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Staying Close With Your Ex

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When my son, Patrick, was 4 and his sister, Morgan, was 6, their dad and I divided up the bunk beds and rugs and separated. Jim stayed in the large Victorian on Scott Street in San Francisco, and I moved into an apartment in another neighborhood. Each of us would take the kids for half the week.

And that was that, I thought. Except for trading kids back and forth and going to see their teachers together, I believed Jim and I were done with each other. Time passed, the kids got older, and I found myself at the altar again.

We didn't intend to move in with my ex-husband. But then we had problems with Morgan, and Jim and I often found ourselves at each other's house, devising strategies. Scared, we realized we had to circle the wagons.

Bill, my new husband, and I, already looking for a new place, decided to buy the one below Jim's. Patrick had his main bedroom upstairs, and Morgan's was downstairs, but they both treated the house as one big home. I once heard Morgan sigh on the phone, "No, I can't come over. All of my parents are home."

Of course it was awkward, particularly in the early days. We all just walked into each other's home -- Jim used my fax and copy machines and sent my UPS packages for me. Sometimes I'd go up to talk to him about making the pasta salad for Morgan's birthday party or about whether we should get Patrick a math tutor, and I'd see him hanging out the wash, the way he does when he's upset. I learned not to ask him what he was feeling, and he didn't ask me how I was doing. We had developed a new skill: maintaining distance from someone we were once intimate with.

We needed such boundaries. We were living so close together that when I told Jim I'd thrown out a huge ball of unmated socks, he said, "Oh, I know. I found it in the trash and took it upstairs. I had most of the mates." He borrows our vacuum; we steal soda off his porch when we run out during a party.

It has made all the difference that the two men like each other. Bill asks Jim for help fixing the toilet, and Jim, who publishes local histories, consults Bill, a book editor, on which cover photo might work best. Jim sends us soup, eggs, and fruit from the farmer's market, and he stores his wine in our extra fridge.

It turns out that when Jim and I divorced, we were not done with each other at all. In fact our relationship would evolve, not end. Underneath our daily life, politely writing each other checks for shared kid expenses and having our regular Sunday night family dinner at his house, was our deeper connection, the unbreakable bond of having created two human beings together and being linked for life by our love for them.

The other day Morgan said, "Why don't we dig up our overgrown jungle of a backyard and put in a lawn for sunbathing?" Ten minutes later she and I had dragged the radio and some trash bags out back. Suddenly Jim and Patrick came up from the basement with shovels, and the four of us clipped back bushes, filled the bags with dead leaves, and threw out the rotted wooden planter boxes. Bill hid out as long as he could, reading the paper. But finally even he showed up, with a pair of long-handled clippers, and cut away the nasturtiums that covered the tiny square of backyard behind our Victorian while reggae music spilled from the doorway.

Sometimes, it takes a duplex to raise a child.

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Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission from the April 2001 issue of Child magazine.