Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Peak Parenting

My ex and I broke up long ago. Breaking up is hard to do, for everyone involved. But we’ve done a pretty good job of co-parenting our modern family, including smoothly alternating kid weeks.   

Here’s what I wrote a couple of years ago in “Peak-End Parenting”:

Do you want to know the dirty little secret of a smoothly-handled amicable divorce? [Ed. Note: parents in rocky marriages should skip this part.] Alternating weeks with the kids is just about the ideal parenting arrangement. 

The kids and I enjoy our week together. Our days are packed with school, adventures, and screen time. Then, just as we are beginning to annoy one another, the kids go across town. They get to enjoy a week with my ex and his husband, two adorable dogs, and different screens. In the meantime, I can get errands done, go to chorus or the theater without splurging on a babysitter, and have adult time. Regardless of the week, we all get together for things like holidays and middle school choir concerts. By the time I miss the kids, it’s Friday afternoon and they’re back.

Ever since we separated, my ex has been married or in a relationship. The kids have benefited from a bonus stepdad. In contrast, I’ve been pathetically single the whole time. Nevertheless, despite the various plagues I’ve endured in the last few years, somehow I managed to keep our three wonderful children reasonably happy and healthy during my solo alternate weeks.

In “Peak-End Parenting,” I applied brain research to my single parent situation.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes human consciousness as a combination of “the experiencing self, which does the living, and the remembering self, which keeps score and makes the choices.” By definition, the experiencing self only lives in this moment. But the remembering self – the sum of our memories so far – is also here in the moment, making our choices. Eventually, the future version of our remembering self will be the one looking back to evaluate our choices with the squinting clarity of hindsight.

It's impossible to live a life of permanent ecstasy. The next best thing – the path to happiness – is to enjoy the moment, while also making the best possible memories for your future self to benefit from. And after the passage of time, what we remember is not the details or duration of each good or bad experience, but rather how we felt about its peak and end. (With terrible experiences, we remember the nadir and the end.) 

This mental process begins even before the experience itself has ended. Admit it – how many times have you left a meager tip when you enjoyed excellent food but waited too long for the check to arrive?

So what is peak-end parenting? All I needed to do to ensure my kids end up with memories of an idyllic childhood was to make sure each alternated kid week included some memorable peak experiences, and that we ended the week on a high note.

This August my ex and his husband filed for divorce, and my ex moved to the Midwest to start a new life. The kids are staying with me fulltime, but they look forward to visiting Daddy and his new partner during school breaks. 

The last time I was a fulltime single parent was five years ago. In Fall 2014, my ex and his husband decided to move out of Seattle and start a new business. They ended up choosing Bellingham, where my parents happen to live. After eight months alone in Seattle as a fulltime single parent with three young children – still probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done – I was ready to cry uncle.  

Then a miracle occurred. In the summer of 2015, I was offered my dream position in Bellingham with the Washington Attorney General’s Office, as chief legal advisor to Western Washington University. It was the perfect fit, in the perfect place for my family. I loved everything about my job and the prospect of working at Western until the kids graduate and I retire – except for the fact that insecure and incompetent colleagues treated me like a noxious invader. My superiors’ actions triggered PTSD symptoms that continue today; their pattern of abuse and denial ended my professional career.

A couple of friends contend my job fiasco had a silver lining. They argue the benefits of moving close to family and to Vancouver justify the horrors I’ve endured. But my parents have lived in Bellingham since 1981. Dim-witted as I can be, I think I would have eventually figured out that Seattle has become a hellhole, and that it makes much more sense for the kids and me to be in Bellingham. Even without going through the whole PTSD thing. And even without knowing my ex would be moving out of state five years later.

I grew up Mormon, which explains a lot. Mormons are denied many of the pleasures available in other Christian denominations, such as alcohol, coffee, feminism, and homosexuality. Mormons also miss out on centuries of religious art and music. The church’s founders overreacted to what they considered to be the “apostasy” of both Catholics and Protestants by banishing anything that hinted of Popery, including Mozart and Bach.

When I was in law school and struggling with my Mormon heritage, friends invited me to attend services conducted by the Episcopal chaplain at Yale. After graduating and moving to Seattle, I joined my first choir – at Saint Mark’s Cathedral, which had and has a marvelous music program. Anyone who happens to be in Seattle on a Sunday at 9:30 pm should check out the traditional Anglican Compline service, where a skilled all-male choir fills the hushed and darkened cathedral with plainchant and anthems.

For the first time in my Mormon life, Saint Mark's regularly exposed me to great church music. I also embraced a liturgical calendar that offered something more than an endless series of bland Sundays. Maybe it’s all those years in academia, or my farmer heritage, but there’s something soothing about setting your internal clock to familiar annual seasons, with their rhythm of regular milestones.

It’s not just the big festivals of Easter and Christmas, or the annual pilgrimages of Advent and Lent. It’s also “Ordinary Time,” which refers to the huge chunk of the year between special occasions. The name comes from the practice of referring to each week with “ordinal” numbers, such as “The First Sunday after Pentecost,” or “The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany.” 

Have I mentioned lately that my favorite colour is green?

I’ve been alone with the kids for four months. There have been challenges and adjustments for everyone, but overall it’s gone surprisingly well. Still, everyone is looking forward to the kids’ first trip to Indiana the week after Christmas. Even with FaceTime, our children miss Daddy. And he’s missing out on being a part of their daily lives. 

I don’t know how other denominations pray, but “our daily lives” is a major Mormon cliché. And redundant – is there any other kind of life? We may remember the peaks and endpoints of particular experiences, but we live our lives right now. 

That’s been the big lesson of fulltime single parenthood. I don’t miss the routine of alternating kid weeks after all. To the contrary, I’ve escaped from the “hoarding” mentality of squeezing fun into a limited time period, and the challenges of planning parental bonding around an arbitrary calendar. Instead, there’s our ordinary family life together, day after day. Sure, I miss the freedom of more “me time.” I may not go on another date until they all graduate. But I get to watch three amazing kids grow up. 

Meanwhile, for the first time since I bought my doomed weekend cabin nineteen years ago, we live in just one place, full-time. No one is shuttling anywhere – just planning for regular vacations during school breaks. It’s exhausting and overwhelming and utterly ordinary. I love it.

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