Divorcing Parents Can Both Play an Equal Role in Raising Their Kids After Parting

Toby Hazlewood

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In the legal community, the first Monday of a new year has come to be known as 'Divorce Day'.

It's an unpleasant and inherently negative label for a day that for many reasons should be viewed positively and optimistically. It often represents the first working day of the new year, a day synonymous with fresh starts, vigorous action, enthusiasm. A day on which first steps are taken to making the new year positive, productive and fulfilling.

Unfortunately, for many couples it represents the day upon which they finally feel compelled to engage legal advice to kick off divorce proceedings. Marriages that have struggled through the preceeding year, presumably take their dying breath during the period of heightened pressure over the Christmas holidays and such couples seek to take definitive action once the lawyers are open for business once again in January.

I guess in its way this does represent a positive step for many - to take the bold decision that a relationship is no longer working for one or both parties and to enact action that will bring it to an end is a brave and positive step, even if it means that there will be times of pain and hardship ahead.

From happiness to divorce in a few short years

My first wife and I decided to part in the late summer of 2005, not on Divorce Day.

It was a difficult and painful decision to reach mutually, but after 6 years and having had two daughters together we reached the conclusion that there was no future for us as a couple.

As we enacted steps to part it was with heavy hearts and a joint determination that our daughters, then aged five and two wouldn’t lose either of us from their lives. We weren’t sure how to make this happen practically but we owed it to them and ourselves to find a way.

Our parting was largely amicable — mostly down to us getting together when we were both still young and unsure of who we were as individuals, let alone whether we were ready to exist as halves of a couple.

Our first daughter had come along quickly and her arrival cemented us in a relationship. For a while, life was good and we flourished as a young family, buoyed with enthusiasm for the new millenium.

We filled our lives with events — buying a house, getting married, having a second child and then buying a bigger house. Each thing filled our lives and diverted our attention. It helped distract us from the reality that we weren’t really happy together (or individually).

When we eventually called time on our marriage I suspect we both felt relief as well as sadness. At least we still had time to build new lives for ourselves and our kids too?

What neither of us was willing to do was to accept that our daughters should have a childhood that was in any way second-best. They hadn't done anything to deserve growing up without either parent in their lives and we were both committed to minimising the impact of our choices.

Good intentions are one thing, but putting them into action is entirely another - while our parting was mutually agreed and no-fault, we still had anger and resentment towards each other and had to find a way around this if we were to make good on our intentions.

Parting is such sweet sorrow

In the immediate aftermath our daughters lived with their mum for most of the time — they were still very young and needed her more than me. In the course of our marriage crumbling I’d lost my job but eventually found a new position a few hours drive away from my kids.

I saw the girls regularly, collecting and returning them for three weekends in four. It wasn’t all quality time given that so much of it was spent in the car but it was time spent with them nonetheless.

I got to hear the details of their little lives as we drove. I tried to help them through their sadness that we no longer lived together in our old home. I responded as best I could to the difficult questions about why mum and dad were no longer together.

It was hard certainly, but it helped me to maintain a place in their lives.

The endless hours driving to see them gave me time to process the past and to contemplate what the future might look like. I was resolute that I didn’t want to just be a ‘weekend dad’.

I’d been active as a parent to each of them since birth. I was happy to deal with their nighttime feeds and changes as babies. I’d taken the toddler-years in my stride.

I was determined that I’d be as active and present through the years that followed.

Striving for Equality

Around 18-months after parting my now ex-wife suggested we change our situation. I was weary of the driving and the kids were too. I yearned for more time with them and recognised that our situation wasn’t sustainable in the long term. The bills to keep my car on the road were financially crippling. The endless hours driving were taking a toll on my knees and back. I'd amassed enough speeding tickets that my drivers licence was at risk of being taken away.

It was at this point that my ex suggested that I should move back to be nearer the kids, and subject to finding a new job and home we would then share custody 50–50. We would live in the same town in separate homes close to the girls’ school. They’d live with each of us for alternate weeks, 7-days at a time.

It seemed like a logical suggestion but one that would require more momentous change in all our lives. In what seemed a cosmic endorsement of the plan, the transition into it came about easily. I found a new job with ease and a new home too.

In October 2007 our equal co-parenting arrangement launched.

I remember approaching my first week with trepidation — the early days as a full-time single parent for were stretching but incredibly fulfilling. The weeks ‘off’ were a chance to recover, to reflect and to put in a few extra hours at work, to socialise and to prepare for the next time the kids were with me. I had always been a capable and hands-on dad, but I'd never had to deal with them completely alone. To this day I have the utmost respect for all single parents, particularly given that few of them are able to have 50% of their time to recover from the demands of parenting as I did.

Fast forward 14 years and the arrangement remains in place to this day.

Our eldest daughter has gone to university and the youngest will likely do the same in a little more than a year. We’ve experimented a little too, using an arrangement known as bird’s nesting (where the kids remain in a single home and we move in and out as custodial parent of the week). That was effective in its way, and taught us many lessons - most fundamentally that what kids need most is stability and structure in their lives, regardless of whether their parents are divorced or not.

Loving involvement of both parents in their lives can be provided within many living structures - what matters most is that it's there, not whether the kids live in one home or split between two.

Life moves on

My ex and I have each remarried. I have a family home where my second wife and two step-kids live full time — I join them in the weeks I’m not living with my daughters. At weekends the entire blended family will often get together in one home or the other. It’s unconventional, occasionally expensive and requires planning and organisation but we make it work.

