Love, marriage, baby carriage…here’s the not-so-blissful truth about romantic relationships: Sometimes, they end. In fact, there are 1.2 million separated and divorced Canadians with kids younger than 18. But more and more of them are finding ways to set aside their differences and raise their kids as a team—read on for road maps to success from three very different groups of parents.
Family #1 The next-door neighbours
MONICA McGRATH AND KENT KIRKLAND It was Monica who came up with the idea for the “transporter”—the long hallway that connects her house in Edmonton to her ex-husband Kent’s house next door. Along the hallway are bedrooms for Audrey, 10, and Sean, 12, who spend a week at a time with each parent. When it’s Monica’s week, Kent simply closes the door at his end of the transporter, and Monica opens hers, so the kids’ rooms (along with the family dog and Sean's bearded dragon) become part of her unit. No drop-offs, no lugging suitcases to school and no tearful goodbyes. “They go to bed every night surrounded by their things,” says Monica on the line from Edmonton, with Kent on the extension. “For me, that’s so important.”
Monica and Kent divorced in 2010, after 14 years of marriage. There was no precipitating event. “It just fell apart,” says Monica. Both of them were hurt and angry, and the kids were devastated—Audrey, who was only five at the time, would often talk about her “broken heart.” Nearly two years after the split, Kent was living in a house six blocks away from the family home, handing the kids off each week. Both parents missed the kids terribly, and with no family and few friends nearby, they often ended up bailing each other out when one had to work late or go out of town. It was exhausting (not to mention expensive, particularly for Monica, who had been a stay-at-home mom and was only working part-time). Desperate to improve the situation, Monica hit on the duplex idea and pitched it to Kent, who at the time owned a construction company. They sold their houses, bought an old place nearby and tore it down to start from scratch.
Though they share a backyard and a garage, Monica and Kent can go days without seeing each other. They text often and occasionally have dinner as a family. They babysit for each other and make up the time later. And they celebrate Christmas together at home—the one day a year when both transporter doors are left open.
While neither of them is dating right now, both admit it could get awkward when a new significant other starts coming around. “That’s something I don’t necessarily want to share with Monica and the kids until it’s serious,” says Kent. But their unusual living arrangement is one of the first things he brings up when he goes on a date: “It’s who I am. It’s part of the deal.” Indeed, both parents plan to stay in the duplex until the kids are in university.
“In order to be successful co-parents, you have to put your ego away and put the kids first,” says Kent. “You’ve brought them into the world, and it’s your responsibility to make things as good as possible for them.”
Monica agrees. “Some people get the idea that this situation is all so perfect and easy,” she says. It’s not—they’ve both worked hard to get past the grief associated with their split. “I think this house actually helped us,” she says. “I still feel like we have a family. It looks different—it is different—but I feel like I haven’t failed at something quite so much.”
Family #2 The planned parenthoods
LISA AND JOANNA VANLINT, JOE CRANGLE and BOBBY BARNETT Eight-year-old Alex has four parents. There’s Mum and Mummy (a.k.a. Lisa and Joanna), with whom he lives full-time. Then there’s Daddy and Pops, more commonly known as Joe and Bobby. They were the first couple among the moms’ male friends who said yes when Lisa asked, as she puts it with a laugh: “Please, sir, can you spare a cuppa?”
Plenty of Lisa and Joanna’s friends had turned to anonymous sperm donors to get pregnant. But Joanna never knew her biological parents—she was adopted—and she wanted her future child to know who his dad was. Before Lisa got pregnant (Joe’s the biological dad), they laid out everyone’s roles and responsibilities in a non-legally-binding statement of intent. The moms (who wed in 2003) would be Alex’s legal guardians and primary decision-makers, with zero financial expectations from Joe and Bobby, who’ve been together for 14 years and married for four. The men were open to visits that would range anywhere from twice a year to twice a week. “They went in thinking they were donors,” says Lisa.
Then Alex came along, and Joe and Bobby were hooked. Now, the entire family hangs out every Wednesday night, and Alex spends a day each weekend with his dads. They also step in when “the girls” are out of town or in a babysitting jam. In the winter, all five of them take a week-long holiday, and they spend summer weekends at Joe’s parents’ house.
