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One Family’s “Crazy” Is Another One’s “Normal”

Thanksgiving is an interesting time for my family and me. (“Interesting” as in “different,” “unusual,” “unorthodox.”) You see, I typically make the 10-hour car trek to South Florida from Atlanta with my family; and when I say family, I mean my son, my boyfriend and my ex-husband.

And yes, we all arrive unscathed and generally in a pretty good mood.

Most people think we’re nuts. Even my dad thinks we’re a little crazy. But the rest of my family takes it in stride, understanding that when my husband and I became exes, we also committed to keeping the friendship part of our relationship.

And while that may be “weird” to many, it’s our normal.

This year marks the 7-year anniversary of my divorce—the event that turned my ex-husband into one of my truest friends.  I tell my ex all the time, “Honey, I’m glad I married you, because you are great to be divorced from.”

He knows exactly what I mean.

Our friendship is an unusual story, I know — and the truth is, it didn’t just happen. From the moment my ex-husband and I decided to separate (which was a culmination of years on the fence), we asked ourselves: can we create a divorce that isn’t bitter and hurtful? Can we preserve the platonic love we have for each other – for both ourselves and our son? Can we keep all the good parts and toss all the bad stuff?

We decided we could.

So with small, mostly-even steps throughout a nearly two-year separation leading up to our divorce, we created what is for some of my family and friends, a mind-boggling relationship.

We understand it takes some getting used to.

The person most confused by our friendship is my father.  My dad – as any father who thinks his little girl has somehow been wronged – wanted to be furious at my ex. I told him that I wasn’t angry, so he didn’t need to be mad on my behalf. I think that leaves him a little unsure of how to feel about this ex-son-in-law-good-friend thing.

I’ve told him, “Dad, maybe if you had raised Jon (that’s my ex) he would have turned out differently. But he didn’t have the benefit of having you for a father … maybe you could sort of be one now?”

Still, my old-school dad doesn’t understand how we can all hang out together — yes, at any given time you can find my ex, my boyfriend, my son and me, bowling or going to dinner or even having a New Year’s Eve party.  We all get along that well. (As an example, my boyfriend was the first one to buy my ex a gift last year for the holidays. My ex is a huge fan of my boyfriend’s technological wizardry. My son adores his dad and really likes my boyfriend. My boyfriend likes my son, which, as an often-surly, frequently moody teenager, is the biggest surprise of all to me.)

When we arrived at my parents’ home the night before Thanksgiving, there were hugs for everyone (including my ex). My ex sincerely loves my father; his own dad died when he was 13, so my dad is the only father he’s had in his adult life. Later, as we were leaving for the nearby hotel, my dad announced he was picking up the tab for all of our rooms. We all protested, but both of my parents insisted.

Then my dad whispered to me, “When you got divorced, I didn’t think I’d be paying for MORE rooms than when you were married.”

I think he was only half-kidding.

On Thanksgiving morning, we arrived at my parents early to help.  My boyfriend lifted the 22-pound turkey into the oven; my ex set the table; my son took out the never-ending trash.  As soon as the rest of my 20-member family showed up, the conversation and laughter level rose to concert-level decibels. Occasionally, someone came up to me and told me how wonderful it is to see Jon here; how great that we can have this kind of relationship. A couple of my nieces, now of dating and marrying age, told me they think it’s great for my son, and asked me if it’s ever weird.

“Not really,” I said honestly. “It’s just the way we’ve done it from the beginning.”  I think it would be weird to do it any other way.

At the dinner table, it was my turn to say what I am most grateful for. I look at “my boys,” – my boyfriend, my ex, my son … I look at my dad … trying so hard to be new-age with us … I look at my mom, who has never stopped loving Jon and who gives that same love to my boyfriend of five years… I see my siblings and nieces and nephews, and I realize what I am most grateful for this year is their open arms, open hearts, and most of all, their open minds. I thank them for truly supporting this and deciding that for us, this is what normal is.

Will our son be better adjusted because of his divorced parents’ friendship? I honestly don’t know. He seems pretty well adjusted already. I know he loves being able to be with his dad along with the rest of his family. I know it’s gotta be good for him that there’s no fighting, no feuding, no taking sides between his mother and father. I hope that he learns – as we have – that divorce is not always a tragedy. But just in case this has somehow damaged him for life, along with our son’s College Fund, we might just create his Therapy Fund. Because one day he might be lying on a therapist’s couch somewhere, whining: “Why couldn’t my parents have had a normal divorce?”

Now, maybe I’ve miscalculated; maybe there are dozens of us – thousands, even – out there shaking up the traditional holiday scene and putting new meaning into “goodwill toward man” – starting with our ex-men.

Good, bad, sad, mixed — I’d love to hear about your non-traditional holiday life, too.

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Single Mom Reflections

The thing about being a single mom living with an only child is that my son and I are day-to-day feedback monitors to each other.  I reflect back to him who he is at any given moment – good, great, not so good and everything in between – and he reflects back to me.  I call him on his stuff, he calls me on mine. But the key to making this work – to making any relationship work, really – is that the feedback, the conversation, the critiques and the compliments need to come from the heart. And that takes constant vigilance!

 If I want to teach my son something, I try to take a moment to make sure I am saying it from my heart. My goal is to be real, and to say what I have to say with as much kindness and softness as I can. (Believe me, I don’t always succeed, but this is my goal.) Even when I have to reprimand him or remind him, I try to do it from love.

 Because raising a child (and maybe especially a teenager) seems to all comes down to love. If we didn’t love our children so much, we wouldn’t say no – we’d let them grow up with no rules and no boundaries and they would ultimately turn into adults that they themselves couldn’t stand. If they didn’t mean the world to us, we’d let them get away with everything. And if they didn’t carry little pieces of our hearts and souls within them, they surely could not push our buttons with such precision.

That’s exactly what I told my son today: I love you enough to say no. To sometimes get mad at you. To give you boundaries even if it might be easier to give in and give up. And you will just have to live with that, I said – the knowledge that your mother loves you enough to take a stand and sometimes lose it in front of you. Because even with all that love and my lofty goals, I make mistakes. And one of the things I have learned to embrace and even enjoy (sometimes) is apologizing to my son. It’s like role-modeling a great lesson – owning our mistakes and saying you’re sorry. Learning that two people who love each other are still going to get mad at each other and need to ask for forgiveness. Unfortunately, I’m much harder at forgiving myself than anyone else … more work ahead for me, I guess.

 So forget that Ali McGraw line about “love means never having to say you’re sorry.” That’s bull. Love is saying you’re sorry, sometimes more than once a day, then forgiving each other and moving on.

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