Published on February 11th, 2014 | by Jessica Patton Pellegrino4
JESSICA PATTON PELLEGRINO on the Importance of Dating Your Coparent
My husband, Moses, and I recently went to open house night at my stepkid’s high school. It was our first time alone together — aside from those late nights in the bedroom intimately passed out from exhaustion after a sexy argument about money — in maybe two months. “Alone” is, of course, a relative term when sitting in an auditorium or walking the halls with 1,000 or so other parents.
It felt like a date.
Which suggested we were long overdue for a real one. Heck, a half-hour to make out in the car with no one in the back seat would be a fine start — never mind a dress-up-and-go-to-the-city-for-the-night date. You know, that thing we used to do all the time before going from a couple to a household literally overnight with the arrival of his nine-year-old son — not for his regular biweekly visit, but for at least the next four months.
If I could rewind time, it would be to right then, seven years ago, while Cora, the social worker from the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, was still going through paperwork in the other room. I would pinky promise or make a blood oath with my mate to do our best to keep lust, adult conversation, and good, old-fashioned romance within sight at all times.
Soon, it would be easy to let it wander off, given the needs of the child sitting on the couch with his coat still on while Cora assessed the contents of our food pantry. I had stood in the kitchen the night before, after Moses got a call from his kid’s mother that, by the way, she was going away tomorrow for 120 days. Her plan was for her son and his half sister to remain in their apartment, sometimes with their grandmother and sometimes with people other than their grandmother who were yet to be determined. Moses called the police, which led to a conversation with DCF, through which he learned that she had been under investigation — for reasons not directly related to her upcoming stint in the clink, though all of her decisions and actions at that time were 40% alcohol by volume — and that they’d been trying to reach him for months at the false contact information she’d provided.
So, their child was coming to stay, and I wondered, what is it that people with kids typically have in their refrigerator? (We mostly did takeout on the weekends he was with us.) Since it was likely more than tofu, hot sauce, and batteries, I stopped at the grocery store after work, shopping as if staging a movie set. It hadn’t sunk in, at all, that my role as the peripheral grown-up friend who happened to live with his father was about to get a major rewrite. At any rate, the baby carrots, bloody mound of ground beef (the first meat to occupy the meat drawer in my adult life) and jumbo box of Kix garnered Cora’s approval. We had also, presciently, furnished his room via IKEA just the weekend before. We’d moved three months earlier —reluctantly deeper into the suburbs, but with the criteria of staying close to the kid and finding a bigger place — and had made that extra bedroom a must-have. He’d always slept on the couch at his dad’s. When I stayed with my father after my parents split up, it had been on a camping mattress, or later, in my stepsister’s room. I wanted his son to feel like ours was his other home, or could be if that time ever came. We just didn’t think it would happen so soon. It’s not like we were clueless about the profound chaos at his mom’s — he had just been well trained to withhold that information, or to shelve it out of sight, or had normalized it. My husband had normalized it, too, minimizing what he knew of her behavior because, more often than not, she was a loving parent who was able to show up for her kids in fundamental ways. Plus, she was masterful at hiding the worst of it, and was contending with issues that are typically progressive, and were progressing.
With the sudden departure of his primary parent, separation from his half sibling, and an abrupt move from the home and town in which he’d dwelled for most of his life, the kid needed a solid, intact, peaceful, loving, functioning, structured place to land and be safe to feel whatever came next, and adults who could handle it, and be adults, and call in whatever necessary resources, and reconfigure schedules, and drive the 50 miles round-trip to keep him in his current school for the time being, and become dinner cookers, homework checkers, bedtime read-alouders and social service/court system experts.
What somehow didn’t occur to us then, and wouldn’t until we had to relearn how to do it, is that this kid — any kid — needs these adults to go on a damn date every so often! I think it’s safe to presume that a kid who’d been left alone to deduce the ratio of formula to tap water for a baby sister can handle two to four hours in the care of a relative, neighbor or sitter. (In fact, this could teach him to rely on and to trust a wider pool of stable grown-ups.) Dates would help us not only stay devoted to and appreciative of each other; they would also help us model to a kid who’s seen otherwise that romance needn’t always end in a restraining order.
Yet, planning dates felt like work and coordination. We were maxed out on both. It seemed like enough at the time to close our bedroom door, roll around together and watch Netflix. However, having to press pause in order to soothe a child back to sleep pretty much disqualified it as a date. Such incidents added to the sense that we couldn’t leave, not yet.
There were many evenings spent comparing and trying to decipher the asides his son had made that day, cryptic as scribbled and crumpled-up Post-It notes, interpreting the moments he’d welled up and abruptly gone to his room, trying to piece together what exactly he’d witnessed, and experienced. Such talks certainly never led to a hot night between the sheets.
