Co-Parenting, Family

If you Stop to Put Out the Fire, Turn to Page 8

My eye keeps tripping over the red square on the Google calendar. It says “Class Assignment Surveys Due” but I can’t recall if it’s for work or Bug or something else entirely. While I’m trying for the fourth time to re-arrange the month of June, my weary brain gives me a nudge. Remember? Yes. The survey is an annual collection of parental insight into our kids’ quirks and métiers. These descriptions supposedly help the school determine class assignments for the coming year. Our perspective is mere garnish on the overfull plate that our precious darlings serve up to teachers and playground monitors every day, but it must add some texture to the mélange.

I get on the horn to call Tee. “Surveys are due next Friday,” I say. “I think we have to pick them up at the office.” He doesn’t recall the email so we bounce around about the details before finding the PDF online. I ask Tee if we could each jot down some ideas and then combine them to submit to the school. He hedges before asking, “Why can’t we each just fill one out? I’m sure they won’t mind getting one from each of us.”

We have come to this juncture so many times, the page is coming loose from the binding. If you disengage, turn to page 47. If you try to collaborate, turn to page 82.

An un-conversed conversation lives forever coiled at the epicenter of the whirling storm of logistical BS which is our modus operandi. Friends praise us for our successful coparenting. Sure, we have the most diplomatic and even pleasant exchanges you can imagine, but goodwill does not guarantee cooperation. We are, in fact, parallel parenting.

Tee and I each have unique ways of engaging with our son. These ways are so different — so divergent, actually — that we rarely put our heads together about anything more complex than weekend schedules and the lunch money account. We came to a flimsy agreement about Bug playing basketball last winter but that house of cards toppled before the season was over. Where I believe our son could use a few more structured activities, Tee wants to keep his evenings and weekends with Bug open to flashes of inspiration. Where I see gaps in Bug’s coping skills that might warrant counseling, Tee thinks our kid is just fine and any problems I believe Bug is experiencing are my concerns alone (and undoubtedly a result of my inferior mothering).

Tee’s suggestion that we each fill out our own version of the form is tempting. Free Pass, Page 47. If I go that route, we can circumvent an(other) exchange in which we spar over conflicting perceptions of our kid. Avoidance, as it happens, equals peace.

Alas, hidden variables complicate the equation. We are co-parents, and we both take the term seriously enough to try living its principles. Along with recognizing the importance of the both parents in a child’s life and encouraging strong relationships all around, cooperative co-parenting involves sharing ideas and working together to plan for a child’s needs, education, and overall development.

A well functioning postdivorce family is similar in many respects to a well functioning two-parent family: Mothers and fathers enact the parent role competently, children have close ties with both parents, and parents coordinate their activities to promote children’s development and well-being. – Amato, Spencer, and James: Reconsidering the “Good Divorce”

My mind’s eye flips to page 47 and catches a glimpse of us agreeing to separate survey forms. There at the bottom: The End. Done for the day. Book goes back on the shelf.

Page 82 is something else entirely. It opens into a web of words tangled up with more words and multiple meanings, each leading to yet another sequence of choices. Despite the complexity, my finger holds the place. Joining forces to draw a somewhat coherent picture of this little boy does more than help the school with its yearly game of musical classrooms. The survey form is also a neutral structure we can use to talk to each other about our son.

Collaboration it is. I tell Tee that I appreciate our relationship and that I want to learn learn more about how he sees Bug. I ask if maybe we could share what we write. “Just because he lives in two houses, he’s not two people,” I say. Soon we’ve decided that we’ll work individually on the survey and then look at what we’ve both written in the coming week.

The conversation meanders around to our summer schedule which is an even thicker briar patch than school year planning. We still haven’t worked these details out and June 20th is galloping towards us. I ask Tee, “Will the trade be Sunday or Monday?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “I asked you that question in March or something and you never answered.”

I bite my tongue. If you snap back, return to page 1. If you take a deep breath and check your words, turn to page 138. I give it a beat. Then: “We never decided when the trade-off would be.”

“I know,” he says. “That’s what I said months ago. You didn’t answer.”

What page was that again? I can’t let the spark catch. It’s not worth it. But boy, this stuff is so much like our marriage, I can feel the crackle and see smoke curling from the brush. His question “months ago” was such an innocent one. It was, after all, merely a request that I tell him how we should plan our summer weekends. My response then was that we consider what we did last year and that we think together about what makes sense. A decision is still pending so it must be a result of my falling short. The undercurrent of judgment is a blister forming below the skin.

I understand his desire to punt. Who wouldn’t want to trace all negative consequences back to the one who came up with the crap plan? Who wouldn’t want to savor the gratification of initiating a successful one? Nevertheless, the responsibility for making decisions — not just for pointing out the need for a decision — belongs to us both. Yet after years upon years of some version of this exchange and dozens upon dozens of attempts to re-orient ourselves, we have arrived at the same juncture. Another dog-eared page.

Choice #2. No other choice, right? I say, “Could you please phrase that differently?”

Tee pauses before chuckling. “Okay. We haven’t decided when we’ll do the trade-off.”

“Gee, you’re right,” I say. “And thank you. So, we could do it on Sunday evening. Or whoever has him over the weekend could drop him at day camp Monday morning. . .”

A few minutes later, we’ve got a plan and the smoke has cleared. That’s it for today’s installment of Choose Your Own Adventure: Code-Cracking In the Land of Exes. We hang up and I return to the Google calendar and add new squares to July and August.

When kids are involved, there really is no way to shed a partner. This is a connection that will last (and last and last. . .) We have to sketch this landscape with our hopes then give shape to its contours with our words and actions. It’s no different than any other kind of bond. We are allowed to claim our fellow co-parent as an intimate, as family, and work to make the relationship thrive.

Tee and I have it in us to guide our son’s journey. When we do that as a partnership, and when we do it with care, we choose the path of our shared adventure as well.

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