve never heard of anyone doing this … ever.” she continued. “And, well, it’s so impractical.”

It didn’t seem impractical to us, although I was perhaps more enthusiastic about it than Sandy. It seemed logical. Our child wasn’t at fault – not even remotely – and we were going to do what we could to keep her life as intact as possible.

What the outline spelled out was that for alternating 24 hour periods each of us would inhabit the house and be custodial parent to Whitney. I had a greater income, so I would pay the mortgage and the expenses, but all of the other non-financial responsibilities would be split right down the middle.

We had agreed that on Mondays and Wednesdays, Sandy would live at “Rushmore,” the street name we assigned to the family home to keep things neutral. Then, on Tuesdays and Thursdays it would be my turn. Fridays and Saturdays would stay as one time-unit and we would alternate. Finally, the parent not there on Friday and Saturday would take over on Sunday.

With rare exception, we maintained that schedule for nearly 11 years.

==========================

Our lawyer – I mean Sandy’s lawyer – despite initial eye-rolling cynicism about the whole idea helped us find our way from an outline to a legal document. It spelled out the official time of day that responsibility was to be handed over: 9AM except for noon on Sundays, and specified that we wouldn’t change the schedule for holidays. Whoever had Whitney on the day on which the holiday fell would be with her that day as well. We were even mindful of the possible intrusion of jealousy worries and sexual issues and decided that neither of us would have adult visitors after 8 PM when we were parenting.

We agreed to have a meeting every Sunday at our changeover, and because we thought that meeting was so important even spelled out monetary penalties if that appointment was not kept. We tried to be as detailed as possible, knowing that we simply did not know, could not know what the future would bring, but wanting this to work.

Eventually I also got a lawyer. Chris looked over the documents that Heather had prepared and made some suggestions, mostly financial adjustments to “protect” my interests and clarify everyone’s expectations. He was equally concerned about our ability to maintain this kind of arrangement over time.

“What will happen when one of you remarries?” he wondered. “And what if there are other children?”

Despite the fact that neither of us had any interest in another marriage or ever finding ourselves in this dilemma with children again, these were obviously good questions. It would be a decade before Whitney finished high school. Both of us were still healthy and probably fertile. Even if we could find a way to remain true to this agreement, how could we possibly expect other partners to understand? And, for heaven’s sake, how could we handle divergent parenting responsibilities if another child came along, a much younger child who might actually demand more of a parent’s time?

We decided that some things could not be predicted, but both of us independently and silently promised that our daughter would remain our first priority. We would let others know that this was the way it was going to be with us. Take it or leave it; we simply weren’t going to be available to another partner every other night until Whitney started college. I think this troubled the lawyers more than it did us, but then again, they had already witnessed a lot of expectation changes in other divorcing couples.

Both lawyers had enormous experience with failed marriages and rotten, contentious divorces, but, to their great credit and despite their valid misgivings, they also began to come around. They looked for ways to help this unique arrangement move forward. They had small suggestions and even some tempered encouragement. However, there was yet a major hurdle to cross. Both attorneys were more than a little concerned that a judge might balk. No judge on the Juvenile Court in Columbus, Ohio, was going to like an experiment that involved a child and a decade of uncharted territory. After all the work and emotional energy that we had invested, there was a reasonable possibility that someone in a black robe was going to give this a terse thumbs-down.

We approached our day in court with enormous apprehension. Neither of us had much legal experience. The docket was packed and the courtroom was thick with anxiety and anger. But, here we got lucky.

Unexpectedly, we found a judge who saw opportunity and optimism amid the gritty angst of child custody cases that she heard day-in and day-out. Judge Yvette McGee Brown also had a lot of experience with divorce, but apparently she saw something that she liked in our experiment. It was on her broad smile that we got our first truly supportive blessing.

After she read through the papers and listened to a brief explanation the judge said, “You’ve got some challenges ahead of you, but I think you can do this.” She leaned forward. “I’ll be watching you.” Then beaming a toothy white smile from her broad brown face, “And I think you are going to make this work. Good luck!”

It had taken nearly four months from the day of our daughter’s tears in the living room to this moment when we had official sanction. It was bittersweet. Undoubtedly it is much better to be a parent and a partner in a committed loving marriage than it is to be in any kind of makeshift arrangement no matter how interesting or well intentioned. We had ended nine years of marriage. No matter how miserable that union had become, its ending was still wincingly sad. We left the courtroom together silently.

Now we were about to begin Part II. Well, not really. Ever since we had come to an agreement about our child-sharing, we had begun living that way. Sandy got an apartment and I bought a tiny little house and begun renovating it. Both places were just a few minutes away from our daughter’s home. Most importantly we carefully divided time and responsibility for Whitney. It wasn’t perfect, but suddenly things got a lot easier. We each had defined time with and without our daughter. The uncertainties cleared a little and both of us relaxed just a little.

