Co-parenting with your ex: it’s possible!
Raising children when you are together is tough as nails. When divorced? Almost impossible.
Below, I share one successful co-parent’s story.
When my friend and family practice attorney, Kelly Chang Rickert, said “you should write an article on being a model co-parent!” I thought maybe she had gone mad. I didn’t feel like a model coparent. The mother of my child, Marissa (names have been changed), and I don’t exactly get along. In fact, of all the people in our lives, we are each probably the one that causes the other the most grief/anger/anxiety. There are times when I want to kill her, and it’s clear the feeling is mutual.
Our son, Luke, is now 7 years old. We weren’t married when he was conceived, we were just dating — poorly. I moved into her place (having sold my house to fund my startup company a couple of years prior) the week before he was born. I moved out the same month he turned four. We tried, mostly, I think, for our son, not because our relationship was special; but we just didn’t get along. We don’t make each other happy. We fight. Sometimes we yell or cry. It wasn’t a great four years.
Then I moved out. My belief was, and is, that two happy homes are better than one unhappy home. I offered a quick and easy settlement: “I’ll take three days a week, you take four, and we won’t have to go through lawyers or anything”. Instead, she wanted full legal custody and wanted to control when and how I saw my son. Her first offer was for a few hours a week and no overnights, this for a child I had seen every day and kissed goodnight every night since the day he was born; minus a few business trips.
We quickly went down a rabbit hole of attorneys and mediation and a fight for custody. She’s a physician and found it easy to find an attorney who was happy to take the case of a “rich doctor”. Of course, the attorney told her how great her case was, how she could help her get what she wanted and how unreasonable I was being — they all do that. The fact is, however, that California values both parents’ involvement in their child’s life and, as long as I wanted to stay an involved parent, 50/50 was our inevitable outcome.
Psychologically, it probably didn’t help that I had let the mom make virtually all the decisions involving our kid when we were together. She had stronger opinions about play dates and bedtimes and everything else than I did, so I mostly rolled with it, though we still fought over topics like these too (ask me about co-sleeping sometime). She clearly wanted and expected to keep up that kind of control once we were apart. She got especially mad at me at one point, I’m sure I was no prince, and had me only talk to her through her lawyer. It was tempting at that point to “Lawyer-Up” and let the legal-eagles duke it out. I’ve hired lawyers before in business, Marissa hadn’t. She didn’t know how they tend to overstate your case and how they get paid more the more you fight. So I took a different turn and dealt with her lawyers myself.
This isn’t something I’d recommend to most anyone. I’d been coached by lawyers before, but mostly only in Intellectual Property strategy, which still gave me some idea of where the lines were. I was careful to keep in mind what to say, what not to say, and I had a family practice attorney friend, Kelly, I could call for unofficial advice (or just to talk me off a ledge) when I needed it. I had another local attorney, Rebekah Frye, on retainer too, who was great, but I told her to “not do anything billable”. When talking with Marissa’s lawyers I was always polite. I avoided introducing anything into the conversation that could be a liability for me. I was also loquacious. I would write 5 page e-mails to her attorney and copy every lawyer in the office whose e-mail address I had ever seen. This made things expensive. Pretty soon Marissa’s retainer, probably low 5 figures, was used up and she hadn’t gotten anywhere, other than an expensive delay.
Then we moved to mediation. In round #1, I got my ass handed to me. I went into these sessions overconfident and under prepared. Marissa, it became clear, had an attorney and/or a shadow mediator coaching her before and after every session on exactly what to say. She started every sentence with “I think it is in Luke’s best interest….” before making whatever unreasonable statement or demand that she wanted, even though those demands were often clearly not in Luke’s best interest; but would take a lot of explaining on my part to make the mediator understand why. It was hard to listen to that for an hour a week and keep my cool. I was promised more time with our son by the Mediator, it happened … slowly. Meanwhile, though, Marissa was becoming expert at delaying the inevitable. She delayed it for years, even breached one of the mediation agreements to do so (she’d dispute this); but another mediator and another year, when Luke was 7, I finally got to 50/50 time.
I traded time for de-escalation of the conflict. I could have filed a motion in court, gone to a court appointed mediator, and gotten 50/50 time a lot faster than private mediation provided. We also could have gotten sucked into child welfare evaluations, home inspections, motions and counter motions, dragged each other through the mud, spent 6-7 figures on legal fees in the end hated each other so much that Luke would never see us in the same room again. It would have been easy to fall into that; in fact, I think it’s fair to say the system set us up for it and we had to get off the beaten path to keep it from happening. It’s not easy to be the one to do that, especially unilaterally.
Now, are we model coparents? We don’t chat. She won’t even meet with me in public, unless Luke is there, but we *can* sit next to each other at Luke’s school events — so he has only one place in the audience to look for his parents. We are civil and polite at handoffs. We easily exchange time if one of us has a work conflict, coordinate on pickup/dropoffs, accomodate play dates, take turns hosting b-day parties (which we both attend at the other’s house), trick-or-treat as a family, sometimes we even have dinner together on random nights (usually me offering to drive over takeout on one of her custody nights). In a crowning achievement, this summer we drove from the SF Bay Area to Disneyland for a weekend. 8hrs in the car each way, and shared a hotel room for three nights (Luke slept in her bed, I had the other). It wasn’t easy, I think everyone melted down at least once on that trip, but it was 99% fun and a great childhood memory of a rare family event for our son. Everytime I pick up Luke from his mom’s house, I tell him how lucky he is to have a such a great mommy. It’s true, she’s a great mommy, just not a great partner for me. There’s a difference.
I still want to kill her, sometimes, and I’m sure she feels the same about me. I guess this is what success feels like.
Truly inspirational. If you are currently in a dispute with your ex over parenting, consider mediation.