Between himself, his wife, his ex-wife, his wife’s ex-husband, his ex-wife’s new husband, and the relatives of all of the above, Pete Humes has gotten used to juggling the demands of a whole lot of people who want to claim time with their three kids.
In my house, we have what’s called a “blended family.” My wife and I each have a child from a previous marriage: her daughter lives with us in Richmond, my son lives with his mother in North Carolina. And eight years ago, we made a daughter together.
Unlike the “typical” nuclear American family, it’s rare that all of us are in the same place at the same time. We work hard to schedule long weekends, camping trips, and family gatherings that include everyone, but it’s not easy.
For people without kids, divorce is an ending. But when children are involved, it’s a strange kind of restart. Here’s a fun fact: even though your marriage exploded because you didn’t get along, the rest of your parenting life now depends on your ability to accommodate, coordinate and communicate with your ex. It’s literally the law.
In theory, we figured out all of the custody and visitation arrangements during the divorce. Lawyers helped us decide when, how, and where birthdays, summers, and holidays were going to be spent…forever. It was a bizarre exercise in which grown adults pretended they could control the future. Ultimately, we realized that our meticulously worded plans were pointless.
For people without kids, divorce is an ending. But when children are involved, it’s a strange kind of restart.
Life happens… and then you improvise.
Our kids were pretty young when we embarked on our post-modern blended-family adventure. Today they’re teenagers, so our juvenile juggling act has been going on for more than a decade.
When they were young, we practiced the “Basic Swap.” We alternated weekends, traded some weekdays and settled into a regular rhythm of back and forth. It was simpler then because toddlers don’t have much going on in their lives. Check a five-year-old’s Google calendar sometime… it’s pretty pathetic. Mostly just giant blocks of time devoted to watching Spongebob, eating Goldfish crackers, and laughing at fart noises.
When our child-swap rotation synced up, my wife and I were rewarded with a weekend without kids–48 glorious hours of sleeping in, swearing out loud, and not ordering off the children’s menu. Maybe we felt a bit guilty at first, but we got over it. We realized that it was all part of the ebb and flow of co-parenting and embraced our glorious, adult-themed downtime.
Suddenly it wasn’t just dad and mom vying for their time. The rest of the world wanted in on the rotation.
As our kids matured and discovered the fascinating world of social interaction, they became more than adorable hot potatoes that we passed back and forth. Suddenly it wasn’t just dad and mom vying for their time. The rest of the world wanted in on the rotation. First it was classmate birthdays and little kid sports. Then we graduated to lessons, summer camps, and sleepovers.
Yes, it got complicated. But all the back and forth just became our new normal. We mastered the art of calendar shuffling and embraced the idea that most plans are best written in pencil.
But there’s still one part of this whole deal that never gets easier. One puzzle still leaves us frustrated every year: the Steel Cage Match of Shared Custody also known as the holiday season.
Every year we try to please everybody. And by “everybody” we mean my parents, my wife’s parents, her ex-husband’s parents, my ex-wife’s parents, my ex-wife’s new husband’s parents and every sort of brother, sister, aunt, uncle, cousin and great grandmother in between.
Our feeling is that days and dates don’t matter as long as we find some time to spend together.
Everybody wants of a piece of our kids during the holiday season. So it becomes our job to figure out how to make it happen. We draft plans with military precision that involve pickups and drop-offs across multiple state lines. We schedule drive-bys, drop-ins, and sit-down dinners. It’s like a high-stakes game of emotional Jenga. The game ends well if all the players get to take a piece without sending the tower crashing to the ground.
Sometimes we have to say no. Sometimes we hurt people’s feelings. We won’t always have Thanksgiving dinner together on Thanksgiving Day. We won’t always open presents together on Christmas morning. But our feeling is that days and dates don’t matter as long as we find some time to spend together.
Do I ever worry if this kind of fractured, schizophrenic family situation is going to have negative effects later in life? Sometimes. But lately I’ve embraced the idea that worry is wasted energy. My wife and I have done the best with the cards we were dealt. We made it work.
Ultimately, I look at it like this: some kids aren’t lucky enough to have even one loving home. The fact that our kids have always had at least two? That sounds pretty OK to me.
Photo by: Chris Campbell