These and a multitude of other questions flooded my mind when I was suddenly a divorced mother at the age of 31. Due to a 50/50 custody arrangement, my son (who was only 3) lived in a world I no longer controlled. Intellectually, I knew divorce meant time away from my son, but I hadn't expected the weight of an emotional collapse that pressed me into a fetal position in my son's toddler bed. Clutching his stuffed animals, I wondered what he was doing without me.
This, all of this, sent me to the doctor for a prescription of antidepressants.
I couldn't stop worrying about my child or crying while imagining a mess of worst case scenarios that choked me with horrible possibility. I couldn't call, text or email my ex since we were supposed to be divorced and living our own lives. It wasn't that I didn't trust my ex husband with our son; it's that being away from our children is unnatural, unplanned and unwanted.
Then, one day, my son had a stepmother.
Instead of disliking her for no reason, I had a desire to know the woman who was mothering my child in my absence. I also realized she could be my eyes and ears, a veritable lifeline between my son and I during our time apart. It was through our shared mothering role and communication that the painful gap between my son and I slowly, oh so slowly, began to shrink.
How we got to this point as mothers and women is another story. Here, I'll share the immensely powerful and empowering benefits of forging friendship with my ex husband's wife. We've been co-parenting for well over a decade and I now count my relationship with my son's stepmother as one of the most important in my life.
1. Our child does not suffer.
Our son lives without the anxiety of combative mothers. He benefits from seeing calm, respectful, healthy relationships where compromise, forgiveness and adaptability are the rule, not the exception. He thrives academically and socially despite living between two households. And even when all parents don't agree (of course, this happens!) we support each other's opinions on discipline so our son has consistent boundaries, expectations, rules and routines. None of this would be possible without a solid foundation of mutual respect with my son's stepmother.
2. Extra time with my child.
Friendship with my son's stepmom means we can stop by each other's homes and plan day trips or vacations together which allows for extra time with my child on days I normally wouldn't see him (and vice versa for my ex and his wife.)
3. No one misses special occasions.
We get together for everything from the first day of school to the end-of-the-year party, from birthdays to Christmas to the Superbowl. We also sit together at sporting events, church and school functions. There is no anxiety or awkwardness when we share or celebrate our son's accomplishments and no one has to miss out (similarly, our child never feels torn between parents who can't be civil.)
4. Peace of mind.
Being away from your child after divorce can be paralyzing. Friendship with my son's stepmom means I know she has his best interest at heart and loves him as her own. This sounds simple, but has been one of the most defining and affecting benefits of our relationship (and I no longer need antidepressants!)
5. No anxiety during pick-ups/drop-offs.
I've heard many stories of children suffering through contentious pick-ups and drop-offs in grocery store parking lots. Our friendly situation allows me to not only drop my son off at his father and stepmom's home, but even visit and talk about our son or extended family in a very relaxed environment.
6. Our child easily moves between houses.
Even when a divorce situation is as calm as ours, we are a little frustrated when our son forgets books, backpacks, school uniforms and art projects during the shuffle between homes. Thankfully, due to effortless communication, I can call my son's stepmom and pick up forgotten items without anxiety. Our son can also take clothes, toys and electronics between homes without worry or fear of leaving something behind.
7. Save money.
My husband and I stay the night at my ex-husband and his wife's home on Christmas Eve so no one misses the magic of Christmas morning. We realized we were spending an enormous amount of money (and spoiling our child) by purchasing our own gifts. Last year, we set a monetary budget and decided who was buying items on our son's wish list. We saved money (and time and energy) without duplicating presents. Our son also knows all of his presents are from all of his parents. We also share costs of birthday celebrations (we have one party, not two) and other special occasions.
8. Ease of communication.
Communication is critical to any child's well-being. Divorce only exacerbates this need. Since we have a great relationship, my son's stepmom and I text, email or talk on the phone almost daily as communication has become even more critical during the teenage years when social schedules are difficult to navigate. The fact that we can talk easily about upcoming events has been the key to ensuring our son remains social (and chaperoned) while we manage our own hectic careers and lives. Communication extends to every facet of raising a child. As we work through orthodontic and doctor appointments, high school applications and cotillion (and a driver's license on the horizon), relationship with my son's stepmom has made all the difference in raising the respectful young man our son has become.