London Calling - Coparenting, Conflict and Christmas
Yesterday, Vanessa, Felix and I arrived home in Chicago after a Christmastime week in London and a New Year’s Eve in Munich. It was our second “international” coparenting vacation (assuming one counts Canada as a foreign country). During this time, we shared with you a number of fun and sometimes funny photos and videos of our trip. Now that we have returned home, I also want to speak a little more seriously about divorce, coparenting, conflict and the state of modern families - in all of their often challenging complexity.
In the title track to the famous 1979 album bearing the same name, the British punk band, The Clash, performed a song called “London Calling.” The apocalyptic song very deftly explores: the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, a culture in metamorphosis, drugs, unemployment and racial issues in Britain - so of course it makes for the perfect song to capture a post-divorce holiday away for two former spouses.
It is important to recall that in 1979, the London and Britain in which the young artists of The Clash lived, was an often troubled and very much changing place. As Margaret Thatcher came into office that year in the UK and Ronald Regan became President in the United States a year later, it was a full thirty five years after the end of WWII. The famous phrase “London is calling” (shared with the song) was still a line familiar to many ears around the world who remembered the BBC broadcasts of years past - including that period when our world was at war and London was a city under siege from bombings.
We are all familiar with the rapid pace and profound level of change that marked the post-war decades in American and Britain. We are even more familiar (our memories being what they are) with the speed and nature of change in the decades since 1980. Many rightly trumpet the ways in which our various societies have moved forward and yet many also rightly voice concern over the ways in which that moving forward has led to certain consequences intended and unintended and the loss of certain things that once had value (and perhaps still do). Moreover, while much progress has been spread widely across society and access to civil institutions, technology and opportunity have all increased, the world remains a place where the ills noted by The Clash song remain as present as ever.
Navigating culture is a lot like operating within a coparenting relationship. There is the shared history, there is the mix of the communal and the personal. There is both conflict and concordance. We navigate our way through parenting with another person outside of marriage in the same “one step forward, two steps back” kind of way that we tend to move along as a people (or as peoples).
Today, London strikes a visitor from America as a very amazing and curious kind of place. The newish Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is a British Muslim of Pakistani descent. He is the city’s first ethnic minority mayor and has backed the campaign “London is Open” amidst the national furor over Brexit. And the city of London is undoubtedly a vibrant, bustling and energetic place. It is truly international in ways that no American city is or can claim to be (sorry, NYC). It also strikes one as a place a bit unsure of itself at present - a place that knows where it has been, but isn’t exactly sure where it is going, why it is going there or how it will get there.
During our family's time in London, we observed Christmas Day services at Westminster Abbey - that historic and holy place of worship. As the pure and lovely voices of the choir sang and as incense wafted throughout the church (known as a “Royal Peculiar” in the Church of England as it is subject to the direct jurisdiction of the monarch), it was a striking and peculiar reminder, in that moment, of how often worlds collide in London (as elsewhere) - the junction of the sacred and the secular, the contemporary and the traditional, the British (or that which we here think of as prototypically British) and the International. The very Christmas message we heard that day referred to the funeral of Stephen Hawking, to Darwin and to Newton - and to the relationship between Jerusalem and Athens, between the rational and the spiritual. As believers took Eucharist, non-believers could approach for a blessing and that place of worship was full of people from around the world - worshipping, watching, wishing, or simply taking ill-advised selfies during services.
Elsewhere, throughout the city that day, we heard a vibrant cacophony of voices speaking (as I counted them): Farsi, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, Urdu and of course French, German and Italian. Amid that jumble of linguistic diversity, there were the familiar accents of the various British people - marking their place, upbringing and education. On the streets and in the Underground, cultures and peoples mixed easily and yet also uneasily. Underneath the generous spirit of that day, one could palpably detect a strong feeling of conflict. This feeling is one we will return to shortly.
On Boxing Day, we went to Wembley Stadium and took in a game between our favorite-from-afar Premier League team, Tottenham Hotspur, and Bournemouth. It was, to an American sports fan from Chicago, a truly remarkable sight. The British sports fans we observed were at once profoundly more polite and well behaved (in some ways) and yet markedly more rabid, vulgar and spirited in their rooting. Over the next couple of days, we went up to Mariesfield Gardens, to visit the Freud Museum, and back to central London to see the Churchill War Rooms and many of the other sites that visitors from places like America go to while in London.
