Just because parents are divorcing doesn’t mean they have to leave
UPSTAIRS MOM DOWNSTAIRS DAD
Just because parents are divorcing doesn’t mean they have to leave
Cate Cochran lives on the first floor of a west-end Toronto duplex that is the invention of divorce. Above her lives her ex-husband, Joe Sherman, with whom she owns the house. Their two teenage children flow between the two spaces. The third floor is rented out to a single divorced mother co-parenting with her ex who lives around the corner. A divorced father in a similar arrangement lives in the basement rental. Welcome to the 21st-century Brady Bunch—a. new post-nuclear, post-divorce configuration in which mom, dad, children and new familial extensions try to fashion collaborative living arrangements on the scorched earth of marital breakdown. “There’s no one floor plan,” explains Cochran, a CBC producer who chronicles the experiences of 10 families, including her own, in her new book Reconcilable Differences.
The territory Cochran charts goes beyond the familiar pattern of one partner migrating into the spare bedroom or the basement before a formal separation. These are parents who remain entrenched in one another’s lives, for better and worse, post-divorce— under the same roof, in adjoining space, or in the same neighbourhood. Duff and Esther rented their own apartments close to the old family home and alternated time there. Peter remained a tenant in his own family home even after his wife, T.J., remarried.
Just how many ex-couples live this way is
unquantifiable, Cochran says. “But I realized there are a lot more of us than anyone knows.” The families she profiles come from different socio-economic backgrounds, but all embrace a litany of modern mantras: marriage and family are no longer synonymous. The end of a marriage does not end familial responsibility. Parenting should be an equally shared endeavour. Divorced parents who work together in a co-operative, supportive manner give their children greater security and consistency.
Many of the stories are infused with such brave new enlightenment. And theoretically, the model has great merit: children enjoy the comfort of proximity to both parents, and little interruption of routine. Parents build a new friendship out of marital ruin. A new extended family is born as exes continue to attend family celebrations and occasionally even holiday together with their new partners. It’s only a matter of time before Hallmark designs cards for couples like Marc and Mary, whose 12-year marriage ended with Marc’s annoucement that he was gay: on their wedding anniversary the year after they
split, they recommitted as friends, switching their wedding rings to their right hands.
Indeed, many of the arrangements, including Cochran’s, appear more harmonious than many marriages—with the added bonus that each partner can select his or her own colour scheme and date other people. “On the surface, it is that,” says Cochran, who initiated her split four years ago. Where the system becomes complex, of course, is when new partners are added to the mix. “They’re going to have to accept the deal, which is until our kids are out in the world, we’ve agreed to coparent. And that’s hard,” says Cochran.
For the most part, Cochran’s examples reinforce her own model. She rejected one cohabiting couple, she says, because there was not enough good faith between them. In each case, the best interests of the children are upheld as animating the arrangement. Yet one does not have to read deeply to see that parents’ needs fuel the format. “The kids are being hauled along in their parents’ experiment,” Cochran concedes. One father claims: “I’m not prepared to lose my children for 50 per cent of their lives.” Financial considerations also play a role. “All of us made decisions based on money,” says Cochran. “Joe and I certainly did when we tallied it up.”
Predictably, many of these arrangements are met with bewilderment and skepticism. An old-school therapist could have a field day with some of Cochran’s examples; psychobabble like “controlling,” “boundary issues,” and “failure to let go” come to mind. The book’s first story is that of Ontario’s Minister of Education Kathleen Wynne, who left her atrophied 13year marriage to Phil after she fell in love with a female friend. Phil moves to the basement, that metaphorically rich terrain. (Cochran says she could have never sent her husband down
THEY CONSIDERED PUTTING UP A SIGN:‘PHIL IS OKAY. WE DON’T HAVE HIM TIED UP IN THE BASEMENT. WE’RE NOT FEEDING HIM GRUEL’
there for that very reason.) Three months later, the arrival of Kathleen’s girlfriend, Jane, is met with hostility from the children at first, though they grow to love her. So harshly is the arrangement judged that the family considers putting out a lawn sign: “Phil is okay. We don’t have him tied up in the basement, and we’re not feeding him gruel.” Eventually Phil moves nearby and marries Sue, who reluctantly agrees to his edict that he wants no more children so he can focus on his first family. Cochran sees the situation as indica-
port and protect the weakest. “Phil is very frank about how he didn’t have the strength to leave; he went to the basement and found comfort and independence, but it also meant he could make breakfast, and [his daughter]
would think everything is okay.”
Then there’s Maria and Allan, who share a subdivided Montreal house after Maria asks for a divorce. Allan, roiling with anger and resentment, agrees to the set-up because he wants equal access to the children and believes a marital split damages children. Yet the fights between the two suggest that distance would be a benefit. At one point Maria wisely wonders: “Will the girls have a damaged idea of how men and women relate to each other?” There’s also an instance of a parent being marginalized by a new partner, as in the case of Peter, who’s outperformed by T.J.’s new husband to the point she has to sit down with her daughters to discuss “Daddy and his limitations.” The most perplexing example of a new partner entering the equation, though, is the case of Mike and Megan, who lived together with their daughter Bethan for five years post-divorce until Mike’s brother, Bill, himself a wounded refugee of marital breakdown, joined the clan. Before long, Bill and Megan are a couple, much to Bethan’s disgust. Eventually, however, she comes round—or at least appears to.
In most of Cochran’s examples, the marriages have ended as the result of boredom rather than the sort of acrimony that would make such conciliatory parenting impossible. In many cases, setting up such an arrangement appears a way of recasting a “failed” marriage as a success and of mitigating some guilt. Cochran speaks of her sense of loss for not having sustained the family in its original state. “I know how much happier Joe and I are as good friends and co-parents than we were as married partners. But there is a sense of grief,” she says.
Reconcilable Differences marks a new way of looking at the post-divorce world at the very time the definition of family is being recast. The modern family unit is a freeform improvisation, one Cochran likens to
ready for a real-estate boom in duplexed family homes, Hallmark cards marking “recommitment,” and a new meaning for that old phrase “staying together for the children.” M
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