Family / Parenting

Breaking up is hard to do

I’ve been thinking hard about the guest post a few days ago that talked about how the blogs listed here serve as role models for people trying to find their way through queer family making. I agree with that whole heartedly as I, too, have used the

blogs listed here to help guide me.

But I’ve also been thinking a lot about which stories are unheard, which guideposts missing. I write a lot about the plight of non-bio mothers losing rights and visitation to their children, but surely this is just the extreme end of the spectrum, right?

I’ve been nervous to put this call out because I don’t want people to think that my own relationship is in danger of falling apart and thus I’m in a search for personal guidance, but I really do think that there is a void when it comes to what happens when a lesbian couple with young children decides not to be together any more. It’s as if we want to turn our eyes away and say that if we don’t speak about it, if we don’t look at it, then it won’t happen; it’s only the horror of the extreme examples that breaks our silence — and only, I suspect, because we think that terrible occurrance could never happen to us and thus it’s safe to speak about.

A few months ago my partner and I attended a seminar on how best to protect the legal rights of our family now and in the future. All of the steps given (rights of attorney, estate planning, donor contract, parenting contract) we’ve done, except for one: it was advised that we formulate a contract specifying what is to happen should we dissolve our union — how would we handle custody? child support? the division of property? The plan is designed in the first place to keep us out of the courtroom during and after our break up, as well as to give the judge a picture of what we had truly intended when planning our family should we end up in the courtroom anyway.

This is the most difficult piece of the whole packet of paperwork — no one likes to think that they’re going to break up. No one likes to think that the family they’ve worked so hard to create won’t stay the same as it was created. Still, we’re working on it. Thinking about it. Planning even though we’re planning never to have to use the plan. There’s no adoption here, so if a lesbian couple were to break up any division of child custody would have to be cooperative.

What I’m wondering is, does anyone know of cases where this has actually happened? Stories, examples? Are there blogs out there of people successfully sharing custody where they weren’t forced to by adoption decree? Or where the adoption decree doesn’t play that big a role?

These are stories that we need to hear. Enough of the horror stories, enough of the heartbreak and loss. Those stories are important, too. But I feel like our stories and talk are out of balance. Instances of cooperation must form the bulk of break-ups, correct? Let’s hear them.

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  1. Thank you, Trista, for opening up this conversation. This post at the Family Pride blog, “Coparenting, Cancer, and Cruises,” is a touching story of what one family is doing, after not just a break-up but two cancer diagnoses. (!)

    I do feel we’re still so early in the public sharing of our LGBT families that we’re in the “can’t afford to air the dirty laundry” phase. Which feels all the more understandable since our very fitness as parents is under such attack. Sigh. It’s a tough bind, and the internet is a paradoxical place to work it out.

    I try not to be paranoid, but it’s hard not to think that just outside the privacy of one’s home and right behind the intmacy of one’s intended audience lurks (or could lurk) readers whose sole intent is to gather incriminating/damnind “evidence” of our incompetence as parents. (Could be I got overchastened by a creepy Christian Right infiltration of a presentation I once made at an LGBT Studies conference.)

    But for our own sanity and healthy evolution, of course, we have to find a way to tell the truth to each other, regardless of who’s listening. Right?

  2. well, my thinking of this would be that talking about ways that queer people break up but still manage to co-parent peacefully and with the best interests of the children at the forefront would actually be really strong arguements for our fitness as parents and parenting models. I mean, nothing says maturity, compassion, kindness, empathy, and wisdom (all qualities desireable in parents) like being able to make space so that ones child(ren) can be parented by both (or all) of the adults who originally agreed to parent them and to whom those children have learned to look for love and support — without letting the issues that broke up the original relationship get in the way of a new parenting-without-romance relationship.

    In fact, I would even go so far as to say that by keeping such stories close to the chest we’re giving a bit too much authority to the old canard that the best parents are the ones who are still monogamously paired with their original partners, and that moves a little too close to the whole “marriage is for the children” argument that has been so damaging to queer civil rights.

    But. I have also been burned by my “unintended audience” in this medium, so I understand the hesitancy to disclose information about the delicate workings of a family no matter what its current configuration.

    Off to go read that post you linked to.

  3. We’ve talked about what would happen (some sort of shared custody co-parenting, making sure that we live in close proximity to each other), but we haven’t put anything in writing. But then, we do live in MA, where my rights (as a non-bio-mom) are protected first by marriage (provided we both stay in this state) and also by a second-parent adoption (which holds in all states except Oklahoma). You may have inspired us to sit down and write it down like we should, Trista.

    The “Complete Gay Parenting Guide” by Arlene Istar Lev contains a chapter on divorce and some personal essays by couples that broke up but manage to co-parent amicably.

    I think “Reinventing the Family” by Laura Benkov may also briefly address divorce. She also discusses several other subjects that seem to be taboo in our community. It is a good read, if a bit dated (1994)

    Even in states with second-parent adoption, this is a huge issue, since our families are legally at their most fragile (before second-parent adoption) during such a stressful time (the first year of life with baby). There is an essay by Rachel Pepper (of “The ultimate guide to lesbian pregnancy” fame) in the book “Home Fronts: controversies in non-traditional parenting” (edited by Jess Wells) in which she describes why she didn’t let her then-girlfriend have a second-parent adoption. By no means does their case sound cut and dry, but if they had had the option of marriage, the situation would have been clarified.

  4. someone asked me to read that Rachel Pepper essay, was it you dlvc? I should go through my email and look. So, I bought the book and read that essay [bitter twist of my lips] and it prompted such a reaction from me that I was sputtering for days. Hopefully someday I’ll be able to write exactly what I thought about that essay…

    oh, and I did go and look at that article Polly linked to, and the author of that guest post has her own blog, I’m going to ask if we can put it on the blogroll…

  5. Very fine point you make above, Trista. And dlvc, as well. Since you can’t file for 2nd parent adoption until the child id born, and since the process can take up to a year, it does run neck-and-neck with the very most trying times. Well put.

    You know, I did read that Rachel Pepper piece in Home Fronts and was jarred, as a non-birth parent gal. That was how she felt back then (pub date: 2000). I will look forward to Trista’s piece, definitely.

  6. Ooops. And I forgot to include this link to “Privacy, Exposure, Risk” by Suzanne Reisman on the BlogHer site. As a meditation on some of my worries above about exposure, etc. The important twist, and not one I saw in her piece, is that we’re writing about our kids, as much as about ourselves, and their desires for privacy, as much as our need to protect them, need very much to be accounted for. How is a question I’m still working out, but I think about it all the time.

  7. Hi Trista! Sorry I am so late coming to this party. (Gosh, I should get over here and read more…) We DO know a family whom we jokingly call the Poster Family for Divorce, because they do a better job of parenting their daughter than most families we know who are still together lovingly. I don’t know what kind of legal agreements they had in place, but they split up before their daughter (D) turned 4 and share physical custody of D 50/50 (not sure about legal as it’s not come up in conversation). Both parents live in the same urban neighborhood as pre-breakup, so D’s world was not changed too much, and they communicate frequently and in an easy-going fashion. Both are active in her school community. What really pushes it over the top for me is that each is now partnered again (one of the new partners also has her own children) and all FOUR of the adults get along well and occasionally all three kids switch between houses/parents for ease of child care (even though only D has the family of origin connection at one house). I’ve told them again and again how impressed we are (both Cait and I are children of divorce) and how obvious it is that they put D’s needs first. They don’t even think it takes that much work! Anyway, bottom line: it can be done but you’ve got to focus on the kid(s) and let go of old emotions.

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