When my wife and I separated, we decided to remain living close to one another as we co-parented our two-year-old son. This, at least, was our mid-term interim solution – our plan for a couple of years before we could go ahead and dissolve our Civil Partnership and reach a financial settlement.
We were confident, very confident, that living around the corner from one another was the best thing for all of us. We split everything right down the middle – the cost of two homes and the time spent with our son. It just made sense to do it this way, since we both liked the neighbourhood and had no desire to up-end everything. We also shared a car, which we needed for nursery runs. We really thought we had it licked. In a time of great emotional upheaval, it was reassuring for us and, most of all, for our son (we hoped) to visit the same playground, same corner shop, and see the same dog-walkers passing by.
There were definite drawbacks however, which with better boundaries we might have avoided. Firstly, there were those chance (though hardly surprising, given the proximity of our two homes) encounters where one of us was walking to the common with our son who then, bumping into the other parent as they made their way to meet a friend, became upset that the three of us could not hang out.
Living so close that we could almost throw a ball between homes (if we’d been professional cricketers anyway) also made it too easy to remain the other’s wicket keeper. What I have learnt is that, in the long run that’s fine – beautiful in fact – but in the short run there needs to be a period of reduced contact for wounds to heal. Living around the corner made it more difficult to give and take that all important space. It also made it too easy to just pop over if our son had left his raincoat at one house or his toys or favourite teddy. Before we knew it, we were permanently around at each other’s houses, confusing our son and getting on each other’s nerves.
Had we really, properly, split up? Or were we just doubling our outgoings for the privilege of bickering in two houses instead of one? After a few weeks I figured out that we had to stop relying on each other in this way and learn to fend for ourselves, modelling to our child that we were in a new stage of family life: connected and apart. We weren’t dual parents anymore – we were co-parents – which meant we needed time and space to process our separation.
"We weren’t dual parents anymore – we were co-parents – which meant we needed time and space to process our separation."
The other problem with living exceptionally close is that it is all too easy to chop and change an existing schedule; if the other parent is free and everything is conveniently located then why not just ask if it’s possible to go out for supper with friends on a Thursday and have your child on Tuesday night instead? To the more mature mind this seems quite reasonable but, as we learnt from guilt-ridden experience, to the child’s developing mind it’s not the same. As he grew, our son began to sense when he had spent an extra night in one home and it clearly unsettled him when rhythms changed. Just because we lived around the corner and were happy to be flexible in our schedules, didn’t mean our son appreciated it.
After six months or so we really started to see it: whilst our amicable, flexible set up worked for us, this little boy needed more clarity, more of a clear pulse in his schedule and some explicit references to where he would be each night (in the form of a child-friendly colour coded chart that was stuck to the fridge in each house). We began to embrace the joys of living close (“Hey, do you have his red shoes by any chance?”) and also maintain boundaries for his sake (“could you drop them outside the door please, and not come in”). We met in a café for co-parenting discussions once a month and tried to keep scheduling on email rather than letting it spew over into messages that were sent to one another as friends.