Parenting Partnerships

Instead of bitter battles over custody of children and division of property some divorcing couples are finding ways to open up their definition of family.
My work on the book The Good News About Family: An Uplifting Collection of New Family Portraits began about six years ago as my husband, Mark, and I (Tera) were coming to realize that the romantic aspect of our marriage was over. Though our relationship was changing, we remained deeply committed to our parenting partnership and friendship. I was struck by the lack of positive role models, especially for divorced parents, and by the power of the institutional model of family. Even our most open-minded friends doubted our ability to harmoniously redesign our family structure. It was as if people were programmed to mistrust partnership inclinations, requiring animosity and alienation between divorcing spouses.

Reading The Chalice and the Blade during this time gave language to my observations. In this book, Riane Eisler presents her cultural transformation theory illustrating that the 5,000 year-old “dominator model,” based on hierarchy, was preceded by a “partnership model,” based on alliance, which thrived for centuries in highly civilized, peaceful, prehistoric cultures. She suggests that we are now in the process of reviving partnership models of social organization. This new language helped me recognize that the resistance to the changes in our family indeed stemmed from dominator programming. I was encouraged by the thought that Mark's and my commitment to family could be part of a global movement toward a partnership world – an active participation in cultural transformation.

The following excerpt is from a photo-essay book that Greta and I are writing. We are collecting stories of inspirational partnership families: partnership marriages, partnership divorces, and parenting partnerships that simply defy definition. Our hope is that The Good News About Family will support creative conflict resolution and innovative family building while serving as an affirmation for those who have already chosen the path of partnership.

Ann & Bill's story

Ann and Bill met in a taxicab in 1981.

“I was at the bank doing some business for my office,” Ann recalls. “I called a Yellow Cab, and Bill was the driver. It was the week the NFL went on strike. It was a Monday.”

“It was going to be the last Monday night football game for a while,” Bill picks up on the story, “and she started talking about that. ...”

“And he said, ‘Why don't you meet me for a drink, and we can watch the last game together?' That was in September. We eloped the following June in Cleveland, where I grew up. We went to an Indians' baseball game for our honeymoon!”

After the celebration, Ann moved into Bill's house in San Francisco. They were married for about five years when their first child, Danielle, was born in 1986.

“It was the greatest moment of my life, just miraculous!” Bill is emphatic. “And the second greatest moment was when our son, Jesse, was born two years later.”

“Bill's the best diaper changer in the world and he loved doing it.”

Bill nods in agreement. “I did love it.”

“We had waited a long time,” Ann says. “I was 35, and he was 42. We had done everything we wanted to do; we had traveled and lived other places. We were ready – so it was really wonderful. We loved being parents. We still do.”

“I was violent”

Danielle was five and Jesse was three-and-a-half when Ann initiated a separation from Bill.

“Most people were totally shocked,” says Ann. “We were best friends. We did everything together. Maybe we were too close. We didn't have separate lives.”

“I think it started to fall apart when we had the kids, because we could never come to an agreement about how to raise them,” Bill hypothesizes. “I think we were both insecure about our own abilities to raise children and that insecurity manifested itself in arguments.”

Ann shakes her head. “I never felt insecure about having the children or raising them. There were other factors that entered into why I initiated the separation, but I do agree that we could not come to terms about very many things regarding raising the children.”

“There is something that Ann hasn't mentioned that's the reason for our divorce.” Bill is suddenly
solemn. “I was violent with Ann, and I was violent with the kids. I first realized this when Ann was pregnant with Danielle. I was throwing things and pushing her.

“She left me and went to live with my sister for a while. Thank God she had the guts to leave me and make me get some help. If that had never happened, I'd still be the biggest jerk in the world. I went to two separate organizations for about five years. They helped me understand that it was wrong, and I accepted the help. I wasn't trying to say ‘No, it's not my fault.' I was open enough to say, ‘I need to change. It's not her fault. It's on me.'”

Convinced that Bill was serious about getting help, Ann moved back in just before Danielle was born.

“For a couple of years,” she says, “I went to a group for women in abusive relationships and I went to private therapy. Bill and I went to marriage counseling and therapy together. We tried to get it to work.”

For about five years they struggled to salvage their marriage but, in 1991, Bill and Ann separated. Ann and the kids left their city life in San Francisco and moved north to Mill Valley. Bill moved about an hour's drive south.

“When Ann finally kicked me out for good, it was the worst day of my life. We were having a tremendous fight, and she told me to leave. She used to tell me that all the time, but finally I said, ‘Okay, I'm going.' I realized that I had to. I couldn't live like that anymore. We were screaming at each other day and night.