This story isn’t intended as a humblebrag about how great our situation is and how brilliantly we’ve made life work as a divorced family. We haven’t been immune to struggles, disagreements, disruption or discord along the way.

We’ve enjoyed happiness and successes as parents and kids, and we’ve faced times of challenge, sadness and hardship too. That’s just how life is.

If there is one factor that’s contributed most significantly to making it work, it’s this:

The core principle for our co-parenting and our existence as a separated family is to strive for equality in all things, for all those affected by the arrangement — parents and kids alike.

We're certainly lucky that our relationship and parting was free of many of the ills that occur in marriages, divorces and the years after. Discord and unhappiness are commonplace in divorce and a recurring feature in the parting of virtually all relationships and marriage - they featured in ours for sure. But we were able to put these aside in favour of making a solid, stable and loving life for our kids regardless of the failing of our marriage.

Factors such as abuse, neglect and deep-rooted mistrust never played a part in our marriage, nor have they in the years since we parted. I trust my ex implicitly as far as my kids’ safety and wellbeing is concerned. She feels the same towards me. We believe each other to be competent and capable and don’t pump our kids for intel or insight into the lives of our ex.

We respect the boundaries between us but communicate openly on matters concerning our kids.

Our situation is unfortunately unusual amongst separated and divorced families. Many relationships fail with lasting detriment to the extent that kids can hope to be put first by their parents, or receive a calm and constant upbringing.

Parental alienation becomes a factor for many, and the kids are manipulated or used to manipulate the other parent in awful displays of cowardice and horror. I’m eternally thankful that our situation has never featured even hints of such things.

While our situation is the exception rather than the norm I believe there are plenty of couples with kids whose relationships fail, who in-spite of their differences are willing and enthusiastic to find a means of raising their kids jointly and peacefully, putting the kids’ needs to the fore.

Those are the people who I hope might be helped by our story.

The effects of equality

I’m almost evangelical about sharing our story as widely as possible.

I described our case in an article in a UK National newspaper that was pretty well received. My ex and I were interviewed in another National paper, and 205 (mostly) hate-filled comments to the online version suggested that either the point was lost or that the way it was portrayed was misunderstood.

The relative strength and uniqueness of our setup isn’t about gimmicks or labels that might seem novel and unique, nor have I sought to share our case as a means of bragging or to make other divorcing couples feel bad - I appreciate that it's just one model of post-divorce life that won't work for all, and isn't feasible for many.

It’s not described adequately by headlines like ‘The Secret to a Happy Divorce? Three Homes’.

Our situation isn’t made easy or even possible by either of us being wealthy (insinuated in many of the aforementioned comments). We aren't wealthy by any means. We just choose to allocate the required money to giving our kids the best childhood possible, as I'm sure all good parents presumably do too?

Striving for equality in all things is the magic ingredient that seems to have made it work.

The principle of equality brings about many beneficial effects for all involved:

  • The kids benefit from equal access to both parents, with both present as role-models and influences in their upbringing. They have the opportunity to form close bonds with both parents and a childhood that isn’t compromised or structured reactively in response to the parents’ relationship having failed.
  • Both parents deserve to provide equal input into the lives of their kids and the opportunity to share in both the good times and to deal with the challenges and hardships along the way. Both share in the heavy lifting, the mundane and routine parts of parenting, the discipline, the meal-prep and the cleaning up as well as the fun-times and the silliness.
  • Both parents deserve equal opportunity to free time away from the kids to refocus their lives, to build careers, to socialise, pursue hobbies and to establish their own identities as humans as well as parents. Both may eventually want to pursue new relationships and each deserve the time and opportunity to do that too.

A typical divorced-family structure emerges that is rarely centred on equality for anyone, least of all the kids who often get used as pawns or bargaining chips to exact revenge or punishment between the parents.

When we parted we acknowledged that while our marriage was over, our relationship as parents would remain for all time. We each believed in an equal right to a future that was happy, fulfilled and accomplished for each other, and for our kids.

That is the structure we’ve tried to ensure exists in our kids’ lives.

Final thoughts

Equal co-parenting may not be the answer for every divorced family. For some, a straightforward 50–50 split, seven-days on, seven-days off split may not be practical. Bird’s Nesting might not be the answer either.

What shouldn’t be the default for a divorced family is a protracted, antagonistic structure that is rooted in anger, points-scoring, denial, manipulation and vengeance.

As someone who has been through divorce, who has negotiated the times of pain and hardship and who has seen their kids grow from little more than babies right through to adulthood, I firmly believe that everyone has the opportunity to live a life that is happy and fulfilled.

Sometimes it just takes for us to put aside the personal agendas, grudges, shame and anger that can prevail after divorce. Once these are taken out of the equation and the right things prioritised, it is possible to find a way that we can all thrive as adults and kids alike.

Striving for equality as part of divorce is a big part of achieving that. For those couples who have chosen Divorce Day to begin the process of dismantling their marriage, or those who part at any point in the year, I hope that our case offers hope and prompts ideas for how the future could look if they have kids.

Life is long and parents are parents for the life of their kids, whether they remain together in a relationship, or whether they part. They can give their kids a childhood that is happy, loving and supportive by being open to innovative family structures that are fair and equitable to all.

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