Written by Pearl Renee Pilbeam
This post was written to contribute to the topic of Motherhood/Real Talk for the What Lola Likes blog by Pearl Renee Pilbeam . All facts, opinions, and professional tips are Pearl’s.
My marriage started to collapse when I was around 5 months pregnant. Looking back now I might even say it was always on rocky footing, but the ground underneath really started to shake at 5 months pregnant and by my baby shower at 32 weeks, we were officially separated. I spent that weekend in a hotel room with my mom and sister. A few weeks later I learned that my then husband had carried on several old relationships and started a new relationship with a colleague, while I thought we were working to save our marriage. A week after that the teacher next door to him was officially his girlfriend. I was in shock.
Realizing that I would be starting my journey into parenting as a single parent it quickly became incredibly clear to me that I was going to need support and that getting to a place where I had that support was absolutely necessary. So, at 39 weeks pregnant I moved to Boise, Idaho where my sister, her husband and their three kids live. My parents swiftly moved me, my work agreed to keep me on in a telecommuting capacity, and my mom stayed with me through birth and my first three months with my sweet boy.
I tell this part of the story to give a bit of context to the emotional landscape that both his father and I were trying to navigate during this time. By early March (my sweetie was born the second week of February) I had served him divorce papers and we were starting what would be a long, expensive, emotionally (and sometimes physically) taxing journey to divorce that would end about 10 months later.
I dealt with so much during this time. I was a new parent, not sleeping, working so hard to establish breastfeeding (truly one of the hardest things I have ever done and there were so many tears), navigating postpartum (hello painful body parts, intrusive thoughts and anxiety), and I was so hurt by the betrayal that had occured in my marriage. I was still in fight or flight and my nervous system was in overdrive for months.
I’ll pause here to say that if you relate to this experience or are navigating something similar (or any life-changing event), I can’t advocate enough for engaging in the work of therapy with a licensed professional. If you have access to that, I highly encourage you to exercise that privilege. If you don’t, look for other resources in your community like support groups and/or seek out books that support this process. Working through my grief over the end of my marriage, processing several huge life changes in a short time span, and developing my mindset for a bright future were all done in many therapy sessions throughout this last year.
During this time my estranged husband came to visit our son the night he was born (and the following day) and then about every other month after. On one of the first visits my overtired brain started for a very split second to think that I should give him a kiss and say “hi babe”. He would send texts that were filled with anger, expressions of how much rage he felt towards me and other diatribes about what I had done to him in this during these months, but our interactions in person were almost always amicable and fine. It was a very weird and emotional space to be in, to say the least.
On one of the early visits his brother was with, another time his mother and sister, and on another trip later on “the other woman”/his new partner was with. I didn’t know that she was with or that she had met our son until I discovered an Airbnb review while doing research and preparing my case for a big trial date we had where a judge would decide the final pieces of our custody arrangement. While it hurt to think that the woman that my ex had traded in our marriage for was now spending time with my child, it was more concerning to me that I wasn’t made aware of it. And not for the reasons you might think. I knew that this day would come and I knew there wasn’t anything I could do to stop it, nor would I try. It was at this juncture where my outlook completely shifted from holding on to the hurt to doing what was best for my child. At this point (he was 9 months old) I knew it was still pretty inconsequential in that he would not know who she was or remember any of this, but that meant it was a great time for the adults in his life to get through what we needed to get through to create the best conditions for him.
As I started to seek out more information on co-parenting, transitioning children between their time with parents, navigating new partners and more I realized that in addition to shifting my thinking I was going to have to do some really hard things, but that it would be worth it for my child. Here are some of the things I learned and realizations I had. Keep in mind that some of these rely on the previous + time. We’re early in this work and it will take us all time.
- The adults need to be transparent. I should know when my child is spending time with his father’s partner and when it comes time for that in my life, his father should know too. Mostly because our son will start to figure that out, kids are incredibly savvy and probably sense stuff far sooner than we think. If we don’t talk about or normalize what our family looks like, he’ll pick up on that and form his own theories on why. In knowing who will be with his Dad when he visits I can start to prepare him in the days leading up by telling him “You’re going to see your Dad and [insert partner, aunt, etc] this weekend.” Again, still probably not fully recognizable to him, but I want to get these practices in place early in this journey so that when he is at an age to understand, it’s always been the norm. He should know who he will see and if it will be just time with his Dad or if that time is shared with other people too. It should also be part of our conversations when he gets home, “did you have fun with Dad & ?”, etc. to normalize that we are all a part of his family and he can talk about it with any of us at any time. I also plan to get some type of magnets and calendar made so that there can be a visual representation of what his weeks look like (think daycare, grandma & grandpa, doctors appointments, Dad, other family members, etc.) so that he feels prepared and in the know with all aspects of his life.
- The adults need to be fine with each other. No one should need to hide during dropoff/pickup or feel uncomfortable during those times. Again, he will soon pick up on that and start to make associations about what this means and that he shouldn’t talk about it or tell Mom/Dad. And I don’t want him to undergo that type of stress.