I mention these two stops because each has relevance for what I am attempting to express here. As we waited in line to enter the underground bunkers that Winston Churchill, his cabinet and others occupied during the war, a husband and wife got into a bit of a spat with the staff. Apparently, the tickets purchased by the couple did not contain the proper bar code for scanning and they were turned away. The husband voiced his strong consternation and stated to the person allegedly in charge that they had come down on a train and had but one day to see this historic museum and site. He had a British accent that my American ear could not place but he bore a facial expression that was universal. Strikingly, he flatly stated, “he was OUR Prime Minister and WE fought for him. It’s a disgrace WE can’t see him.”
One could detect a sense of both sadness and unease on his wife’s face as he spoke. The couple did not appear to be of any great means. This visit was, for them, apparently a very big deal. Ultimately, the pair shuffled off as the husband continued to grumble about Britain and war and foreigners and the like. It captured a real moment on so many levels. From our hotel, and occasionally elsewhere, we heard a lot about No-Deal Brexit, Let’s-Make-A-Deal Brexit, migration and issues with Border Force (they call it that in England and perhaps it is only humorous to us as Americans who are faced with the prospect of a new Space Force).
Like the election of President Trump here, Brexit appears to be a kind of Rorschach in England. It is beyond the scope of my abilities and knowledge base to wade too deeply into political matters either foreign or domestic. But as an observer of people in conflict on a daily basis as a divorce lawyer, I do feel comfortable making some very basic comments that relate directly to the themes of this blog.
While very smart political commentators have drawn comparisons between rising populism in the US and UK - what struck me, as a divorce lawyer who is also a divorced parent on holiday with my former spouse and our son, was something beyond politics and beyond culture.
You see, traveling abroad with your ex-wife and an eight year old is not entirely easy. Traveling with your wife and child isn’t easy either, many times. Coparenting itself is not easy, much like parenting in general isn’t easy. There is, in a post-divorce world, a clash of sorts. Like the clashes between cultures, generations, nations and peoples, the ex-spouse and his or her opposite must navigate a world both new and not-new. There is also the additional fact that as people with no marriage between them, divorced spouses must actively choose - every day - to navigate conflict in a peaceful way because they do not take things for granted as many marrieds do.
With one foot in the history of the marriage and one in the divorced present, the divorced couple attempting coparenting is a bit like what I saw in Britain - attempting to preserve the best of the past while also moving forward into the future. One simply does not get this same sense so directly in America, where we seem always to be moving forward and we preserve our historic monuments and rites in a kind of plasticized amber - or more appropriately given the vacation, like the wax figures in London’s Madame Tussaud Museum (which we smartly avoided for reasons both practical and aesthetic).
When in England, what would have been our 12th wedding anniversary came to pass. We actually visited the ancient Roman baths and Stonehenge that day. It was, to the Freudian in me, a rather appropriate destination day outside of London. At a small little pub in Bath, Vanessa and I raised our pint of ale and gin and tonic, respectively, and said “happy 12/30” to each other. We now mark the 30th of December differently than before. We now mark the day not as an anniversary of marriage, but an anniversary of the day we embarked upon a life together that continues to this day, albeit in very different form than that which we imagined over a decade ago. It is a life centered around a shared purpose: our son.
Earlier, I mentioned our soccer/football match at Wembley. At a certain point in time in the match, the Spurs fans all join in song. Taking the timeless tune “When the Saints Go Marching In” - the crowd erupts into a tweak of the song, substituting the word Spurs for Saints. One cannot help but feel something in that moment. It is a shared moment of unity. Whether you are a fan from London or Chicago, whether it is a match in 1979 or 2018/2019, it is one of those things you simply do - like people before you did and people after you will do.
Of course, here in Chicago, fans of that OTHER baseball team (the Cubs) have their “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Fans everywhere have such rites and rituals. Religions have far more meaningful rites, whether Anglican, Jewish, Muslim or otherwise. Rites are often a good thing.