Each of us kept a bedroom at Rushmore. There was an unspoken pledge that we wouldn’t invade that space whatsoever. We kept a lot of everyday things there including clothing and personal items. Sandy felt it more convenient to keep most of her clothes in her apartment, but it was less than a mile away. I just decided to duplicate my pretty limited wardrobe in both places. Certainly there were times that we would leave things at the wrong house. If we had to retrieve something, we tried to call ahead, but it still felt a little uncomfortable when either of us would come in on an off day. The house “belonged” to the inhabiting parent on “their” days. We tried hard not to intrude.

Anyone who co-parents after a marriage knows that when your time is limited with your child or children, you have a tendency to focus yourself more clearly on your kids during that time you do have. That was certainly true for us. I was with Whitney every Tuesday and Thursday beginning at 9 AM and running through the ensuing 24 hours. That meant Sandy would have dropped Whit off at school if it were a school day and I would pick her up. I tried to clear my calendar on those days even trying to be done with work early enough to pick her up when she walked out of her third grade classroom. For both of us, it was a matter of setting priorities.

Sandy was back in school full-time and also helping to run a Mexican restaurant with her brother, but she too devoted her designated time to our daughter. We both volunteered in her classroom and no matter whose day it was we both tried to come to all of her soccer, softball and basketball games. We sat together for sporting and school events and for the first several years eschewed bringing any outside partners along.

During summers, we usually hired a young college woman to supervise and chauffeur Whitney and her friends during the day. Whitney was pretty social and we had a big back yard with a pool and a trampoline, so there always seemed to be lots of kids around. It was always interesting trying to explain our situation to their parents who would smile sympathetically and often say, “What a great idea!” But, you could almost read the thought bubble over their heads, “Are they crazy or what?” Fortunately Whitney’s friends really caught on to the idea and in their own ways both supported Whitney and us.

This is not to say we didn’t have problems. Our carefully cultivated resentments and volatility toward each other certainly didn’t evaporate when the papers were signed. Probably not a week went by when we didn’t have some sort of tiff, but we tried not always successfully to keep it away from our daughter. Nonetheless with this level of proximity, as we felt our way through various situations it was tough not to bump into each other’s hot buttons.

Sandy was soon exploring an important new relationship and I was decidedly not fond of her musician boyfriend. There were always small things at the house which one of us thought the other should have done or not done. Moreover because I am a doctor, sometimes I would get tied up with patient responsibilities and Sandy would have to rescue me somewhat involuntarily with extra child care.

On top of that, Whitney was a bright and headstrong kid, so it was a substantial challenge to parent her even when we were married and saw eye-to-eye. Now those differences in parenting styles became magnified. We argued and snipped about how much TV she should watch, about her bedtime, about her diet and dozen other small things. In retrospect these arguments were tempests in a teapot, but at the time there was some serious teeth gnashing on both sides. Obviously this occurs in marriages and divorces alike, but because we shared the same space and had this even balance in responsibilities, we seemed to feel it more vividly.

There was also generosity. When renovations on my house ran into a snag, Sandy let me quietly sleep over in “my room” at the family house even on my off nights. We found ways to share birthdays and holidays despite the contractual provision that those days be simply followed on schedule. We tried to be flexible if an unusual situation arose and we both, for the most part, “played fair.” There was never a question that our daughter’s peace and well-being came first.

Both of our families seemed to handle these changes surprisingly well. There was no overt cynicism or criticism. I think they knew of our devotion. It helped that my large extended family lived in the same town and had always liked Sandy. Her mother and brother had also come to live nearby and they continued to be kind and supportive to me.

Obviously ten years is a lot of time and our relationship, as well as our daughter changed. We still kept the same schedule. We kept the same house. Even Daisy, our border collie, lasted almost until Whitney left for college. I don’t think any of us had major regrets about the arrangement. Sure there is a lasting sorrow that we couldn’t make our marriage work. That failure haunts all three of us. But fail it had, and both Sandy and I knew that continuing it made only for continuing misery. That ending however was a beginning of better time for all three of us.

This concept worked for us on many levels. It allowed Whitney to have a much more stable home environment than might have been achieved by moving back and forth between us. Sandy and I felt more equal and connected in our sharing of parenting and our place in Whitney’s life. It allowed each of us to have a part of that idyllic, perhaps overly romanticized, suburban family home and neighborhood, while it also gave each parent a time and space to not be a parent for short periods of time.

However, one of our failings was a lack of transition for “Whitney’s home” when she left for college.  A few months after she moved into her dorm, it was up for sale.  I had built a new home and included a special suite designed for and by her, and thought that would be sufficient to give her a sense of place.  As you will note from her commentary, it didn’t.  Her loss was magnified when the new owners completely removed the Rushmore house in order to make way for a McMansion. In retrospect, having one of us stay in the home for a year or two into college may have been a better idea.

Perhaps more important than anything else, that sharing of space kept us feeling like more of a family and less of a failure. Sandy and I slowly regained a relationship as friends and co-parents. Whitney understood that we’d taken a risk and gone an extra mile for her. Our families and friends took notice. There was even a small sense of pride in having pulled this off.

This arrangement isn’t right for everyone. Probably it isn’t right for most divorcing couples. However it can work if you and your spouse can move out of that small painful place where you now find yourselves, and instead trade up to the larger, warmer, shared place – where the kids stay.

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