(Spoiler alert: Co-parenting takes work. But, it really can work for you, and for your kids.)
Sometimes, the most extraordinary people walk into my office.
Emily came to me in 2011 for help when she and her husband, Juan, had decided to divorce. They had been married for seven years and realized that their relationship had shifted. After a long and hard-thought process, they decided that divorce would be the best option for them and for their two-year-old daughter, Clara*. Emily hired me to help navigate the divorce process. Juan didn’t hire an attorney but worked with Emily and me closely throughout. Their top priorities: keeping things civil, and making sure that Clara felt stable, secure and loved.
Helping a Two-Year-Old Process Divorce
A therapist by trade, Emily explained the mantra she and Juan had both adopted: The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem. “I wanted a collaborative divorce. Not something based on finances or finding fault,” Emily says. “We had different ways we wanted to live our lives. This wasn’t about him or about me, it was about how our relationship had changed.”
Related: Nesting, It’s Not Just for Birds
During the divorce process, she and Juan nested. For a year, Clara stayed put while Emily and Juan moved in and out of the home. It was hard to know the right way to share the news with a two-year-old about the big new change in their lives.
“It’s heartbreaking, no matter what. We knew we had to help her process the change and learn to cope with her grief and emotions. I think an important part of parenting – divorced or not – is that you have to model how to cope for your kids. That’s what we did, and Juan has been really great about that,” said Emily.
Juan agreed, adding that Clara, now 10, still goes through waves of sadness. “I wonder about her making comparisons to other families,” he said. “But I’m honest about what I think about and I always ask her to honestly share what she thinks and feels, and I think she finds that to be really comforting. She senses I’m really, honestly concerned about her feelings, and she has the time and space to talk things out knowing Emily and I are there to listen. I think that helps all of us.”
“One day, Clara told me ‘I don’t like being apart from you, but now I know I can be happy wherever I am.’ That was so important for me to hear. I knew that she was learning how to cope, and she knew that she was surrounded by people who loved her,” adds Emily.
Relationships Change, But Families Grow
Juan and Emily were committed to co-parenting and went to great lengths to stay mindful and in constant communication. In Oakland, where they lived during and after the divorce, they were surrounded by family. Clara spent time with everyone, on both sides.
“After the divorce, it was painful at first to figure out our new lives and set new boundaries. We spent more time at the beginning getting support from our families. For the first three years, I don’t think we did much together, but now we spend a lot of time together. There are family dinners, family vacations together – we even went to Europe together,” Emily shared.
Rebuilding trust was important to both of them. Truly listening to each other’s opinions and thoughtfully considering the other’s concerns helped them both move forward.
The family trip to Europe didn’t just happen organically. Emily explained, “Rebuilding trust started with vacations together. I wanted to take Clara to Europe, but Juan didn’t want me to take her out of the country without him. And, I didn’t want him to take her to see his family in the Philippines without me. So, we made an agreement: the other parent always gets invited on vacations. We don’t stay together, but the other parent is always invited. Our trip to Europe together was a real stepping stone; it showed that we look out for each other, we respect each other, and it is possible for us to do things as a family.”
“The most important thing that helped me, and eventually both of us, after going through the emotions and the hardships and logistics of moving Clara back and forth between us, was the acceptance that we were a new kind of family. One chapter in our relationship ended, but we had started a new one. We didn’t have to say goodbye. I don’t throw away the good times Emily and I shared. It helps for me to be able to share that perspective with Clara, to help remind her that we all still care for each other at times when she’s feeling confused or sad,” said Juan.
I have friends that are still married but live in separate countries and go back and forth. I have friends who are divorced but still live together because housing prices are so expensive in the Bay Area. Too often, people make divorce a black and white, good or bad issue. I’m glad we’re on the spectrum, balancing our boundaries with an underlying sense of respect. – Emily
Then, the Landscape Changes
When Emily’s mother retired and moved from the Bay Area to a small community in Oregon, Emily knew she wanted to follow. And she wanted Juan to go, too. But at first, he wasn’t so sure. Emily was patient and offered thoughtful compromises, waving child support for a year and offering other financial agreements and incentives because she knew that making an ask this big of Juan would require significant changes to his career, in addition to leaving his family in the Bay Area. In the end, he committed to trying things out for two years – and so far, it’s been a terrific decision for everyone.
Now instead of shuttling Clara on and off Bay Area freeway exits, Emily can take her on a 15-minute walk to Juan’s new apartment. In fact, Juan lives next door to Emily’s mother and the two regularly have dinner together.
Emily and Juan both take pride in the fact that their extended families are not resentful of the divorce, but instead are accepting and open to this new chapter in their relationship. “Juan’s parents are kind and generous, and even just invited my family and my fiancé to their 50th wedding anniversary.”
She adds, “I have friends that are still married but live in separate countries and go back and forth. I have friends who are divorced but still live together because housing prices are so expensive in the Bay Area. Too often, people make divorce a black and white, good or bad issue. I’m glad we’re on the spectrum, balancing our boundaries with an underlying sense of respect,” said Emily.
This respect also helped when Emily began dating Chris, now her fiancé. Juan wanted to meet Chris before Clara did, and Emily made sure that happened.
“When I first met Chris, I knew he was a stand-up guy. He was very respectful of my place and my relationship with Clara. I wanted to set some boundaries around things like gift-giving, father roles and more. I’m protective of my daughter. I appreciated that he really respected that,” said Juan.
Emily was appreciative of Juan’s openness and honesty with Chris, from the outset: “Juan has a real level of self-awareness and confidence. If he had instead been insecure and resentful about Chris, I think Clara would have seen that, and that could have affected his relationship with her. Juan has said that he trusts me and my decisions, and he knows I wouldn’t bring someone into her life if they weren’t a good person.”
She is also appreciative that Chris has always been understanding and respectful of her relationship with Juan. “I was lucky Chris didn’t feel jealous of Juan and the time I spend with him,” she said. “While we were dating, I even took a trip with Juan and his family when we all took Clara to Disney World. We all notice feelings like jealousy, but we try to let go of the ones that will stop us from working together.”
It Comes Down to Patience
At the end of the day, it comes down to patience, says Juan: “Patience with each other, patience with everybody involved. It’s important to take time and learn how to formulate what you honestly want to communicate in a way that benefits the relationships you’re continuing to build. Emily and I ended one relationship and we focused on building a new one. Now we’re building one with Chris in the picture. For me, that feels really positive.”
“Relationships are like careers. Some people take on a career and stay there the whole time. Others move around a lot. I was a teacher for 10 years before I became a school psychologist. It’s not like I regret my previous career, it’s just that at a certain point in my life, that wasn’t the right fit for me,” said Emily. “I wish more people looked at relationships the way we look at careers.”
“Every time I talk to people about this, I make sure I’m honest. It’s hard work,” said Juan. “At the end of the day, it’s nice when people say that Clara is lucky and that Emily and I are doing a great job. But luck has nothing to do with it. Emily and I both work really hard at co-parenting and maintaining our relationship. Clara is our living proof that we’re doing something right.”
*Name changed to protect privacy.