I wrote Your Place or Mine? to support parents going through separation and divorce. It’s the book I needed that I couldn’t find, when my kids were young and I was trying to navigate life with my ex. However glib it may sound, I consider it to be my life’s work—a culmination of my own lived experience as a mom, my twenty years of work experience, and the best advice I would give to someone I cared about.
I didn’t realize how exhausted I would be almost the second the book launched into the world. And what I really didn’t appreciate was how, daily (sometimes multiple times a day) since, someone I know or, a friend of a friend, or a stranger who Googled me, would reach out with their own immediate, urgent, grief-stricken questions about their own relationships.
So it’s no surprise that now, as we inch closer to Christmas and the holidays, it’s happening even more; the steady stream of broken hearts, uncertain parents, and fed up ones reaching out looking for answers but, mostly, seeking comfort.
I remember that urgency well — 6 years ago I was also desperate to hear someone tell me everything would be okay. That my kids would be okay. I wrote my first post-separation blog post after a morning that was like an episode of the Three Stooges: I was alone with my two boys, the zipper on the back of my dress had broken off in the chubby, dimpled hand of my then three-year-old son who I’d asked to help zip me up (absent the adult who’d always been there to do it before). There was a giant snowstorm, my to-do list was unmanageable… Christmas was a few days away. It was crunch time, everywhere.
I went outside with a parka thrown over my work clothes and tried desperately to heave big loads of snow onto my lawn and off my walkway — something that my ex had always just done without much need to discuss it. In the process my hair got soaking wet, I fell backwards under the weight of my own shovel, and then heard the garbage truck ambling down my short street towards my home where the bins had yet to be taken to the curb — another one of my ex’s jobs, I guess.
I joked that mornings like this were precisely the reason some people stay married. I remember writing that blog post in the notes app on my iPhone on the subway on the way to work, my hair and ass still wet from the morning’s events. I remember feeling a collection of unfiltered things. But mostly I remember intensely grieving what I thought was lost and what had not yet even happened.
I am now re-partnered, but 6 years ago I could not have imagined that prospect. I consider the differences in my life between then and now often, but especially around the holidays which are always fraught with emotions for me, as they are, often inexplicably, for so many people. That first holiday season with the boys, who were three and five, was lonely. I wasn’t alone: people dropped in, I saw friends, I saw my sister, but my future was fuzzy and at night, once the boys were tucked in and the stories were read and the snack plates cleaned up and all the socks paired together, I was really, really lonely. The quiet I had craved in my married life wasn’t what I thought it would be.
The next day, the boys would be going off with their dad and the thought of it left this deep ache inside me. It’s not something I’ve ever been able to explain eloquently because, well, it isn’t eloquent. Heartbreak and gaping holes are messy things. I was prepared in the sense that I knew they were going with their Dad. And I knew they would have a fantastic time. And I knew I would see them soon enough. But I was not emotionally prepared. That day or so in between left me absolutely heartbroken, wondering what the hell I would do without them there, and who I was if I wasn’t their mom every second of every day.
It is that heartbreak that I touch on in the opening lines of my book when I say something about most people getting partnered and having kids and not expecting a moment to come when they wouldn’t see their kids every single day. No one wants to think about that. But it does become a reality for lots of us either way.
And so when parents come to me asking for help getting through the holidays, specifically, I can both commiserate and (don’t tell anyone) see the future. I remind them that they have already given their kids the ultimate gift: time with each of their parents who are probably both great parents in their own ways, and who are probably also great people (yes, I know there are some exceptions), and that the kids will learn different things from each parent. I remind them that they have done so much hard work already and that they should take this time — this eerily quiet time — and do something they haven’t done in a long time. Maybe they should relax, read a book, catch up on work, organize their pantry in silence — whatever works for them.
My first Christmas alone I organized all eight zillion photos on my Google photos drive. I laughed and I cried and unexpectedly, looking through those years together — family trips, birthdays, preschool graduations — it made me both nostalgic for the past, but also hopeful for the future. We had had ten decent years. We had covered a lot of ground and done a lot of great things. We had these two gorgeous kids. We hadn’t failed, we had just done the equivalent of making a lateral career move. When I started to characterize our new relationship as co-parents as a business partnership, it made everything infinitely easier.
If you know, without a doubt, you will break down the second the kids pull away with their other parent in a car, waving at you from the back window, make a plan. Find a friend. Check the movie listings. Put supports in place. Fill that time the way you filled your time pre-kids and — gasp — enjoy yourself. As someone who lives and dies now by a “2/2/5/5” schedule for my kids, I can tell you with one hundred percent honesty the thing you’re probably most worried about: they’ll be back before you know it.
And that time they’re not there? That time is yours. And that’s another unexpected gift.
Charlotte Schwartz is a family law clerk and parent of four children in a blended family. She is an advocate for equal, shared parenting time in separated families and for strong co-parenting relationships. Her first book about co-parenting, Your Place or Mine, was published by Dundurn Press in September 2022. When she has time, she loves to run aimlessly at low speeds and she is always tired.