Four year olds are the opposite of subtle, so it didn’t take a genius to realize the dreaded day had come: my ex moved his girlfriend in with our kids. I hadn’t dreaded it because she was a terrible human, mean to our kids, or even the cause of my divorce. I had dreaded the monumental change because the week-on week-off schedule of our family life was a delicate ecosystem.
And, naturally, his girlfriend was going to disrupt it.
I knew it wasn’t fair to expect my ex to structure his life, as I had, around the “off” schedule. It wasn’t even fair to me -or the people I dated- to have a double life: mom-of-three one week and single-and-no-responsibilities the next. So, I wasn’t surprised after what seems like the better part of a year, that my ex moved his girlfriend in. But I had dreaded it.
As soon as the news was unceremoniously delivered by our precocious son, I was on edge – vigilantly awaiting for any sign up upheaval in the natural habitat of our co-parenting. While I tried to keep the strain and tension from manifesting for my kids or my ex to see, I am confident they felt it because there was also a subtle unasked question of, “mom, are you alright?”
I was not alright. I was on edge. It was my own doing.
The phone would ring just after dinner, as it always had, so the kids could talk to their dad on my week … and I held my breath. Waiting to see how his girlfriend would interact. Frankly, there was no winning for her. If she participated in the nightly call – I’d judge her harshly for taking up space in our kids time with their dad. If she was silent and listening, even worse. If she didn’t show, it was a sign she didn’t care about our kids. If they ever broke up, what then?
The drive to soccer practice, dance recitals, and award shows were infused with the same tension; I was waiting to see how involved his girlfriend would be. And disagreeing with any decision she and my ex made.
After a month of the in, I finally called my ex. I word vomited all the fears and dread I had about his unilateral decision that upended all of our lives. He was silent and calm, almost patient when he said, “She is a part of our lives now. But she isn’t replacing you as their mom. You’re going to have to learn to be alright with her, even if you’re jealous.”My shock kept me silent. We quietly ended the call shortly after providing a quick update on who was in charge of the classroom snack next Tuesday.
We’d always struggled to talk about feelings with each other, seeming to never quite be on the same page about anything of objective facts and logistical needs for the family. Its why we were exs after all. But…He thought I was … jealous? Jealous! That was not what I felt. Did his girlfriend think I was jealous? My kids??
I didn’t think it was jealousy that kept me tense around his live-in girlfriend. I was wary of change and the impact of those changes would have on our kids’ lives. Co-parenting is a delicate ecosystem that was constantly re-calibrating to ensure our kids weren’t traumatized because mommy and daddy aren’t together anymore. It wasn’t jealousy; it was protective of our co-parenting dynamic. Definitely not jealousy.
After that call with my ex, my tension shifted. Instead of anticipating how his live-in girlfriend would disrupt our habitat – I tried to just observe my family. The realization was ugly.
It wasn’t my ex’s girlfriend that shifted the co-parenting dynamic but my own guarded, wary, and tense behavior. Our once open and direct four year old seemed to hedge and catch himself before telling me about his week at dad’s, watching me intently for my expression and reaction. Our ten year old who’d wave enthusiastically from the soccer field when seeing her blended family in the stands now averted her eyes as if to avoid making a choice in greeting us all. And true to being the middle child, our seven year old leaned into the opposite direction and seemed to watch my every breath as he would prattle on about dad and his girlfriend as if trying to dissect how I felt and why.
The delicate ecosystem of our week-on week-off custody arraignment had been disrupted. But not by her presence; by me. My influence on my kid’s world and experiences is mighty, long lasting.
It is taking conscious effort to relax in our new habitat, this three adult co-parenting ecosystem. Our kids are happy, healthy, and adapting quite well. I need to do the same.