My relationship with my husband's ex-wife makes me a better mother and person
We don’t buy into the idea that divorce means acrimony
This First Person column is the experience of Julia Lipscombe who became a step-mother and co-parent after marrying her husband, Jesse. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
On Mother's Day I celebrate all the moms in my life. My sister, many of my friends, my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law. I make a point of giving a shout out to my fellow step-moms — unsung heroes as they often are. And, of course, I honour the awesomeness of my favourite all-time mom: my own mother, Beatrice, the best mom there is.
But the mom with whom I feel the most solidarity on Mother's Day is my co-parent, Shannon. She is my husband Jesse's ex-wife, and the mother of my step-sons. We have spent the last several Mother's Days together. After all, mothering is hard, and we're in it together. It only feels right.
Ours is a close relationship. Jesse and Shannon share equal custody of their two boys. Jesse and I also have a son together. So Jesse and I, and Shannon and her partner, Lee – along with the three boys – are one big family, in a sense.
We like to hang out on holidays and travel together occasionally. When Jesse and Shannon's boys swap houses for the week, there's often a dinner or a drink or at the very least a coffee to catch up. We have the door codes to each other's homes. There's love and respect there. But we also like each other. And why wouldn't we?
Some people think it's weird. To me, it just makes sense.
At the heart of this relationship are my step-sons' biological parents, Jesse and Shannon. Without them starting a family in the first place, this larger, happy family doesn't exist.
But Shannon and I are bonded in shared sensibility and values. We have a relationship outside of Jesse. We already had a lot in common – we both work in radio. And both having a romantic relationship with the same man (at different times) gives us even more in common. We see the same traits passed down from Dad to our boys. We can see the bits of us that are to be found in all three kids.
It wasn't always like this, of course. Relationships like these take time. But I think the reason we've been successful as a blended family is because Shannon and I both had high expectations for how we would all function together going in.
Shannon was friends with Jesse's family before they became involved. After they got together, Jesse's extended family became hers. She remained close with them after the separation. I learned that backstory when I first met Jesse a few years after they'd split. So there was no version of my life with him that didn't include his ex-wife. I thought that was mature and reflected well on both Jesse and Shannon, so I was totally on-board. What was the alternative? Drama with the ex? No thank you.
When I first moved to Edmonton to be with Jesse, Shannon and I were friendly but not friends. But relatively quickly, we developed a relationship, and then a genuine friendship. Although Shannon never said as much, I suspect I had to earn her trust.
There have been remarkably few tense moments. Once, frustrated with how my older step-son was relating to me, I texted the parents group chat saying I was relinquishing my sports-related driving duties that weekend. That didn't go over well.
Another time, Jesse spent hours making Shannon's Mother's Day present, and didn't put the same effort into mine. (I directed my resentment at him, not her.) But these have been minor compared to the richness that comes from supporting one another. Shannon has given me solid marriage advice – armed with her insider knowledge – and I think we're all better parents together than we would be in silos.
Sometimes it feels like Shannon and I have been through a lot together. Other times, it feels like the nearly eight years we've known each other has flown by. I laugh now when I think back to how I used to fret over making sure that the boys were wearing matching socks when I sent them back to their mom's house. I know now that's the last thing Shannon would care about. But I wanted to prove I was a capable caregiver.
I distinctly remember the first time I reached out to her personally without involving Jesse. And I remember the first time a couple of years later while standing in her kitchen, she opened up to me about one of her relationships. I felt then that I'd broken down a wall that had previously been between us.
A lot of people think Shannon's a saint for spending so much time with her ex's wife. And some people think I'm one for spending all my holidays with her. But, it's no hardship, and neither of us are actually saints. Our village is just bigger. We don't buy into the idea that divorce means acrimony. It shouldn't have to be the end of a relationship, even if a new romantic partner enters the picture.
From the beginning, Jesse, Shannon and I – and now Lee – have been building something different. And all of the adults in the room have been committed to a new kind of family.
I am by nature a self-reflective, sometimes anxious, and often guilty-feeling person. Sometimes I feel I haven't handled a step-parenting situation well. I have questioned myself when I felt frustrated or angry or exasperated. But in almost eight years, there has never been a time when Shannon made me feel guilty about my step-parenting. Even if I made the kids feel bad. Even if I made a mistake. She has always sided with me, comforted me and told me I was doing well.
That kind of generosity is contagious and has made me a better mother and person. Sometimes our situation is hard to explain. But Shannon told me recently that this family we've built is a reflection of her value system. And I think that's the best description I've heard to date.
Julia Lipscombe is a producer at CBC Vancouver, working on The Early Edition and BC Today.
The Doc Project's Anatomy of a Blended Family was produced by Julia Lipscombe and Shannon Tyler, and edited by Acey Rowe.
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