Bottom line, we needed to take our relationship outside of the house, get it some fresh air and a new view. We should have — as silly and unspontaneous as it seemed — marked such dates on the new wall calendar (called Mom’s Organizer, so help me), with its rows of all-the-time-in-the-world blank squares until September 20, after which there wasn’t enough space in each box to write the to-dos/appointments/reminders, all in different ink colors in an attempt to keep them straight.
And then, just when we finally knew — after Jerry Springer-caliber courtroom antics — that he would live with us for good, and he transferred to our neighborhood school, and things eased up a little, we found out I was pregnant — just a month after our first shot at it. I’d watched enough friends wait until the timing was just right, then struggle to get knocked up for months or years. I figured that at 36 we’d better get a move on, and that the timing might be better by the time something stuck.
Learning that there was another needy small person en route would have been a second excellent opportunity to recommit to one another, even via regular excursions no farther nor at greater expense than to a diner and a midday movie. We didn’t do it. I spent the next four months too nauseous for living. Moses was understandably freaked out, after the recent hell ride with baby mama No. 1, at the reality of further procreation. As part of the custody decision, he was court ordered to take a paternity test because they were never married, and because it’s apparently still 1965. Never mind that he is on the kid’s birth certificate, or that the kid has his name. She was granted joint custody, and was remanded to pay $1 a year in child support. Which is wicked helpful when it comes time to feed a parking meter or buy two and a half postage stamps. (To her credit — and she gets a ton of credit for seriously getting her shit together over the past seven years — she pays far more by buying his clothes, splitting some expenses, and giving us the occasional check.) But at the time, Moses was shell-shocked, which would culminate in a near-breakup at eight months pregnant, the same week I lost my job. We wouldn’t want to go on a date or even breathe the same air for a while after that.
Then we had an infant — a gorgeous wonder in whom my heart now resided — who slept for three hours a day and cried for the remaining 21 unless breastfeeding, which was every 20 minutes or so, or in constant motion. I spent an average of nine hours a day bouncing on an exercise ball with her swaddled, making shushing noises per the sanity-saving advice of Dr. Harvey Karp’s Happiest Baby on the Block. I had plugged milk ducts and was diapered up in those maxi pads from the hospital the size of airline pillows. “Lochia” is breezily mentioned (if mentioned at all) in the tomes to pregnancy as “a natural part of the recovery from childbirth,” but is, in fact, the weeks-long continuous torrent of blood, mucus and placental tissue. It felt as natural as one of those sludgy industrial area waterways filled with car tires and dead amphibians. Moses stayed fairly scarce. So did his son, at the beginning. My hunch was that he was afraid he’d be expected to watch the baby all the time, having had a major caretaking role with his first sister. We assured him that we were the parents and would do the parenting. In hindsight, I think we emphasized this to a fault, and didn’t give him enough of a chance to bond with her, and with our new formation as a family of four, early on. I was actually glad that Moses wasn’t one of those fathers who hovered around referring to “our pregnancy” and “our birth experience” (try “our lochia,” fucker). He was game to feed her, but she staunchly refused to take a bottle from the get-go. He cooked me food, changed some diapers, and did the laundry. He brought home the complete series of The Wire, which I often watched at 3 a.m. while bouncing, and crying.
This wasn’t a recipe for romance.
Eventually, like two years later, our daughter settled in. Likewise, we settled further into our identities — and in relation to one another — as parents. With three-hour windows between feedings, it would have been an awfully good time to hightail it to a jazz club, or a burlesque show, or any Nerf gun- and Baby Bjorn-free zone. We actually went to couples night at a local strip club once — my idea, even! — but it was awkward and depressing. Seeing boobs made mine leak. The young dancers reminded us of that Chris Rock bit, when he says his only job in life is to keep his daughter off the pole. I wondered if the older dancers had kids at home, or asleep under the counter in the dressing room. I suggested that Moses get a lap dance — I am awesome! — but he said, bless his heart, that he’d rather I give him one later. I didn’t point out what seemed to me the obvious – that I had brought him there so I could get off the hook, because I felt about as hot as a manatee in sensible heels.
Then, on Father’s Day, which seems symbolic in a way that is interesting but not worth thinking too hard about, he injured his back in a seemingly minor stumble while on a fishing boat with his son. He had a history of back trouble, and turned out to be nearly incapacitated and to eventually need major surgery. We got real poor real fast, with my severance and unemployment coming to an end. His spine healed as well as it could with its new bionic features, but he was advised to avoid many activities for the foreseeable future, including the one — carpentry — that counted as his career.
