It may sound odd, but one of the most successful things I’ve ever done is get divorced. Actually, getting divorced wasn’t the big success; what I’m proud of is how four people shared a common goal of creating a new kind of family. That went really well.
Soon after my daughter was born in 1997, it became clear that her mother and I were at odds about how to raise a child together. We loved each other, and we adored our baby, but we couldn’t find our way as a family, so after four more years of repeated failures at reconciliation, we split up. Immediately our family took a turn for the better.
With a four-year-old girl to raise in two separate households, her mother and I explicitly agreed to a few things:
- Make her life between two homes feel as safe, stable, and predictable as possible.
- Never put her in the middle of our relationship.
- Never disparage the other in front of her.
For the most part we limited our day-to-day collaborations to logistics and bigger decisions involving our daughter’s health and schooling. Everything else we did separately.
It was nerve racking.
I’m a pretty good playmate, storyteller, puppeteer, dishwasher, diaper changer, cook, but being responsible for everything was really hard. Grocery shopping was the hardest. More than once I found myself stalled in the middle of an aisle hungry, bewildered, and enraged. It was the combination of low-blood sugar and no grocery list that brought me to my wit’s end.
“What can we have for dinner? Oh, I guess I could just fry up a burger. She likes burgers enough, but we had that last night. I could get bunny pasta. I think we have enough bunny pasta. I’m really sick of bunny pasta. I have to get something decent. Asparagus. She loves asparagus as long as I broil it. Do I have asparagus? Why didn’t I make a list? I can’t decide anything. I’m a total piece of shit.”
I carved a short path from dinner planning to self-loathing.
It took a couple years to get my groove, but I got it. Grocery shopping actually grew into one of my favorite things my daughter and I did together. Go figure.
Harmony came in four parts.
Then I got married again. My new wife, my daughter’s mother, and I were each products of our parents’ horrible divorces, and we each individually vowed to never drag a child through the same kind of muck, but none of us knew what a good family with divorce looked like. Maybe it was enough to know what we didn’t want because a picture of something better emerged.
I remember the moment my nerves quit being racked by it all. It was evening, warm, the sun slowly setting way out in front of us. We were on a quiet beach on a Greek island called Naxos, the four of us together. My ex-wife had brought our daughter over on the ferry from Paros to meet up with my new wife and me for a couple days.
While my daughter and I played paddle ball in the sand, the two women swam in the calm Aegean Sea. As their bobbling heads drew closer together, the smooth water carried their voices directly into my ears, and I could hear their short conversation as though I was standing in the water next to them.
“I just wanted to thank you. I’m sure it’s not your idea of a vacation with your husband to spend it with his ex-wife!”
“Are you kidding? This feels like the family I never had.”
There it was. The picture of our new family. I’m sure my daughter was wondering what her dad’s tears were all about.
We are doing it again.
As I mentioned in a previous article, my dreams of this version of family are coming to an end. I’m getting divorced again. Though not so good at some others, we are pretty good at the family thing. We three adults will always be bound together by our daughter. She has become the focus of our cooperation.
What will family look like this time around? We have a little better idea, but it still feels new— again.
What went well for you?
I’m not asking for advice, but I’d like a response, either in the comments here or write me directly. I know many of you have been divorced. It’s nothing to take lightly, but there are things that can go right, and having witnessed so many difficult divorces, I think it’s time we told people what works.
So, even if your divorce was difficult, there has to be something that went well. What did you do right? Tell me. Help me spread the word.