When you have kids and you get divorced you tend to read a lot of advice about co-parenting. Essentially what that means is that you and your ex will come to a contact arrangement, the most common being a 50:50 residence agreement, dad having kid/s every other weekend and some week-nights or slight variations on those themes. Then of course there is the possibility of being jointly invested in the children’s education and their extra-curricular lives – maybe jointly attending parents evenings at school or taking it in turns to attend swimming classes for example.
I knew that it wasn’t going to be that simple in my situation – my ex is, after all, a shift worker and that brings a considerably more complicated contact arrangement into the equation. I also knew that my ex was not particularly invested in our children’s extra-curricular lives – I had been the one to source and book Little Kickers football sessions for our eldest three years ago. I had been the one to take him to those sessions and watch on, happily immersed in a part of parenthood that was genuinely meaningful to me.
I was also the one who sourced and booked swimming lessons and looked into Beaver scouting, attended nativities and school sports days. All on my own or occasionally with one of the grandmas. And it wasn’t that my ex simply couldn’t make those events due to work pressures, there were times when he could have come but he had no interest in those things.
It’s fascinating that he used to sometimes rail over the fact that his own father had never made the time or effort to attend his own extra-curricular activities – even as a teenager at competitive events which meant a lot to him. Strange that he has almost subconsciously repeated a cycle of sorts. But I digress.
I had it in my head that, despite all of those things, we would somehow end up with a co-parenting relationship that meant that, to some extent, our parenting lives would off-set each other. I would have some down-time, we would share responsibility and both be equally accessible to our children.
It’s only been three months since I split up from him but I have already come to the conclusion that I might just as well give up on that particular fantasy. He has had the children to stay overnight 9 nights in the last 15 weeks (and two of those involved only one of our two children).
On several occasions when he was not working and could have chosen to ask for the kids to stay over with him he has instead chosen to pursue his new relationship, travelling 50 miles in the opposite direction to spend the night with his new (supposedly secret) girlfriend.
At the same time he is still maintaining his bitter and accusatory tone with me, playing the victim true to type, sighing dejectedly to our six year old over the phone on nights when he finds himself home alone, unashamedly telling our little boy “I miss you, I’m lonely” as the subtext, (Mummy has done this to me, Mummy is cruel) floats alarmingly close to the surface.
But I am the one who will be there for a sick child; I am the one who is called out at 3am to comfort our three year old and sing him back to sleep; I am the one who encourages and monitors homework assignments; I am the one who ensures that the children eat some vegetables (OK baked beans count right?), breaks up the sibling fights and arranges the ad hoc childcare; I am the one who has to mould their manners and their moral compass, pick them up when they fall and instil their self-belief and confidence.
I am almost solely responsible for their happiness and there is no-one out there (other than my Mum who is helping me bridge this gulf – lessened by the fact that I was almost single-parenting already) to reduce that exhausting and all-encompassing burden of responsibility.
So it’s time I dumped the expectation of a co-parent and began to accept that this decision I’ve taken, to cut free of a toxic relationship and become a single parent, isn’t going to re-dress the parenting balance and allow my ex to become the dad he never was when we were together (and to be quite frank I should have know as I’ve witnessed the increasingly non-existent relationship between him and his daughter (my step-daughter) for the last six years).
No, from this point forward I need to get to grips with the fact that my ex now intends to play nothing more than the role of an indulgent uncle who occasionally shows up to take the kids out for an ice cream or a slice of pizza (whilst simultaneously professing to the rest of the world that he is being given a raw deal and might just don that super-hero outfit and scale Big Ben with Fathers 4 Justice) and maybe once in a while peruse a school report and take the credit for any positive performance (“he gets that from my side of the family”).
Under these circumstances you make a new life for yourself despite the presence of the other parent and not because of it, fitting his sporadic requests, demands, appointments and cancellations in as you would fit in a series of medical appointments – annoying but necessary – or the children’s after-school clubs – a little bit of downtime but not enough to bring you back to a sense of self as an individual, to discover new passions or make new friends. More like an occasion for a quiet cup of tea and a once round with the duster.
Now I have figured out this crucial distinction between a co-parent and an intermittent, token, paternal presence, maybe I should feel depressed but I actually feel free – because I’ve always known the truth – you can’t rely on anyone but yourself.