When I began practicing family law over a decade ago, my goal was to help others through a difficult time in their lives by zealously representing their interests. As time went on, however, I realized that sometimes what my clients needed most was a reality check– a voice of reason that would point out to them that some battles were not worth pursuing. The sad truth is that litigation is expensive, and sometimes fighting over principle bears a price tag that is just too great. Litigation also lessens the possibility of preserving any goodwill between the parties, something that is actually quite precious when you still have to co-parent with your ex-spouse after the divorce.
A few years ago, I went through my own divorce. As painful as that experience was, I know that I was quite fortunate compared to most. My ex-husband and I settled our issues quickly and amicably, and over time we have managed to rebuild our friendship. We share custody of our child, who is now 7, and by all accounts seems happy, healthy and well-adjusted. Many of my family members, friends and colleagues have asked me how I have accomplished this, and I have to admit it was not easy. It takes a commitment from both parents to work together, despite their differences, for the sake of their children in order to make the best of a bad situation.
The first thing I had to remind myself was that people’s roles change in a divorce. So, for example, even though I was the primary caregiver during my marriage, that did not mean it should remain my role going forward, especially if his father was interested in sharing custody. I also had to accept that there would have to be nights where I would no longer be able to kiss my child goodnight. In order for him to develop a strong relationship with his father, he would have to learn that his father was just as capable as me of feeding him, bathing him and putting him to sleep. So, rather than focusing on the loss of not having my child 100% of the time, I trained myself to see the benefits of having some time to myself. Overtime, I learned to enjoy my nights or weekends “off,” which have enabled me to visit with friends, work late, go to the movies, work out or pursue other interests, including even make time for some dates.
When we first separated, my ex-husband and I tried to minimize contact with one another while we learned to detach. During this time, I think we both really worked on getting past our anger, a normal part of the grieving process. I grieved the loss of many things, including our intact family, our home together, our love, and our dreams together. The sad reality that this was no longer going to be my life, and the scary proposition of moving forward alone, were incredibly difficult truths to accept. Ultimately, however, I had to acknowledge that staying in a bad or unhappy situation was no longer a viable option. The pivotal decision to be made then was whether I was going to remain stuck, dwelling in the past, or was I going to move forward and try to make the best of what was yet to come.
A few months after my separation, as my ex-husband and I became more established in our separate households and separate lives, we started to talk more, primarily about our child. Over the years, as we have successfully coordinated our efforts not just to make major decisions about his medical and education needs, but also to plan our son’s birthdays, holidays, and other special events. Along the way, we have rebuilt a friendship, which has allowed us to share many holidays such as Easter and Christmas Eve together, even though it is not required per our Agreement. We have been flexible with the custody schedule to accomodate special events or circumstances. We even exchange cards and gifts for birthdays and holidays. Perhaps, despite all our differences, we have managed joint custody well because we can respect that our son will benefit most from having both his parents in his life.
Minimizing conflict around children is difficult, but it is essential in order to protect them and provide them with a sense of security despite the loss of an intact family. All children need regular, consistent contact with their parents and extended families, but more effort is required for separated couples to ensure they achieve this for their children.
A while back, after I had returned from a trip to Dutch Wonderland with my ex-husband and son, one of my colleagues asked me whether I was concerned about sending “the wrong message” to my child by creating false expectations that his parents might get back together. Honestly, I would be far more concerned with the impact it would have on his life if he never saw his parents getting along– wouldn’t he wonder why they ever got together and whether his existence was a mistake? My son knows that he was the result of a couple that was once in love, and it is very sad that the couple could not stay together, but both his parents continue to love him and as a result they do not regret their marriage.
I realize that not everyone is going to be capable or willing to build the kind of co-parenting relationship I have with my ex-husband. But, I share my own experience to point out an alternate possibility for divorced parents, and more importantly for their children. Just because a marriage ends does not mean that some semblance of a family cannot be salvaged for a child’s sake.
Separated parents and divorced couples should feel free to think beyond the norms recommended by our legal system, which is mainly intended to dictate relationships when all else fails. We as individuals have the power to choose the relationships we are in, and how we end them. Sometimes, we are defined by the choices we make in life, and no where is that truer than in the choices we make in a divorce involving children. As a parent, I have chosen to ignore certain legal “norms” in order to minimize the loss to my child of his once intact family, and I truly hope others will be inspired to do the same for their children.
By Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.