With no lingering resentments from earlier romantic entanglements, the relationship has thus far been smooth. That doesn’t mean everyone’s happy all the time. Logistics can be a nightmare. Joe and Bobby’s parents—who are delighted by the grandson they never expected—want to spend as much time with Alex as they can, especially around the holidays (which means Christmas, Easter, Passover, Rosh Hashanah and more, since Joe is Jewish and Bobby isn’t). “Sometimes it feels like we’re planning the D-Day invasion,” jokes Joe of all the juggling involved. But he and Bobby attend all of Alex’s school concerts and sports events, and have regular check-ins with his moms on his progress, often over beers while Alex is at home with a sitter. Last year, when he started slacking off in school, Lisa and Joanna came up with a homework plan and Joe and Bobby helped by enforcing it when Alex was at their place. “It wouldn’t have worked if it was just me,” says Lisa. “We all need to be on the same page.”
Frank communication is crucial. “The way men communicate is totally different from women,” says Lisa, who had to learn to be absolutely direct with the dads, rather than simply hinting that something was off. Above all, she says, their unorthodox family has thrived because all four co-parents like and respect one another—and want the best for their son. “To make a beautiful family is a wonderful thing, but it requires nurturing,” she says. “That’s pretty universal.”
Family #3 The long-haul drivers
ERINN STANLEY* & JASON THORNE* Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, lies exactly halfway between eight-year-old Emily’s two homes. Every second Friday, she and her mom, Erinn, set off from Melville for the 45-minute drive to meet her dad, Jason, who lives in Regina. On Sunday afternoon, after Emily has spent the weekend hanging with Jason, her stepmom and stepsister, they do it all over again, but in reverse.
Erinn and Jason didn’t plan on becoming parents—at least not together. “It was one of those ‘whoops!’ things,” says Erinn. They lasted as a couple just a few months into the pregnancy before agreeing to co-parent their daughter as friends, rather than trying to force a relationship they knew was doomed. Once Emily was weaned, they settled into a routine: Jason would pick her up from daycare on Wednesdays, then take her back the next morning. He’d also take her every second weekend and some holidays.
Then, five years ago, everything changed. Erinn’s husband, Scott, whom she’d married when Emily was 20 months old, got posted to Melville. “Could I have put up a fight and tried to hold them back? Yeah, probably,” says Jason, who still pays child support. “But it wasn’t worth it. Erinn was happy, Emily was happy. It was a no-brainer to let them go and work out the details later.”
Erinn now also has a five-year-old son and twin toddler girls with Scott, who’s a second dad to Emily. “This is a three-parent team,” says Erinn. They all discuss major decisions, and Erinn and Jason email at least once a week. She also calls him regularly with school updates and invites to skating lessons (though he can’t always make the two-hour trek during the workweek).
When Emily is at Jason’s house, she’s subject to his rules, not her mom’s. There have been conflicts, especially during extended visits. A few years ago, Erinn put her foot down about Jason smoking in front of their daughter. And after Emily’s teacher mentioned how tired and cranky she was every second Monday, Erinn and Jason had it out about his lax bedtime rules. To drive home her point, she let Emily stay up late for a couple of nights before sending her to Regina. He got the point pretty quick.
No matter how angry she gets, though, Erinn never vents in front of Emily, since she knows first-hand how damaging that can be. She grew up with her stepdad, and her mom would often badmouth both him and her biological dad. “It makes you feel so resentful toward everybody,” she says.
As for Jason, it’s hard to imagine him getting riled about anything. “You just have to be level-headed, and forget all the drama of being a couple,” he says. “Am I saying that I don’t grumble a bit? No. But I pick my battles.”
Erinn sees plenty of acrimonious exes come into the bank where she works to close their accounts, and she knows that could have been her and Jason. “I’m grateful we chose to make this work, because it works for Emily,” she says. “It’s all she’s ever known.”
* names have been changed
For more information on how to help your kids handle divorce, check out this video:
A version of this article appeared in the January 2015 issue with the headline "How to rock at co-parenting," p. 68.