- The adults need to be better than fine with each other. Along the same lines, if he sees that I’m not friendly with his Dad and Dad’s partner then he may start to feel like he is betraying me or feel really conflicted if he enjoys his time with them/her. By being kind towards her, I give him the go-ahead to enjoy his time with his Dad and with her.
- How we handle transitions matters. We’ve moved to a model where I drop him off for time with his Dad and his Dad brings him back to me when it’s done. This does a couple things. It allows us to prepare him for the transition and incorporate him into it. It also avoids the situation where one parent is taking the child from the other and possibly interrupting or disrupting a really fun or special moment which can lead to the child creating associations where one parent is always taking him away or stopping the flow of fun. And again there are non-verbals like “mom is bringing me here, I trust mom, so this is okay”.
- Our son will love her. Honestly, this still feels a bit hard to swallow and I know that even though I’ll hug him and tell him that I’m so glad he loves to spend time with his Dad and her, it will still sting a little (maybe not with time and experience). But on the flip, I can’t imagine anything worse than dropping him off to spend time with someone that I did not have any type of relationship with or trust and/or that he didn’t want to be around. I read somewhere that love is not finite, there’s not a limited amount that once it goes, there’s none left, and the timing of that message really hit home for me. It would be wonderful if our son felt the love of 4 parental figures in his life and if he loved being around them all.
- Our son should be able to look around a table and see all the people who love him. If he’s 8 and just finished a basketball game and asks for us all to go to dinner, I want to be able to give a resounding yes and not have anyone quickly try to come up with a reason to bow out.
- Our son deserves a happy & healthy mom and our divorce had to happen in order for there to be a happy & healthy mom. This is my go-to when I start to go down the path of feeling shaken up by how this all went down and it grounds me in the truth that we are on the path we need to be.
So, on his father’s January visit I organized for the 3 of us to sit down together. His dad, his dad’s new partner and I sat down and on what would have been our second wedding anniversary (the date was not lost on me) to start to build a new relationship between us all for the sake of one wonderful kid. I sent a document in advance that I had found that gave some recommendations for this meeting like choosing a place where you can hear one another well, getting a round table so that it doesn’t feel like 2 against one, and for everyone to know that all parties have reasons to be nervous about the meeting. I never would have imagined this scenario in months prior, but it suddenly felt like the only path forward if we were to truly put this kid first.
And, you know what, the meeting went really well. I learned that she had step-parents growing up and that she would respect the routines and practices that I have in place. I told them both about many of the parenting values I hold from body ownership/consent to complimenting him beyond his looks and breaking gender stereotypes. I asked how she envisioned her role with him and she asked what our current routines are now. We agreed that doctors appointments, school conferences, and the like would be just his father and I attending, but that at sporting events, performances, or other social events everyone would be welcome. I told her that she can expect that I will say good things to our son about her, that I’ll communicate with her respectfully, and that I’ll consider her perspective. The three of us also each answered the below two questions and I think these were really powerful in each of our healing journeys and as we navigate this new territory:
- What’s one thing that you’re afraid of in this new arrangement?
- What’s one really good thing about this new arrangement?
Of course, I still left that meeting with a slightly heightened nervous system (I teared up once during it talking about my biggest fear), sweaty armpits, and things I wish I would have said, but I also left feeling really proud of myself. I was leaning into the hard parts of this, and unexpectedly was feeling some closure around what was in the past along with some hope for what the future can hold. And most importantly I had just started to build what I hope will be a wonderful foundation on which our son can thrive.
I never thought this would be my journey and sometimes I still get emotional about it all. I’ve had the love and support of my family, my friends, and connections with many wonderful women who have navigated or are navigating divorce, custody, motherhood and more to help me get to this place and I’ve also worked through the stages of grief and sat with the really uncomfortable feelings. If you’re going through something big like this, don’t feel rushed to get through it and do seek out the support systems you need, as hard as that may sound. I share my story in hopes that it helps just one person and I’m happy to connect with anyone that it resonates with, you can find me @pearlybird.
Please note that this was/is my experience and that I recognize that all divorces, custody situations, co-parenting arrangements and families can look much different from this.
PEARL RENEE PILBEAM, PH.D.
Pearl is a creative, a vegetable lover, a horrible singer, moderate exerciser, and a Mama Bird (her favorite gig). She is a divorced, single parent who adores her sweet son and lives with him in Boise, Idaho. She considers herself a lifelong learner and believes in the power of learning as a tool to transformation. Pearl has been a learning designer at the most innovative university in the US, designing hundreds of online courses, since 2012. She is founder and owner of Pearlybird Creative, where she has merged her passions of creativity and learning design to help other creative entrepreneurs share their passion and knowledge. In March of 2020 she will be speaking at Alt Summit about Creating Amazing Online Courses.