I had to go back to work full-time, and the mourning for the kids, for the time I was losing with them, was the biggest sense of loss I’d ever experienced. I hadn’t known that I’d want to be a stay-at-home parent, or that I’d be really good at it, more motivated by it than any other job I’d held. Having been raised by second-wave feminists who enforced with the best of intentions that I could and needed to have my own career first, and that housework was for suckers who’d been brainwashed by scrubbing bubbles commercials, I hadn’t anticipated the satisfaction and sense of true purpose I derived from mothering and my P-Touch label maker. While Moses had no judgment about men who choose the stay-at-home dad path, he certainly didn’t have a calling to helm the homefront. He was hard-wired for manual work, happily plugged into the blue-collar male experience. His forebears were stone masons and carpenters, the type of family that would put an addition on the house every time a relative got married. What began as a two-family brick building ended up spanning a city block of their Italian-American enclave. That’s where he lived when we met, and I remember thinking it was charming that his stereo was on top of his stove, and that his housekeeping solution was dim lighting — neither of which translated super well to his new domestic gig. While my job afforded us a steady check and benefits, we were still broke, with medical debt and no child support.
The stepkid’s mom became a more frequent and alternately remorseful and adversarial presence. Moses experienced this as a return to the familiar dynamic of the years before we met, except better, since he now had decision-making jurisdiction and physical custody. I experienced this as a berserk development in our family’s day-to-day existence. Our perceptions and opinions regularly clashed, and were often hashed out while in bed — an intimacy killer, to say the least. I mostly, but not always, succeeded in putting my stepson’s interests first, acting as a friendly and nonthreatening character in what his mother understandably perceived as a threatening scenario. My heart ached for her loss. It ached a tiny bit less when she said she was going to punch me in the head. She regained visitation rights yet showed up hours past the arranged pick-up or drop-off time, and gifted her son with one high-priced, high-tech device after another that we had to monitor, regulate and at times confiscate when his homework routine went off the rails.
Despite how altruistic I fancied myself; despite how stellar a stay-at-home parent my husband turned out to be (and he really did, and it changed him — melted the ice around his heart, as he says); despite the joy of watching his connection and rapport with his kids flourish; despite knowing this was the very best unanticipated thing to come out of such trying circumstances, resentment took hold, hard. The kind that, at the time, might theoretically make one want to put a pillow over one’s own or someone else’s face.
Yet, there was love. Somehow the love never went away, despite being bullied by agitation, stress, and panic, out-shouted by shouting, and silenced by angry silence. We did celebrate special occasions such as Valentine’s Day and our anniversary. But that’s two dates a year. The car gets its oil changed twice as often. Nothing can be properly maintained on that schedule, and maintenance is far easier than repair.
Our son (I consider him part mine by now, or at least me his, as measured by love, miles logged and football games attended) turned 16 last summer. He is more easygoing, trustworthy, and comfortable in his skin and in the world than we dared imagine. Our daughter is six. She is sparkly and self-possessed. She recently informed us that I am her favorite person and that her dad is her best grown-up friend. She tells us to let her big brother “do his thing” when we compare his bedroom to a hobo camp, but for the Xbox and heady scent of Axe body spray. Contrary to what I might think about her needing to spend every moment with me when she’s not at school and I’m not at work, she, too, needs us to go on dates. In fact, when we planned our first dress-up-and-go-to-the-city-for-the-night date in years, shortly following the high school open house not-date, she advised me that we needed to go shoe shopping, spotted eggplant-colored lace-front heels that I wouldn’t have noticed yet were perfect, and asked, days in advance, if she could help zip up my dress. Her brother babysat, which was actually a first.
This date rocked.
I once read that most new parents, if they can stick it out for the first five years of their child’s life, will make it — but that break-up rates are higher in that half decade than at any other time. Here’s the truth: If his son hadn’t come to live with us, the odds are good that Moses and I wouldn’t have stayed together. While I didn’t want to, I knew I could parent on my own. But I also knew that I couldn’t rip another home out from under my stepkid. Unless his father and I started beating each other with the furniture, breaking up was simply not an option. (A few inanimate objects did go flying during those years, but never aimed at each other, and never while the kids were in the room.)
These rates tend to spike again when children leave home. A wise couple’s therapist advised us that a marriage is a business that must be kept current and well-stocked; otherwise, when the kids grow up and out, it will resemble a clearance sale: looted shelves and dated, leftover inventory. (Just to be clear, as helpful as counseling was, when you pay someone to referee a 50-minute conversation, that isn’t a date).
I have to wonder, given our own still-ingrained tendency to put just about everything before the shoring up of our partnership, if these empty-nest divorces might be thwarted with some penciled-in, practically chore-like, preventative romance 20 years prior. I’m not willing to wait to find out. We’ve been strategically planning regular horizontal dates for when the kids are out of the house. (I’ve learned that being able to hear one’s offspring breathing in the adjacent bedroom is a decided turn-off; Moses built his son a Man Jr. Cave in the basement, directly below our bedroom. Trying to have sex without making the bed move feels like being in high school, in a not-at-all sexy way). It’s trickier to find common time for leave-the-house proper dates, because we work opposite schedules. But we’ve begun to write those on the wall calendar, two a month, for starters. Even if a conflict comes up, those plans assure us that the intention and desire are there to be a couple, with kids.