Melissa Fleming with her two daughters Addie Elizabeth (left) and Beatrice (right). (Photo: Melissa Fleming)
Since my ex-husband filed for divorce in 2007, my two daughters, ages 9 and 10, and I have been a family of three. We travel together, we eat together, we read together. We are a tight-knit trio, together for 9 nights out of 14 and apart for 5 when they are with their father during the school year.
This year, my daughters had different spring break vacations for the first time and their father proposed something new: Having them visit him separately, despite our custody agreement that the girls would travel between the two homes together. I balked at his idea — how could I break up our unit? Even though their parents had split up, they would not.
Our divorce was not the fairy-tale version in which the parties agree to part ways amicably and equitably. It was a tale dark and grim, involving multiple New York courts, a fault hearing, custody disagreements, withheld child support, dissipated assets, and a narrowly avoided foreclosure. After four destructive years though, we finally had a signed divorce and custody agreement and the opportunity to begin again.
We followed our custody agreement faithfully and limited our interactions to email or quick check-ins at drop-off. When I dismissed my ex’s spring break proposal over email, he requested a get-together over coffee. After talking it over, I ultimately agreed because I had never experienced significant one-on-one time with either daughter, just stolen moments with one while the other was at a class or a friend’s house. I also liked the idea of focusing on one child for a week before heading into the potentially stormy teen years when such moments would be rare.
“Close and intimate relationships with our parents are the bedrock of healthy self-esteem,” Lisa Spiegel, MA, LMHC at SoHo Parenting, tells Yahoo Parenting. “But one-on-one time between a parent and a child is the nourishment relationships need to really thrive. It also removes competition between siblings or another parent for attention.”
My older daughter Addie Elizabeth shared my passion for being active and asked if we could go skiing, an activity my younger daughter Beatrice and her father had no interest. The trip consisted of end-of-the-day runs down the mountain together where my daughter could show off what she had learned at ski school, casual dinners at local restaurants, lots of reading time, and an early-to-bed, early-to-rise routine. At the end of the first day, Addie Elizabeth told me how wonderful it was to learn to ski and to be together, just the two of us.
It was as though we had escaped not only from New York but also from those pre-adolescent emotional outbursts for the interim.
We spent two days as a family of three again and then Beatrice and I were on our own in New York. She attended school as usual but we crafted a list of things she wanted to do without sisterly influence. We gushed over the film Cinderella and watched several Harry Potter movies, played backgammon, cooked her favorite meals, indulged in ice cream runs, read for long uninterrupted stretches, and even had “sleepovers” together. She was happy to snuggle, talk more without competing with her sister, and make choices by herself. And I was happy, too, listening to her thoughts and wishes.
What surprised me most about spending solo time with my daughters was that my ex-husband and I had unexpectedly turned a corner in our relationship. Not only were we able to step outside the boundaries of our agreement to arrive at a mutually beneficial situation, we had relied on each other much the way intact couples do: Providing support to nurture our individual relationships with each daughter.
“It is invaluable to cultivate a positive relationship with your former spouse, as odd as it may feel to devote energy to a relationship that has seemingly run its course,” Elana Katz, LCSW and senior faculty member at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, tells Yahoo Parenting. “In my experience, every person who ends a marriage benefits from an emotional divorce alongside their legal document. When there is still so much contention, I would conjecture that the emotional divorce has not happened.”
When we came out of our email corners and sat across from each other, we easily reached compromises. In person, we focused on the issue at hand without bringing in past emotional baggage or future what-ifs. I learned when to hold steady and when to let go. I was also able to recognize the role we each played in the downfall of our marriage and divorce trajectory, enjoying the freedom of my single time and moving on from the anger towards creating a fulfilling life as a trio.
We were headed in a new direction with a newfound appreciation for each other and our unique roles in the family. And by the time we settled into our routine again, the girls had discovered that life is much more interesting with a sister around, a companion with whom to share a room, tell private jokes, argue, and travel. Getting that space apart helped us remember not only how important it is to find one-on-one time but also how much we like being together as a family.