Usually the terms “co-parenting” and “shared custody” refers to two people who have chosen to raise their offspring with some level of consistency between their two separate households.
Well, what if instead of two people it was two couples in separate households who decide to raise a child together?
This is what my husband and I have decided to do with my brother and sister-in-law in regards to their daughter (who I’ll call “Child”).
Now obviously any situation outside of the “norm” is going to be complicated, with various levels of personal-ness, but a simple, mundane explanation comes down to space: they have too little at their home. A tiny city apartment where everyone is bumping into everyone else. No sound-proofing from noisy folks in the hall or on the street, the heating system isn’t up to code; no safe place for the kids to just play outside. Paired with a large, city school where Child was getting lost in the shuffle, and complaining of relentless bullying. We, on the other hand, are childless and live in a three-bedroom house situated on over 2½ acres in the middle of nowhere. The school district we live in is small, and a good one to boot.
So, after discussing it between all four adults (and one very enthusiastic nine year old), we went through the legal stuff to get joint custody, along with residential custody transferred to us so we could enroll her in school up here.
Okay, so how do we make this all work…
The family court aspect was actually pretty easy, once we go the ball rolling… It likely helped that we’re in the Will as being Child’s guardians if anything happened to her parents. It also helped that all parties were on-board (even the court-appointed child advocate had no problem with giving the thumbs up). Her parents have surrendered no rights to her, they’re still her parents in every sense of the word; my husband and I have simply joined the party. (I gotta say it’s pretty fun explaining that I’m now the mother of my brother’s child!)
And, as with any relationship, (but especially with offbeat ones), communication is key! Communication with her parents, with her teachers, with each other and with her. Skype is pretty handy for keeping her in touch with her friends and family back home. And, in the evenings, after Child has gone to bed, my husband and I touch base on how things are going on each other’s ends. Do any changes/adjustments need to be made? Are there any things that are overwhelming or not working? Do we need to address any problems on any level?
My brother and sister-in-law are always available to answer those tricky questions of child-rearing. Like, “Is that new cough something we should worry about?” “What does she like to eat?” “What’s the furthest she’s ever had to walk?” (A good question in preparation for taking her to Disney World this past summer.)
Before she moved in with us, I compiled a list of questions to help make the move as smooth as possible. Simple stuff like:
- Does she shower or take baths?
- Does she need supervision for any grooming?
- How much time does she need to get ready for school?
- What’s her evening routine like?
- Is she prone to bad dreams?
- Any TV shows/movies/music you prefer we avoid?
I had three pages, front and back, full of such questions. It’s those little things that I knew would make her life with us that much easier. Plus it would minimize the chances of us being duped by, “But Mommy and Daddy let me” remarks.
The nice thing is that caring for her wasn’t new for us to begin with. She’s been coming up for visits and long stays since she was potty-trained. She’s always enjoyed hanging out with her “cool” aunt and uncle and she seems to have enjoyed her first month with us so far.
One of the great things about shifting households is her ability to start over fresh
Where her parents couldn’t get her to do chores (or much of anything for herself) because she was used to being the “baby” and saw no need to change that; here, she’s eager to do chores and learn new things.
At her old school, she was having issues with bullying. Here though, she’s making friends and slowly learning how to soften some of her more… abrasive personality traits. We keep open communication with her teachers and make sure to work with her as problems arise. For the most part though she’s thriving in the smaller school with more personal attention.
Because she finally has her own space and the freedom to go outdoors (so long as she lets someone know), she’s really blooming (which was the assumption all along, and a big driving force in this arrangement). A little sunshine, fresh air, and a lack of urban sounds does her well.
Every Friday evening after dinner we sit down for a family meeting. We talk about things she liked about the past week and things she didn’t; as well as her hopes and concerns for the week ahead. It’s an opportunity for her to voice things she might not feel she can typically (or may not think of in the usual, “So how was your day?” conversations).
Happily there’s been very little kick-back from friends and family
Even the small handful who were appalled at first (“How can you give up your child?!”) realized the logic of the arrangement once one set of grown-ups or another sat down and explained the reasons. (Again: communication is key!) For the most part folks have been very supportive right from the get-go.
Which begs the question…
How have two childless people adjusted to parenting an almost-tween?
The answer is: surprisingly well. We’ve always loved the kid (I was her momma’s doula, so I was there when she was born), and my husband has always wanted to be a father.
Because we’ve lived in our house for several years, we’ve made many connections within the community (and are making even more now that Child is with us). Nearly all the extracurricular activities that she wants to do, we already are involved in, or know people who can hook us up. Friends and co-workers have been offering to set up play-dates with their kids; and getting a babysitter for the rare times we need one hasn’t been an issue either. The fact that my husband is self-employed and works from home is a real bonus.
I was nervous at first if we’d be able to handle this large undertaking (even though for now it’s slated to only last one school year with the option of continuing if she continues to thrive). It turns out though that when you boil it down, children actually need very little in this world: safety, shelter, food, and love.
We’re happy to give her all in spades.
This has truly been a win-win for everyone.