Parenting after divorce: the art of not being ugly

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Having separate homes may not qualify as birds nest custody. But by building a whole new relationship with your ex, the spirit of nesting can help maintain a healthy environment for your children

Ten years ago, roughly nine months into our divorce, my ex and I started to build a relationship. The immediate aftermath of our split had been a sour blend of quiet and hurt. We tried to make politeness our default position, and it occasionally held. What kept us connected was our boys, then six and nine. They cut through whatever anger sat between us. We held to that one point of agreement: change the boys lives as little as possible. After children have seen their lives inverted, that all sounds a bit feeble, but it was a seed.

Their mother retained primary custody. The boys lived with her in the only house in New York they had known, a loft in lower Manhattan. Before moving back to my childhood neighborhood in Brooklyn, I spent two years in an apartment close to Ground Zero, then a generally inactive construction site. In 2006, it was just a way to live near the boys home and school. The ghosts were quiet and my kids liked the hotel restaurant next to my building.

When a central home is maintained, and parents cycle through it while the kids stay put, its called birds nest custody or nesting. We were improvising, with the help of therapists, and didnt know what nesting was, even if we mimicked it. We maintained two separate homes, so our arrangement didnt qualify, though we kept the boys concerns central. Our interactions with each other in the first year were the least generous. But a second rule went into effect early: no badmouthing the other parent, whatever the topic. And we were lucky we liked and respected each other, beneath the turbulence. Thats where we had started. So the irregular interactions led to a committed decision to not be ugly, even when that seemed impossible. There was enough doubt and hurt for all four of us anything to clean the air helped. It was a way of being both selfish and considerate.

Even when there wasnt much of it, talking was a boon. When living together, decisions can be made by default, without negotiation. Sightlines become assumed statements: There she goes with the morning drop-off. I guess shes OK with it. But when you live in two places, and children arent old enough to travel alone, every movement has to be discussed. Who will take whom where and when? Can you take Friday night, because Thursday I need to do something for work? Generosity encouraged reciprocity. The marriage cynic would say: Well, sure. You had to get along because you cant engage in the silent warfare of marriages. But of course you can fight, if one parent doesnt care about seeing the kids. That wasnt the case, and a cold war never came. We had no choice but to talk.

Whatever else may vex me about cellphones, beginning with my own dependence on them, they allowed a reliable line to my kids. In the past 10 years, weve rarely gone a day without talking or texting, even when one of them had a Soviet-style flip phone that could only burp four words a minute.

Not everything clicked smoothly into place. Talking involved just as many unpleasant standoffs as reasonable compromises. Youre letting them see what? And do what? And miss what school event? But the distance between households in two different boroughs meant disagreements needed to end quickly. We couldnt pretend the proximity of a shared house was some simulacrum of dealing with it. If we didnt table a problem, we wouldnt know how the other parent felt, or what we were supposed to be doing, empirically, minute by minute.

Parents make decisions that are as constant as the subjects are varied. They can involve, but are not limited to, middle schools; high schools; unexpected silences from a normally chatty boy; punishments for ambitious, unauthorized parties; whether or not 48 Hours is a comedy; the choice of a party restaurant really far uptown, way the hell away from Brooklyn; and other traditional life events.

I had no control over the most useful development. Two years into our divorce, my ex reunited with her college boyfriend. (Facebook is not entirely evil.) They became permanent partners, both wearing engagement rings to this day. Marriage ruins everything, they said, so suspended in love they remain, without any help from the state. Her partner became a third parent to my boys. It is hard to accept that hes seen them more than I have in the past eight years. It would be harder to accept someone into our family who wasnt willing to talk through whatever came up, and continues to come up.

Which is not to say the ache overwhelms the memories. For every breakfast Ive been absent from, there is a trip to Juniors Restaurant just for cornbread and coleslaw. For every Broadway play missed, theres a duet of two fools twisting to the Fearless Four on dishtowels.

Right now, all three are driving back to New York with my youngest son, now 16, after visiting a few colleges in New England. Not being there does not get easier for me. Debriefing helps.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/oct/14/nesting-divorce-parents-children-custody