In coparenting, we attempt to preserve as many of those rites, traditions and folkways as possible. We mark holidays and birthdays as much like before as we can. We know where we have been and we attempt to move forward as best we can. We attempt to maintain that historic link as best we can while we also improvise and add. On New Year’s Eve, we left London and spent the night in Munich at the Marienplatz.
In Munich, the folks celebrating the end of the year and the coming of the new year gather in the square and set off improvised fireworks, bottle rockets and other explosive items. It is at once invigorating and slightly terrifying. Our son, filled with the spirit of adventure (and lacking any appropriate sense of personal safety), led us into the throng that evening. At midnight, he grabbed our bottle of champagne and doused himself in bubbly wine as the city exploded in color, sound and spirit.
In divorce, as lawyers, we see conflict both profound and picayune. In divorce, as former spouses engaged in it personally, we also experience conflict intimately. Conflict is a thorny thing - whether it is a nation dealing with new times, a culture dealing with new ways, or a couple dealing with new circumstances. Navigating that tension is no easy feat.
We are largely, it seems, becoming a balkanized set of nations of Red and Blue, Leave and Remain, etc. Our seemingly ineradicable tribal instincts become forcefully amplified in a world where communication, information, education and entertainment are instantaneous and where we can hide ourselves away in underground bunkers of our own making via social media and technology.
I do not know the way forward from this all for any conglomeration of people larger than a family. In the setting I am most familiar with and in which I also work, divorce, the answer seems to me to be to take a somewhat progressively conservationist approach. This approach attempts to preserve the best of the relationship for the benefit of the children while soberly moving forward into changed times. Whether that could or should translate to anything larger is for people brighter than myself to determine.
And so, maintaining a family after divorce should, by my lights, mean attempting to actually maintain as much of that family as possible: in trips, in events, in daily life and as many other ways besides. Of course, this suggestion will not be attractive to many, will not be possible for all, and is not advisable in many cases. But it is, while difficult to do, very much worth it.
It is very tempting for those of us who are divorced to split into factions of Mom and Dad - much like we do religiously or politically. We divide our children and our time with them like loaves of bread. We establish competing rites and rituals. We break off into teams of Red and Blue or Leave and Remain. We jettison what we once shared (and still can, if we try) for a new world that while often good in some ways, also lacks something profound.
One need not be at all traditionally religious (I am not) or culturally conservative to recognize that the family - as a basis for ordering society - has value and is vital. The form that family takes is where our progress can make its mark. Whether its is a mom and dad in marriage, two coparents or two moms, two dads, etc. — it is rather a good thing that we do not throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water. Modern families, it seems to me, can look very different than families of the past used to look. Where I depart with friends more conservative than I, is when it comes to the insistence that the married mom and dad model is the only model worth supporting or that it is the only model that is salutary. A culture that truly valued families would do more to lessen the stigma of divorce, to encourage coparenting, and to embrace the diversity of ways in which responsible and caring parents can choose to order their existences as a family.
There are also many who suggest the coparenting vacation is a pig in a poke - that it confuses children or that it can be too challenging for the parents. There are many who suggest coparenting itself is just too much to ask of people. There are those of an individualist bent who question whether it is good for the parents (and the kids) to behave like a family once the family has changed its form. I respect those voices, but strongly dissent.
The proof, to me, is in the pudding. A tasty English pudding, if you will. Enjoyed with a happy son and an ex-wife with whom one can vacation at holidays and operate daily. So much of what we navigate in life is fraught with competing goals and interests - whether it is societally or as families. Conflict is inevitable to some degree.
There is no confusion between us that Vanessa and I are divorced and that the nature of our relationship has changed. Like a nation or culture that has transformed through time, however, we remain together although not together as we once were. That can sometimes be difficult, it can sometimes be stressful, but it is where we are - as so many of your are.
Here's to trying in this next year to be mindful of the fact that divorce is really only an alteration of one's legal status vis-a-vis another person. It need not mark the end of a family. To those who think it is, I encourage you to think again. To those think it is too hard to make it work, I suggest you consider that the alternative may be ultimately be harder. Either way, I hope you enjoyed your own holiday - however it was spent.
Happy New Year.