In Oregon, couples with children must take a mandatory parenting class before they divorce. I picked Pete up at his place and together we drove to the courthouse for the four-hour ordeal. What could we learn about parenting that we didn’t already know? What could we learn about positive collaboration that we hadn’t already committed to? We were about to find out.
Mostly, the class reinforced for us that we were well established on a healing path for our family. On the drive home, we discussed what we had learned and how we intended to integrate it. We committed to a new vocabulary that would shape our experience in the coming years.
The counselors teaching our parenting class invited everyone to choose a vocabulary that reflected the positive relationship dynamic we are moving toward today, rather than the failed relationship dynamic we are emerging from. Instead of referring to each other as “my ex,” they proposed that we call each other “my co-parent”. Pete and I agreed immediately that we would honor the new incarnation of our relationship by using this language to speak of each other. I have found this to be a simple and potent medicine. Every time I speak the words “my co-parent,” my heart softens, my sense of possibility widens, and I make a bit more room inside of me for the evolution of our family.
Teddy’s House and Teddy’s Clubhouse
Those wise counselors also pointed out that when a child’s family home gets divided into two homes, parents have a tendency to refer to the homes as “Mommy’s house” and “Daddy’s apartment” or whatever the abode configuration may be. This can make the child feel like he’s traveling between two homes that aren’t his. Pete and I discussed what we would call our living spaces so that Teddy would feel his place at the center of them. We agreed upon “Teddy’s House” (my home with Teddy) and “Teddy’s Clubhouse” (Pete’s home with Teddy.) Often, this gets abbreviated to “the house” and “the clubhouse”. The outcome is that Teddy seems to feel a net gain instead of a net deficit. Family loves him and revolves around him from SE Portland all the way to NW Portland.
Expect it to take four years
The final takeaway was less about vocabulary and more about expectation setting. We were advised that a blended family takes four years to integrate. Four years. This gave us a gentler sense of pacing about the expansion of our family. And it helped me immensely as I set out to integrate his new partner Taylor into my life and my heart. When I met pain or difficulty, I could give myself some breathing room and trust that with time, we would find our way.
The darkness around us is deep
William Stafford’s poem “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” from the collection The Darkness Around Us is Deep is one of the compass poems I have been steering by since age 25. Its final stanza reads:
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
I have come to understand that the things we say have a powerful influence over the things we think and feel. My commitment to use words that honor my son, my co-parent, his partner and our little, asymmetrical family seems to be rewiring my nervous system. Sticks and stones may break bones, but words can stay lodged in a heart for a lifetime. And I want the words that stick to my family to call us to our highest truths and most powerful loves. Because the darkness around us is deep.
What vocabulary choices has your family made to navigate your new context? What have you learned from them?