If doing the best thing for your family meant going against a widely-accepted, long-standing societal norm, would you do it? Could you find the courage to design your own unique co-parenting arrangement?

Nearly a decade ago, I was faced with this difficult and agonizing decision.

After almost 20 years of marriage, two beautiful boys and by all accounts a good relationship, I was unhappy and deeply unfulfilled. I was in my mid-40s and while I loved my husband – he’s a great man and father – I wasn’t in love with him anymore. Following months of soul searching, I found the courage to ask him for a divorce and the courage for design our own unique co-parenting plan.

Initially, he didn’t want the marriage to end. During a couples counseling session, our counselor suggested we workout together, something we had never done despite both of us being triathletes. I was a personal trainer at the time and brought him to the gym where I worked for our session. When my husband realized he couldn’t pick up the heavy weight I had just lifted, he looked at me and said, “When did you get so strong? I don’t know who you are anymore. I’ll give you the divorce.”

While I was relieved he was willing to end the marriage, there was one big problem: he wanted our boys to live with him.

When he initially brought it up, my heart sank. My gut reaction was, WHAT!? I love my boys, they belong with me. I’m their mother. But when I took a step back and looked at our situation, I knew deep down that having the kids live with him was the most loving thing I could do for them.

Even though this was the right decision for our family, I still felt sick to my stomach. I was terrified I would lose the special bond I had with my kids or that they would hate me for living somewhere else. I was afraid of judgment. Was it acceptable for me to embrace our unique co-parenting arrangement? I was scared that people think I was a horrible mother and afraid of the inevitable judgment I would receive, especially from other women. Because in our society, when one hears that a mother doesn’t have her children living with her, most – yes most women immediately think, what’s wrong with her?

As women, and especially as moms we are conditioned to have this reaction. Women are nurturers at heart, born with a mothering manual hardwired into our DNA. Our natural instinct is to love, protect and care for our children. Gender-biased conventional wisdom says that a woman’s primary purpose is to be a mother and that children belong with their mother when parents divorce. So when I decided to become the non-custodial parent, you can imagine the judgment I received from other women.

From the beginning of the divorce discussion, our process was unique. We didn’t use a mediator or divorce attorneys. My husband and I chose to set aside our egos and create a divorce agreement and co-parenting arrangement that put our kids first. And since my soon-to-be ex-husband was an attorney, he drafted the papers.

The terms of our divorce were simple: we would have joint custody, but the kids would live with him. I would continue to greet them off the bus and get them settled after school and have them every other weekend. My ex would be responsible for all of our children’s expenses and I would receive no alimony. We would co-parent and make important parenting decisions together.

When I asked for the divorce, we were living in my ex-husband’s childhood home with his parents, so I had to leave. By keeping the boys in their house, they would have stability and the constant love and support of their grandparents who lived upstairs. My ex also allowed me to keep the house key and told me I could see the kids whenever I wanted.

While this arrangement allowed our children to feel loved and secure, it left me feeling ashamed. For years, I couldn’t stop thinking how I had failed as a woman because I no longer met society’s definition of what it means to be a good mother. It wasn’t until I started working with a life coach that I realized I could think about my situation differently. I could feel good about our one-of-a-kind arrangement. I could define motherhood for myself and boldly decide who I want to be for my kids. I could stop feeling disempowered and proudly share my status with the world. Hiring someone outside of your circle – a divorce or life coach – can offer advice or a new perspective as you go through the emotional trauma of divorce.

Nine years later, my teenage boys are thriving and my ex and I have a supportive friendship. Our journey wasn’t easy. But working work together to keep our children’s interests at the center of our decision-making kept us on course for creating a stable and loving arrangement.

These days, anytime I talk publicly about my non-custodial status I always hear, “Wow, you’re so brave.” This response highlights the systemic problem. Making the best decision for your children should be considered an act of love, not an act of bravery. Unfortunately, families risk societal stigma and judgment when they don’t have a traditional divorce agreement and parenting arrangement. This pressure to conform can cause us to make poor decisions. When this happens and we let our egos get in the way, we are often left angry and unfulfilled, and our kids are the ones who suffer.

It is possible to accept, embrace and support all kinds of co-parenting arrangements. Getting clear on your values and exploring all options without fear and judgment is the first step. We will begin to smash the stigma for ourselves and our family when every parent boldly chooses a parenting dynamic that’s right for them. I’m giving you permission to make the best decision for your family.

Your children deserve it. And so do you.

Susan Eckstein is an empowerment expert, coach, speaker and creator of the Redefining Motherhood Program. Susan helps moms reconnect to their power and lead with their values so they can define motherhood for themselves. She leads her clients through a life-changing process to help them challenge their stories and change their beliefs so they can feel good about who they are and show up more powerfully for their children. Susan became a non-custodial mother to her two boys following her divorce eight years ago. After accomplishing her dream goal of doing an Ironman, Susan changed careers and became a mindset coach, personal trainer and triathlon coach. Susan has coached hundreds of men and women to successfully compete in their dream athletic events, including triathlons, marathons and adventure races. She is a three-time Ironman as well as a Certified Clear Beliefs Coach.A former PR consultant with more than a decade of agency experience, Susan worked with senior level executives in the medical, pharmaceutical and financial industries on content development, media representation, and crisis communications. Susan has been a guest on multiple podcasts including The Big Talk, Divorce & Beyond, Unbreakable You and the Bold Leadership Revolution. She is a Speaker Who Dares, as well, and her expert topics include empowerment, non-custodial parenting, challenging societal norms, courage, and motherhood. Visit Susan at: www.thesusaneckstein.com

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DISCLAIMER: The commentary, advice, and opinions from Gabrielle Hartley are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice or mental health services. You should contact an attorney and/or mental health professional in your state to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. 

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