Lori Lothian declares just how amazing an ex can be.
“Mom, I want to live with you, not dad.”
These words emerged from my daughter’s mouth after almost a decade of living with her father, my ex, half time. At 14, she wanted to move in with me full time.
This was a scenario for a custody fight, so I tried to ignore it. Yet over several months, the refrain continued: my daughter increasingly expressed her desire to spend more time at my house and less at her dad’s. Yet, I knew her father was a good father, a dad who dearly loved his daughter and for that I was grateful.
I won’t pretend in the nine years since we divorced, I have always felt grateful for my ex husband. In fact, there were times I so exasperated by his behaviors in our co-parenting alliance, he ranked just under Darth Vader in my list of all-time villains.
Yet, in more recent years, my appreciation for him far outweighed my discomfort with personality traits and a worldview that had become increasingly discordant with mine during our 17-year marriage. And in the post-divorce era as we faced so many parenting challenges—from the near death of our son at age 18 to raising a teen girl—I’ve come to the startling recognition he has been an amazing half-time-custody-but-fully-committed-dad to our kids.
Signs were there, early on, In separation talks, he wanted to share custody equally, no arguments. When we separated he insisted we craft a divorce that put the children first. This looked like us creating a “children’s residence” in the legal documents, the house where our children would reside without having to live out of suitcases in a weekly house swap. Instead, my ex husband and I rented apartments and took turns moving in and out of that house each Friday. We sold the house after five years, but to this day our children say they are grateful, if not nostalgic, for the time they stayed in one home while their parents lived out of suitcases.
This news of our daughter’s preference to live with me was a blow to him. He’d ardently parented her as a mostly retired father since she was five. He’d put the time and love into being the kind of dad he did not have the freedom to be with his son (now 24) because his work as a senior health economist at the world bank made for a 60 hour work week, and at least 10 weeks of travel for missions in Africa and Asia each year. Simply, he put his heart into being a great, if imperfect, father to his daughter.
Now, she wanted desperately to move in with me—she even ran away once from his place to mine, as if to make a point. While there are a lot of reasons for her desire, none of them are the kinds of issues that would make me step in as a mom and “rescue” her from his custody.
But I understood too, that as a young girl going through puberty (even with the push pull of love-hate for me) she wanted more mother time, and relief from the bi-monthly move-out, lugging two suitcases stuffed with clothes, soccer equipment, her laptop and more. She was looking for anchoring in a way that a dual household life was not providing.
My ex was naturally fiercely resistant to any change in his two weeks a month with his girl. He sent me emails outlining argument for why it was a bad idea. We had heated phone calls and coffee meeting or two that ended in cold-war détentes. In the middle of all this, our daughter began acting out, increasingly agitated that her desire for three weeks at mom’s house (she’d now agreed to a week a month with her dad) was looking like a fatherly veto (even though legally, should we have gone to family court the judge would likely let a child her age “vote with her feet.”)
Then, the breakthrough came; the point where I witnessed how deep and selfless his love was for his daughter. We sat together, just him and me, in his living room one day to talk more about what to do (it had been six months of pressure from her, three weeks at a crisis level). He served coffee and then handed me a two-page document. I cringed at first, wondering what kind of ultimatums or legal arguments he’d amassed. As I started to read, tears came to my eyes. When I finished, I was barely able to speak without sobbing.
This two-page document was a love letter. It was the pouring out of his heart on paper, all of his concerns for his daughter, his hopes, his fears. And ultimately, it was a letter of surrender. Game over, he would grant his girl her wish because he loved her that much.
I looked across the coffee table at him and said, “No one could ever read this, and not see just how much love you have for your daughter.”
And then, something happened—something I have not seen since our son was trolleyed into emergency life-saving surgery. Tears came to his eyes and all he could muster was a silent nod, followed by a self-conscious laugh at his emotional vulnerability.
We ended that meeting with incredible and creative co-parenting ideas for our new three weeks with me, one week with him custody arrangement. But more importantly, we ended with a hug—the chest-to-chest, heart to heart kind of hug that happens rarely between ex spouses.
I am grateful for my ex-husband. And more so, I am so damn grateful that I can say that.
(Photo: Lori Ann, her ex husband and son circa 1996, nine years pre-divorce).