Taking care of yourself so you can take care of your child.
With 19 years of combined experience, I am somewhat of an expert on co-parenting, which definitely has it’s advantages and disadvantages when compared to single parenting. Having your child only half the time might initially sound like a windfall of freedom to the single parent, the trade-off being the difficulty surrounding raising a child with someone you have recently divorced. It is a difficulty which is only aggravated if you have different parenting styles; and, if one of you is paying spousal and/or child support, well, then it REALLY becomes a pressure cooker of unhealthy stress levels and underlying resentments.
While raising my older son in a joint-custody situation, the biggest lesson I learned was that you have to build a life for yourself outside of being a mom to offset the deeply painful days without your child. I used to hear my then five year old son’s voice while doing the grocery shopping. “Momma,” clear as day, as I would be pushing my cart in the frozen food isle, whipping my head around, only to realize that it was some other child in the store with their Mom. I would ache to the point of tears. What is a mom without their child I would wonder. When I found myself in yet another joint custody situation over a decade later, I knew the pain that was coming and decided, maybe not consciously at first, to build healthy routines for myself, instead of falling into the same previous, self-destructive patterns.
Now, after three years into joint custody with my youngest child, I have an active “single” life on the days that my son is with his father, and a joyous “family” life when he is with me. Each of these lives come with a different network of friends and is funny, in a way, in that friends from one side don’t often cross over to the other.
Then there is the exercise. When I look at pictures of myself 15 years ago, freshly divorced from my older son’s dad, I realize that I look older (and frumpier) than I do now. It’s as if the unhappiness and the lack of self-care were radiating off me. Shortly before getting pregnant with my younger son, I decided I was going to do a triathlon, a passion that lasted for many years. My current parenting schedule does not allow for the time required to adhere to a race training schedule; nonetheless, I am able to squeeze in a surprising amount of exercise. On the days my son is with me, I have something called “rollers” in the garage, which allow me to get a quick ride in while he plays outside around me. When my son has soccer practice, I jog around the field a few times. If we go to the neighborhood pool, my son will sit and wait while I swim a quick 10 or 20 laps before we play. I am still trying to get better at a home yoga routine, but finding the required stillness around a nine year old boy isn’t easy. Recently I bought a mountain bike and discoved my son loves riding on the trails with me. I have to slow down my pace and not go as far as I would like; however, it is so wonderful to have this shared outside activity. Sometimes he hikes with me, an option which usually works best if a friend of his (and a soccer ball) come along. It is a juggling act for sure, but all the movement has made me stronger both physically and mentally.
The other important lesson I learned from the first go-round with co-parenting is that you must let go of whatever happens in the other house that goes against your parenting philosophy. As hard as it was to see my son come back to me in the same clothes he had left my house in days earlier, or find out my son’s father decided to start smoking again, it will do nothing but eat you up inside if you continue to think about the things you have no control over. Things like bed time, the amount of time spent on technology, chores and allowance, homework and reading routines, all the things that matter so much to me, can only be focused on in terms of what happens in my house. All you can do is be the best parent you can be to your child when you have them.
The hardest part, besides the letting go of anxiety over what’s happening in the other home, is not talking negatively about the other parent in the presence of your child. It takes a buddha-like will and belief that “smack talk” about the other parent accomplishes nothing and only emotionally harms the child in the middle. Yoga helps with this.
Something that is new for me this time around is that I am responsible for paying both spousal and child support. As a long-time public school teacher, my salary is not extravagant, by any means; so, the twice monthly checks are quite painful. Between working side-jobs in addition to teaching and the already overwhelming balancing act of working and parenting, it sometimes feels like living in a vice, like even breathing is hard. Again exercise has a provided an outlet, with the accompanying endorphine highs and general release of tension. I have also become the queen of meal preps, cooking large batches of healthy options on Sunday nights and freezing portions for a grab-and-go week; but, maybe, that is the subject for my next post…