“So… You know I have two kids, right?” I said to the new man I was dating. I hadn’t dated anyone since I broke up with my daughters’ father four years earlier, so that meant I’d never had this conversation before.
My boyfriend laughed. “Yeah, we’ve been over that.”
“And a roommate?” I asked.
“That’s fine,” Adam said. “Why would that bother me?”
“Because he’s my ex. We’ve been roommates ever since we broke up.”
There was a long pause.
Shreyas and I had been through a lot together. We were friends for seven years before we started dating and then got married. We drifted out of contact when my abusive ex isolated me from my friends, but then reconnected online after I left that relationship. After that, Shreyas and I moved to Massachusetts together, where we struggled – and never quite succeeded – to lift ourselves out of poverty. I gave birth to our child together, my youngest daughter, and we got custody of my oldest daughter from the abusive ex.
A year later, Shreyas lost a series of jobs. While I took whatever odd jobs I could find online, eventually settling on writing search engine spam: $500 for 50,000 words a week. We were on food stamps, and couldn’t afford heat. In my spare time, I designed and self-published tabletop games. And when we weren’t doing those things, we fought.
Our relationship had always been fairly easy, and I truly felt like I’d married my best friend. So the friction in our relationship wasn’t money, stress, or parenthood. We realized that our sexual orientations were no longer compatible – and it was a relief. We loved each other, we loved our kids, but there was no romantic relationship.
Weeks after realizing that our marriage was over, I got a job offer: more money than my parents had ever made put together, but across the country in California. My excitement quickly faded when I did some cost of living calculations.
“I don’t think I can afford to take this job. Childcare for two kids is too expensive,” I told Shreyas, my soon to be ex-husband.
We looked at all the puzzle pieces, and there was only one natural conclusion: Shreyas would move to California with me, as my roommate and as a full-time dad. I’d provide for the four of us, and he’d be the childcare.
In the beginning, we felt weird and ashamed of our arrangement. In fact, our closest friends didn’t find out we broke up for a year. We didn’t tell our parents for three years— not until they came to visit us in California where we could each have our own bedroom, instead of one of us sleeping on an air mattress or futon like we had before the move. Our families took it in stride. Mostly.
Eventually, it became impossible to see how our family could work any other way. This unique living situation was working for us financially and emotionally. The economy got worse, which made it increasingly difficult for Shreyas to find work. But we made Shreyas’ employment status work for us. As my career took off, it required more travel, which would have been impossible without his ability to provide after school and overnight care. And as our relationship evolved, we’d even talk about Shreyas’ Tinder matches while watching television together after the kids were asleep. And I’d go on occasional and awful first dates when Shreyas was available to hold down the fort.
Until I met Adam.
We met on Twitter, so I was worried about the distance Adam had from my daily life. Would he really be okay that I lived with my ex?
That summer, I flew to Detroit, helped Adam pack his life into a car, and we embarked on a one-way road trip west. He had his own place at first, but after about six months, he moved in with our family.
In the weeks leading up to the big move,I couldn’t stop asking Shreyas and Adam (separately) if they were okay with the new living arrangement. Adam was already spending two or three nights a week at our house, so my ex and my new boyfriend had become friends. Adam surprisingly preferred this setup: “I’m not sure I’m ready to be half of the total parents in a household yet. This makes it a lot easier.” Adam got to build relationships with my kids, without the pressure of filling the stepdad role right away.
In reality, this living situation was easier for all of us. Adam and I both worked long hours, so it was amazing to come home to the fantastic meals Shreyas cooked. Because of Adam’s schedule, Shreyas was able to hang out with friends once Adam and I got home to relieve him from dad duty. And there was the time our youngest threw up all over the bathroom: Shreyas and I got stopped in our tracks by the smell, but Adam— lacking any real olfactory nerves— was able to bravely charge in and clean it up like a champ.
Having three cohabitating, cooperating, coParents means that when it comes to the big parenting decisions, there’s never a tie. It means that no matter how frustrating the kids are being, at least one parent has enough patience left to give the others a break. It can also mean holidays are awkward when a set of parents visits our unique household for the first time, but the benefits far outweigh the issues.
Recently, I had to buy a selfie stick to get all of us in the family photos we took on our Hawaii vacation, but I didn’t care. We went out to Morimoto the first night we were there, sipping Mai Tais like adults and marveling that our kids were so well-behaved in such a fancy place. The next morning, Adam stayed in the hotel to do some work online while four of us went out for breakfast. We even went to a Luau on Shreyas’ birthday proper.
I’d be lying if I said all this were completely easy, but the difficulties come from existing in a world that isn’t built for families like mine— not the typical parenting difficulties most expect. It takes a thick skin to laugh at the awkward questions from our kids’ schools and the assumptions people make about our relationships. (My mother gets Adam and Shreyas matching clothes for Christmas every year, and I’m not sure if she thinks it’s funny or thinks I’m secretly running a male harem.) But the easiest part, the part that makes the tough things worth it, is having a big extended family.
We all love the movie Lilo and Stitch, so of course we ended up quoting it a lot in Hawaii – “Ohana means family.” Family isn’t something that gets smaller just because two people aren’t in love anymore. Family is a huge word, welcoming, always ready to embrace new members.