The Oatmeal Exchange

Seven ways to get through a divorce when you have small children.

Lisa Larson-Walker

I married a guy with the most arresting blue eyes I’ve ever seen. To be clear, that’s not the only reason I married him. I also married him because he was smart and decent. And I liked his sense of humor, which is so dry as to be nearly undetectable. But five years after the “I dos,” we were miserable—unable to agree on so much as a grocery list, much less on where or how to live a life as loving and mutually supportive partners.

Our single successful joint venture was making babies: two in fairly rapid succession. And even then, success had its limitations. Coming up with a name for our second child proved nearly impossible. It was only at 2:30 a.m., nearly seven hours after I went into labor, that we grudgingly reached a compromise. That time.

More often, there was no compromise to be found, not for a thousand miles. On March 24, 2015, a judge signed our no-contest divorce papers.

The fact that we couldn’t make our marriage work, especially given the stakes, is one of the hardest and most painful truths I’ve ever had to face. But our divorce has worked out much better than I thought it would. That is not to say I have the qualifications to give advice—I don’t. All I tell you is what helped me.

Boggle. There’s always a point about halfway through Boggle when the only words you can see are the same ones you have already written down, over and over and over again. It’s maddening. But if you turn the Boggle board 90 degrees, you see the same letters from your opponent’s perspective, and an amazing thing happens. You find new words—and often, they are your opponent’s. It’s the same thing with divorce. Turn the board around, and suddenly, there are your ex’s words, spelling out a different story. You will never come to a mutual narrative embrace about who is most at fault and for what. But you will find new words—and with them, an entirely different way of understanding and loving your ex.

Discretion. Don’t tell a lot of people about the breakup until you can summarize it in an anodyne elevator speech that feels true and is likely to remain true. For months, my ex and I told only our immediate family. We continued to wear our wedding rings. We monitored the kids. We got used to living apart. And then, slowly, we told concentric circles of friends and acquaintances, at which point there was nothing new or murky about our situation—it was just reality.

Dignity. You are a human being. You need an outlet for your true, unmitigated, and sometimes nasty feelings about what is happening. Feelings that are not printable even in Slate. Rely on a close circle of confidants to whom you can say these things with full confidence that you are screaming down a well. Refrain from confiding in your kid’s teacher, your co-worker, or a playdate mom. Your feelings about your ex may be short-lived. People’s memories of what you said about your ex will not be.

Perspective. At first, everything seems like a federal case. Almost nothing is. In fact, your divorce should not be a case at all. If you litigate your divorce in a courtroom, it will end in disaster, both financial and psychological. Use an attorney only to help you negotiate and divvy things up. On custody, most courts will default to a 50-50 split—fighting over particular weeks or holidays is not worth it. You will make other plans and start new traditions. Fighting over money is not worth it, either. You will spend three times that amount in the process.

Rules. When you get a provocative text or email, it’s all too easy to respond with your own rapid-fire missile. Don’t do it. Picture every one of your self-righteous tirades printed out, put in an exhibit binder, and given to a family court judge. Or forwarded to your former mother-in-law, confirming everything she always thought—and told your ex—about you.

Ex Sex. When two people decide to get married, they forsake all others for the benefits of monogamy. I call this the Oatmeal Exchange. Before your marriage (theoretically at least), you could have anything you wanted for breakfast. After your marriage, you could have oatmeal for breakfast. Period. Sure, sometimes you got sick of oatmeal or just didn’t feel like it, but usually, it was satisfying and reliable. When children are involved, a good divorce should have bright-line boundaries designed not to instill false hope. By that I mean no more oatmeal. While it may feel awesome to have all of your breakfast choices back—pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream! Bagels and lox! The Hangtown fry!—you should also prepare yourself for a time when you crave only one thing, and it’s the only thing that isn’t on the menu. You should also prepare yourself for what to do if you see someone else eating your oatmeal. Quite possibly, you may be seized by an urge to rush over and snatch the oatmeal away. But you have to accept that it isn’t your oatmeal anymore and that you may need to skip breakfast for a while.

Jedi Mind Tricks. Divorce is not a linear process. There are dark days. I have developed a coping mechanism for those days. Find a picture of your children that reflects their beauty and spirit. Stare at that picture until it is burned into your brain. The next time your ex infuriates you, squint until his face blurs out of focus. Replace that image with the picture of your children. Finally, remember what my beloved mentor—the judge I clerked for straight out of law school—has so often told me. “You are a jewel.” I am a jewel, I often tell myself, even when I don’t believe it. But I keep saying it, and so should you. Like the stone in your engagement ring, you can be salvaged. Reset. Saved.