I describe every other week as “kid-free.” It first appeared when I started dating again. Browsing the profiles of divorced women and then writing my own, it was important to specify that one was occasionally, hopefully regularly and consistently, kid-free. “Every other week I’m typically kid-free.” Actually, his mom frequently calls on me to cover part of her weeks, too, but, generally, it’s my shortcut for planning intense work weeks, personal projects, volunteering, times in life that require the most flexibility and/or otherwise offering my availability to pals for a night out. I keep my shared calendars up-to-date so colleagues know I won’t be in slightly later or have to leave a tad earlier on those days. I can stay longer for that meeting or that happy hour. It means I can make time to call tight pals or answer a personal email without being brief. It is a given and I can count on it because I have a solid, court-ordered, shared custody arrangement.
Now, as I think about my very brief former life in a two-parent household, I never used “kid-free” to describe a rare date night, or the evenings I worked late or went out with a friend while mom stayed home with our little hero. I listen to other dads describe their “kid-free” periods and it usually involves permission, escape or bargaining. I hear many parents navigating those waters in a far different manner. It makes me uncomfortable but it’s not at all uncommon.
My kid-free periods have become such an integral part of my life that I will never again go without them. I may not require an entire week, but I can testify that, even though I struggled with it for the first few months, I have learned how to use them and now definitely see the need for solid chunks. During this time I am able to resource myself, dig in with a fresh perspective at work, pursue my interests in depth or sometimes just stare at the wall. Without a doubt, I am a better father, employee, listener and general human for it. Could one argue two-parent families would do well in finding a better, more equal, balance in this way?
I am not recommending that everyone get divorced here. Divorces are like snowflakes and I have now had two – one that was peaceful, loving and collaborative after 13 years and no kids – and one that was sadly none of those things and produced one child in less than a year. I have seen two sides of a very broad spectrum. All this to reaffirm my belief that a partnership, a relationship between two adults, two parents, needs to consist of two whole humans that overlap in the right parts – in the “right good” and the “right bad.” It is critical that we each give each other, and claim for ourselves, the remaining parts of our whole and nurture them carefully. Only then can we offer our whole self to our family, whether we’re a single parent or one of two. Impossible to take good care of anyone else if we are not taking care of ourselves. That last sentence leads to a counter-intuitive truth: have to take care of number one first. We need a delicate balance of physical, intellectual and spiritual components. Only then can we do our very best to take care of our families.
Surprised I haven’t mentioned guilt yet? Don’t be fooled – there are layers of complicated guilt behind the term “kid-free.” I miss my little hero when he is not beside me. I carry him like a ghost atop my shoulders as I await his return. His contribution to our household is singular: a 3-year-old’s curiosity-driven world of wonder and play. He comes up with something dope every single day.
This is the day of the week when that little boy transitions from one household to the other. Luckily, as time goes on, this becomes more and more mechanical for me. At first, it was sad as I had not learned yet how to use the time away from him. It was also stressful not knowing what to expect from the other. Gratefully now, I have adjusted to the point where it is like walking the dog.
I often call my son my “little hero.” This is for cute and also for serious. He doesn’t know it yet, being three, but he has had to accept the fact that he has two homes – luckily both sufficiently and uniquely styled out to meet his needs – and learn to seamlessly switch between them every other week. Every week he has to change it up. A certain flow at this place has a different rhythm entirely at the other place. Different parenting styles, toys, bedtime stories, foods, expectations, philosophies and sensibilities. No small task, adapting as he has. This will continue until he is old enough to make his own decision about where he wants to be.
Growing up, my dad always said,
“Change is the only thing that stays the same. Make friends with it.”
My little hero has learned so much flexibility through this process, but also the value of consistency. He can count on our schedule, and on having two well-maintained homes. And most importantly, despite all the changes he has endured, he can count on being loved, whether at house #1 or #2. In this sense, he has a leg up in the change management department. Then again, I think of two-parent households where both parents work, maybe one travels extensively… Families come in all shapes and sizes. We all make arrangements and manage transitions. It’s in how we do it, with our kids’ best interest in mind, that matters above all else.
“I have my little boy that day”
This means that my work day is condensed, I can’t do lunch, I leave on the dot, I stick to the routine and it is non-negotiable. The world revolves around him. End of paragraph.
“His mom has him that day”
Self-explanatory to me but can mean different things to different people. In my world, that means that on those days mom makes the decisions, responds to invites, brings him to play dates and attends school events. Of course, in the future, if it’s a big enough deal, like a school performance, we may both attend. But other than that mom’s in charge during her week and I during mine.
In the past, and even now among other two-parent household dads that I’ve overheard, this sort of statement often means that daddy is giving mommy a break. Daddy is giving mommy a break.
Typing that last sentence reminds me of the whacked gender expectations that still exist in two-parent households. Think of all the articles about “shared parenting” and shared household chores still being a myth. Daddy still gives mommy a break most of the time. Rarely does the media discuss the reverse scenario, even though it’s happening more and more in this generation of parenthood. Rarely does the media discuss what I’ve taken to calling some parents’ “perverse sense of service” or what George Carlin called, “child worship.”
Even outside of that, my dad could not have ever been a single dad. There is just. No. Way. In this day and age, however, single dads are evolved caregivers. Rarely does the media acknowledge us. Likewise, how important alone time, or adult time, is for parents without lacing the story with guilt via an outdated ethical-full-Nelson.
I might identify myself as a single dad but I don’t think of myself as a single parent. You’ll notice that I’ve used “single-parent household” or “two-parent household” to specify what I’m talking about. My little boy most definitely has two parents and is luckier than many in that way. I do not make decisions in a vacuum; the other parent is always considered and consulted. I do run my household on my own, though. His mom and I each run our own in that way. If he is sick on one of “my days” then it’s my responsibility and I’m on my own. If I have to miss work, that’s on me. If I’m facing a schedule change, it’s on me to find a solution. I buy the groceries, carry them home, put them away, I do the laundry, dry it, fold it, do the cleaning, the dusting, cook dinner, make lunches, change the song, keep things interesting, read stories, take care of the dog, pick out toys, test new apps, shop for his clothes, change diapers (almost done), sing with him, potty train, play play play, take him to the doctor, facilitate Skypes with his mom, organize play dates, do bath night, bed time, get him ready in the morning, make breakfast and generally keep things on track. So in those moments, yes, I guess I’m a single parent.
It is incredible how much I can get done in a day before my head hits the pillow.
And what in the world did I do with all the free time I had before my little hero came on the scene?
Just because I’m divorced doesn’t mean I’m going to parent the little guy on my own for the rest of my life. Once I was ready, I started dating again. I am grateful to have found an amazing someone with whom I’d like to build a new life, even a blended family. But at 43 years old, “girlfriend” just doesn’t sound right nor does it convey the depth of my new partnership or the tightrope that we have both committed to walking to make a partnership like ours work. We have to be partners first and foremost, and that word contains the lovers, the friends and the fellow parents that we are. Only a true partner is willing to understand and accept the complexities of my life and the decisions that were made before her. She is ready to love my sweet son like her own, extend her hand to his mom with respect (whether his mom accepts it or not), take her time and let me take mine and be both realistic and idealistic in the right moments. There is still so much to look forward to and my hope is that each thing will only add to our little hero’s life, making it richer by the day.
*this post was written collaboratively and with inspiration from Marielle Schmidt