“I was trying to heal myself, but I was lost. I didn't know how to do anything. ... I didn't know how to raise my kids. ... I didn't know how to be nice to them,” Bill says.

The local Children's Protective Services agency allowed Bill to see his children only under direct supervision. However, Bill and Ann could choose friends to supervise instead of CPS personnel.

“I didn't get to see the kids that often,” Bill says. “Then, when I was with them, I didn't know how to be with them. But I kept trying. I went to parenting groups; I read books; I tried everything. I realized I didn't know how to discipline the kids. There were no boundaries for me when I was growing up, just a lot of yelling and hitting.

“But eventually things started coming together – all the books I'd read and the groups – and I finally figured out how to set boundaries. I'll never forget the first time.

“It was on Halloween. I was with my friend, Jamie, who was one of the people who supervised my visits with the kids. We went to a shopping center, and before we got out of the car to go trick-or-treating I said, “Okay, kids, here's what we're going to do. ...'”

Bill stops as tears overtake him. Ann gently offers him some tissues. “I'm so glad you got to this.” Her voice is calm and reassuring.

Bill picks up the thread of his story and continues, “I said, ‘Here are the rules and I want you to follow them. I want you to walk beside me, and don't run. I want you to ask me if you can leave my side. I don't want you touching anything in a store unless you ask me.' Then we got out of the car and went into the shopping center, and they did exactly what I wanted them to do.

“I'll never forget this specific moment: Jesse got so excited that he started to run. He took about one step, stopped, and asked, ‘Dad, could I go over there?' I was the happiest person in the world! It was a big turning point in my life.

“I'm still working on setting boundaries, but the violence is under control. I do yell at them sometimes but I'm working on that now and trying not to raise my voice.”

After almost two years of Bill having limited contact with Danielle and Jesse, Ann ended the supervised visits.

“I could see that Bill had made some big changes,” says Ann. “The biggest thing that motivated me was that he is Dani and Jesse's dad, and it is important that they have both their parents helping them grow up and go out into the world. He's a great dad; he's got a lot of good stuff to give them.

“For a long time after Bill and I were apart, I used to say to myself, ‘Well, if it wasn't for Bill's violence, we'd still be together.' After all, we were best friends – we loved each other. But it takes two people to make a marriage and two people to end a marriage. It's amazing to me that people fall in love, get married, choose to have children, get divorced – then hate each other's guts and never speak to each other again. I could never do that in my life. I don't speak negatively about Bill in front of the children. To this day, Bill and I still argue, sometimes we get angry and hang up on one another, but we always come through.

A new family

In May of 1993, Bill responded to an intriguing ad in the personals section of the local paper. Carol remembers that the most striking thing about Bill's voice-mail message was the warmth he conveyed when talking about his children. It was this sincerity that motivated her to call him and arrange a first date. Soon after their initial meeting, they were seeing each other on a fairly regular basis. Within a few weeks, Bill felt close enough to Carol to tell her about his history of violence, the supervised visits, and his determination to heal himself.

Carol appreciated Bill's honesty, was impressed with his commitment to the men's groups, and clearly recognized his ability to evolve. She offered to accompany him on some of his visits with the children and, with her background in psychology, was able to give him helpful feedback. By September of 1993, Bill and Carol were deeply in love and had decided to live together. They found a house in Marin County only 10 minutes away from Ann and the kids.

“I knew that Bill and Carol were in a serious relationship and that they were moving to Marin together,” Ann recalls. “The first time I met Carol, I cried through the entire meeting! It wasn't so much about losing Bill. It just made me very sad. It took me a long time to get to know Carol, but now I consider her one of my friends. Bill has somebody to talk to, and I talk to her, too. She's a good mediator and the three of us are a team.

“Carol is a big part of our lives and I don't know what I would do without her. She's also a big part of my children's lives; I call her their “other mother,” and I know her whole family – Paul [Carol's former husband], her parents, her children. They are my family now.”

Ann adds, “You know, last year we were doing some work on the PTA book fair – it's one of the projects the three of us work on. I was behind the counter working with two other women when Carol walked by. One of the women asked, ‘Who's that?' And I said, ‘That's Bill's fiancée.'

“She was amazed, ‘Fiancée! You're divorced? Everybody thinks you and Bill are married!'

“That's what they thought because we do things together, and I guess we don't speak to each other like some divorced couples do. That's kind of a cute story, isn't it?”

“Carol is a terrific influence,” Bill adds. “She's so non-judgmental, and she finds the good in everything. When Ann and I are working something out and need guidance, we usually bring it to Carol. She hasn't let us down yet.”
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