Queer Co-parenting Helped Me Unlearn Everything TV Taught Me About Family

I don’t know what idiosyncratic coping mechanism got you through your divorce, but I turned to “A Milhouse Divided” for every stage of grief. In this episode of The Simpsons, Luann Van Houten demands a divorce from her wet noodle husband Kirk right in the middle of Marge Simpson’s dinner party.

Each time I watched, I laughed. And I cried. Then I cried some more. Because that episode sums up everything TV taught me about marriage and family: divorce is for losers.

There’s no room in pop culture narratives for divorce to be positive or productive. It’s all about ending, destruction, separation and failure. I believed this because I also believed all the other tropes about marriage and family that TV taught me, like “good moms put everyone else’s needs first” and “it’s normal for married couples to hate each other a little bit.”

For most of our marriage, my husband and I treated my bisexuality like a party trick — a fun fact we shared when we wanted to feel like a cool, edgy couple. But the jokes about my “lesbian content” wore on me, and I didn’t want my identity to be a punchline anymore. I wanted to find space for queer identity in my straight-passing marriage, so I reached out to friends who found solutions to this problem in their own marriages. They introduced me to relationship structures beyond monogamy like polyamory, ethical non-monogamy and relationship anarchy. At the same time, I used my therapy sessions to explore how I learned and why I still believed the stories about what it means to be a good wife and mother. All that combined with learning a new relational vocabulary around communication, boundaries and self-expression led me to a realization: I didn’t have to destroy my family to thrive. I had to rewrite the oppressive, heteronormative stories that were destroying us.

It turned out that divorce was the best way that my husband and I could thrive as individuals and as parents. But our new story of divorce started as a reconfiguration. Divorce in pop culture carries a stigma based on assumptions of division, conflict and destruction, so it’s unusual — queer, even — to approach parenting-after-divorce with a baseline of cooperation, multiplicity and mutual support. We strive to live by the first principle outlined in Andie Nordgren’s manifesto on relationship anarchy: “Love is abundant, and every relationship is unique.” Divorce made space for the boundaries that allowed us to focus on being the best friends and parents that we could be. We’re clear the roles we want to play in each other’s lives and what we can each offer to meet our shared parenting goals. We’ve become each other’s chosen family.

If you Google “co-parenting,” you’ll learn that it’s defined as a popular modern method of raising children post-divorce. You’re likely to see news of celebrity parents handling their split with as much chill as they can muster. Advice for successful co-parenting includes having clear boundaries, respecting each other and sticking to a schedule. When I read these articles for the first time, I thought, “Huh. Sounds like every non-monogamous relationship I’ve ever known.” In fact, except for the references to divorce, we were already doing everything the articles suggested. We were co-parenting before it was cool!

Because my ex and I separated during the early pandemic, our first months as co-parents happened under the same roof. Many people asked me how I could possibly stand to live with my ex, and honestly, it was a relief. We each had solo parenting time and we also spent time with our child together. Instead of me taking full responsibility for our child’s day-to-day needs (meals, school activities, doctor’s appointments) as TV taught me to do, we started sharing the work. Now we’re honest about our needs instead of silently seething with resentment.

Of course, there are days when co-parenting feels less than euphoric. Now that my ex and I live in separate houses, we deal with a lot more jealousy when it comes to not being able to see our son every day. Divorce didn’t make us perfect parents —issues about schedule snafus, financial decisions and clashing parenting styles still pop up. But, ironically, we now have a stronger sense of shared goals as a family than we did as a married couple, and that allows us to handle conflict with more grace.

I want to acknowledge that the fact that I did not have to consider parenting outside a straight, heteronormative context until my divorce an incredible privilege. When we were married, my ex and I had institutional support as white, cishet, married parents, so our motivations and struggles were rarely questioned. It was expected that our child would be parented primarily by two individuals rather than a support structure that included extended family and friends. There was no domestic violence in our relationship and were not significantly impacted by poverty. The ecosystem of privilege surrounding my family shielded us from having to think critically about co-parenting until now.

Looking back on what led to our divorce and all the new skills we built individually and as a family, I wonder if co-parenting would have the same cool factor if it weren’t tied to divorce. What would happen if we normalized the idea of partnered and unpartnered parents taking care of their own needs, working cooperatively and practicing good communication? Heteronormative parenting relies on the assumption that raising a family is an inherently painful obligation that a father and a mother begrudgingly share. Queer parenting resists that trope by insisting that parenting is a verb, an action and identity available to any and all adults who take on a shared responsibility to care for a child.

I have been lucky enough to be able to test this theory as a partnered and an unpartnered parent. My ex stood next to our child as I married my spouse at our wedding last year, expanding our co-parenting circle even more. We talk to our child openly about grief, jealousy and how much it hurts to leave each house. But we also talk about how having two moms and a dad means more love and more ways to experience the world and how our family connection expands far beyond any four walls. In fact, we intentionally reference each other’s living spaces by their street names rather than “dad’s house” or “moms’ house” to reinforce that multiplicity.

Sometimes I wonder what a sitcom about our life would look like. Instead of nosy neighbors and meddling mothers-in-law barging in, my ex and his partner would be late for their movie date because we all spent too much time chatting at drop-off. Our son would come home from school upset that he has to do twice as much work as other kids on his Mother’s Day project because he has two moms (true story!). Our queer family is ready for primetime, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


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Kate

Kate tells stories to change the world for good. She is a professor of gender studies and the author of the first academic book on The Golden Girls. She also sings and slings guitar with her all-woman band She Said So. Kate's writing has appeared in Runner's World, Refinery29, and SELF Magazine. Follow her on social at @kateateasteak and/or @nearbeerqueer.

Kate has written 1 article for us.

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