Introduction from Jen, founder of Stories from the Trenches:
For the first few years after Eli passed away, I was quite antisocial in my neighborhood. The bus stop for my oldest was visible from our living room window, so I rarely ventured out with her. For a year, I wondered who the sweet woman was talking to my daughter at the bus stop and watching our girls get on the bus together. Once my youngest started kindergarten, I decided it was time to venture outside once again and find out.
When you meet Kristen, you are welcomed by her bright smile, strong hugs, and the most beautiful, compassionate soul. I’m truly an idiot for not meeting her sooner. Both Kristen and I come from divorced parents, and we quickly bonded over a lot of similarities in our childhoods. She has made a huge effort to handle life after her divorce with grace and compassion for the sake of her daughter. I asked her to share how she handles life as a single mom. She and her ex-husband were together for sixteen years and married for nine of those years. It has been four years since their divorce, and they continue to share parenting of their seven-year-old daughter. Today's story is an interview between me (Jen) and Kristen.
SHARED BY KRISTEN O'BRIEN
What is shared parenting like for you? What does it mean?
Shared parenting means that we get to have as much time with our daughter as we can while also sharing the things that go with parenthood—expenses, childcare, school, etc. This is not typical, in a sense, since there is no alimony and no child support. We made a choice to share all expenses and focus on equal time together.
Each house is completely set up for our daughter, and she only takes her school bag back and forth. We live within a couple miles of each other, about a five-minute drive. Her dad’s home is the home she grew up in. Going into this shared parenting, my goal was to make this second other home for her easy and familiar. In my home, I completely set up her bedroom and bathroom before she saw it. I made sure to mimic her childhood bedroom as much as possible. Her bath toys, bookcase baskets, and her two favorite books were all waiting for her in her new other home.
What are the pros and cons of shared parenting?
Pros: My daughter is a complete "daddy’s girl," and part of our shared parenting is that we live so close together. Even though she spends slightly more time with me, the short distance allows for quick visits for hugs or gifts—and it allows for split holidays together. It works for our daughter; less time with her daddy would be awful for her.
Cons: A split family means you can’t have your child every holiday or every special occasion. It’s important not to let your sadness show because you know she is going to have a good time with her dad. She is too young to understand that I might feel sad just because I am going to miss her, not because she is going to spend time with her Dad. My daughter would ask very logical questions like, "Why can’t we be in the same house together so I can see you both at the same time?" This is a con of divorce, not just shared parenting.
What are holidays like?
We have a set holiday schedule that we alternate every year. But there is an open invitation for the other parent to come over and spend time. This is not always easy when one of us is dating someone, but we do our best to try to make that person feel comfortable since our daughter likes him or her.
To keep both sides of the family connected, we have a joint family birthday party every year. Our families still get along, so it is great to have them all in one room once a year. If we are dating someone else, that person is invited, too. We take a family photo of the three of us every year on her birthday. It makes a good milestone for our daughter, and she loves those pictures, which stay posted in her room.
Do you have any family boundaries?
We really don’t. My family lives far away. I was extremely close to his mom and sister. When my ex-husband and I split up, we had a conversation and agreed that they needed to focus on him even though they love me. We still talk and see each other but obviously less than . I do not talk about him ever with them. I am still the Godmother to his sister’s daughter. I still send my niece and nephew gifts. To me they will always be my family, though this has been the hardest boundary.
Do you have dating boundaries? (When I asked this question, Kristen began to laugh.)
Originally, we did. We talked about not introducing our daughter for a few months until we got to know the person. Once we were ready to introduce her to the new person, we would let the other parent know—so we could talk to her individually about it, navigate questions, and be open about it. We also agreed to only share concerns if it directly related to our daughter. Other than that, it was personal and not each other’s business. I also insisted on meeting with my daughter present, so she could see everyone getting along. My daughter should be allowed to love whom she loves and like whom she likes without our emotional baggage.
However, in my experience with her dad dating, he did not follow these boundaries. That led to my mantra, "Let go or be dragged."
How do you handle dating?
My experience with dating has been a lot slower. For the first two years, I casually dated and did not go on dates the nights I had my daughter. Nothing was serious enough for her to meet anyone. Over the past two years, I have befriended and dated one man, on and off. He did not meet my daughter until after a year of friendship, and even then, it was in a public place.
I informed her dad afterwards, which led to over an hour of unkind responses on his end. I’ve learned to not respond emotionally, but it can be hurtful—no matter how far along in the process you are. Again my mantra, "let go or be dragged" has been helpful.
Although I am not currently dating, if I do meet someone that I could see myself in a relationship with, I would wait less time before introducing him to my daughter and follow my original intention to introduce them slowly within a few months. I’m not looking for a relationship, but I’m not against it either. I quite enjoy my independence, yet I do have a desire to have a family unit again with the right companion. My daughter already has a dad, so I want a companion for me who would love her for who she is. They would also have to endure and enjoy the craziness of little girl life with little girl friends (written as Jen and Kristen’s daughters were screaming songs and giggling from their room).