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Two Houses Are Better Than One

“You sleeping over?”

“Guess so.”

“Want my bed — I mean your bed? Or …” My husband — er, estranged husband — stops mid-sentence as he realizes that his bed is our old king-sized bed which I have been sleeping on since he moved to his mom’s but is now his again because it doesn’t fit into the tiny home I’ve rented. We exchange amused looks. Dusk is descending, violet shadows swiftly overtaking the backyard of his new house, his first home without me after a decade of marriage.

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We’d spent the day moving him in and organizing. Several trips from our old, shared home to his new place, while wrangling three kids — not an easy task. Yet, it was important to me to play a large role in helping Serge and have the kids around to witness the situation, which we attempted to transform into an adventure instead of the heartbreaking ordeal it actually was.

We want our kids — Violet (5), Henry (3) and Charlie (4 months) — to feel continuity between both Serge’s house and mine; to feel like both parents are present in each home. We call his house "Millheim House" after the town he lives in and mine is "Boalsburg House," after my town 20 minutes down the road from his. Not "Mom’s house" and "Dad’s house." It makes a difference, I think.

After months of awful arguments about everything under the sun, including where we’d live as co-parents, we finally decided to set all the nonsense aside and just make the whole damn thing as easy as possible, considering it’s the hardest thing either of us have ever done. Serge, tired of living at his mom’s house for the first two months of our separation, moved to a new home first. I helped move everything and organize his new place, attempting to make it an exciting experience for the kids. “Most kids only get one house but you guys get two houses! LUCKY.”

There were days my face was swollen from crying, my throat raw from screaming, so intense was my rage.

They bought it, kind of. At 5, Violet is wise enough to ask innocent questions that chip away at your heart until you’re forced to take a time-out in the bathroom to catch your breath: “How come Dad doesn’t sleep at our house anymore? Do you guys still love each other? Are we still a family?”

We tell her that, just like when she and Henry are arguing and need a time-out from each other, sometimes moms and dads do as well, but of course we still love each other. And we do. I will always love Serge. I wouldn’t have the three loves of my life without him. I wouldn’t be me without him.

After Serge was all moved in, I spent the first couple of nights at his place with the kids. It’s really important to me that they feel like I’m a part of his house. We didn’t want to smack them with THIS IS DAD’S HOUSE, NO MOM HERE — we just wanted as seamless a transition as possible.

A few weeks after his move, Serge drove the moving truck and helped me move into my place. He spent the first couple of nights there, too. If it sounds strange, it isn’t, really. Ours isn’t the kind of separation where hatred and anger are involved. Oh, there was hatred and anger. A lot of it, for a long time. It was bad. There were days my face was swollen from crying, my throat raw from screaming — so intense was my rage. But I came to realize it’s difficult to sustain intense emotion like that and, in the end I’m only hurting myself and, more importantly, my kids.

While we’ve spent the last six months disagreeing on a lot of things, the one thing Serge and I can agree on is that we desperately want to be the best parents we can be — which is a lot of the reason for the separation in the first place. We weren’t doing well together and our kids were noticing.

But, if you keep your kids’ well-being at the forefront, when you pause, dig deep into yourself and take a hard look at the petty back-and-forthing that inevitably comes with a parting of ways, you quickly realize there is no point in engaging in drama. It hurts everyone even more than the heartbreak of separation.

I suppose it would be harder if the breakup were the result of someone’s bad behavior; cheating, alcoholism — all the usual suspects. But it was just a slow, sad spiral that was years in the making. We turned into husk people, coasting on autopilot. Serge and I have discussed that with the heavy sadness of our separation comes some relief. Not relief that we aren’t together, but relief that we aren’t those people anymore; miserable, angry, resentful roommates. It makes co-parenting in the face of separation a whole lot easier.

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As a housewarming gift, I gave Serge a couple photos of him with the kids that I also plan to hang in my house. My house is also my kids’ house, which means photos of Dad are absolutely welcome here. Always. I want them to feel like each house is a place where both parents are very much present.

You can choose to divorce someone and rage over every inconsequential thing, spiraling into an endless cycle of arguing, trying to "win" and becoming filled with hatred, anger and anxiety or you can choose to ease gracefully into separateness, try as best you can to move on with your life while developing a new relationship with someone you were once madly in love with — and feel a whole lot better about yourself in the process.

It’s up to you.

In this new column, "Separating, Together" Serge and Monica Bielanko will be writing about parenting, separation and navigating their relationship in an entirely new way.

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