This article was first published in Harpers Bazaar Magazine Singapore in November 2010.
When I first met my second husband, he was 34, single, never married, and out on the town for a good time. On our first meeting, little did he know that I had a six-year-old daughter and four-year-old son waiting for me at home—and an ex-husband living in a different flat but in the same building as mine. After the breakup of our ten-year marriage, my ex-husband and I consulted a child psychologist who advised us that living in such close proximity to each other would be the least traumatic for the children. It would give them some form of stability, knowing that although they now lived primarily with their mother; their father was very close and accessible at any time.
Today, my second husband and I are happily married and have two children of our own, a four-year-old son and a two-year-old little girl. All four children live in our home, while my ex-husband still lives a few floors above from us. The older children view their father’s flat almost as the upstairs part of our home and zoom up the service lift, several times a day, to see him when he is in town. Weekend sleepovers at his place are made easy for them with little, if any, changes to their daily schedules. My two younger children often accompany the older two to visit their “Uncle” in his flat upstairs. They feel equally at home there and occasionally even share their meals with him. In their innocent eyes, he is an important member of our family.
But it is the sight of my ex-mother-in-law and my mother-in-law cheerfully chatting together at one of the children’s birthday parties that I still find incredible. My mother-in-law, a phenomenal cook, sometimes invites my ex-husband over for dinner with her and the children when she’s in Singapore to babysit, while my husband and I are away on holiday. Most people look at our setup and think, “How bizarre. Why would anyone want to live this way, in such close proximity to an ex-husband—or an ex-wife, for that matter?” The answer is simple. “It takes a village to raise a child.”
There is much wisdom in this old African proverb. The proverb is from the Igbo and Yoruba regions of Nigeria where it’s believed that raising a child is a communal effort. The responsibility lies not only with the parents, but also with the extended family, and in some cases, the community. And this is a proverb that my ex-husband, my husband and I have taken to heart, especially now during the formative years of our children’s upbringing. In addition to the mother, the father and the step-father raising the children, every other family member and close friend has a role to play. The larger the community, the better for the child. Every member of this extended family can impart wisdom and tradition that children are extremely receptive to. Rich human interactions make up the fabric of their childhood memories, culture, morals, sense of right and wrong and responsibility, which they will take with them on the road to becoming young adults.
Of course, as one reflects on this quite unconventional modern living arrangement, it is obvious that this requires a certain type of individual who can look beyond the petty differences of opinions, the bruised egos and the emotional volatility that inevitably come with any divorce. It helps if the second husband, as it is in my case, is not responsible for the breakup of the first marriage; nevertheless, ultimately, it is about putting the children first, and our feelings a distant second. Beyond the sense of failure, frustration and self-pity that may dominate the emotions of the adults after a divorce, it is the children’s fragile feelings and nascent self-confidence that really need to be placed at the centre of this complex situation.
My eight-year-old son once declared, “When I grow up and become a famous professional football player, I will buy a big house where all of us can live together!” When probed, he told me what “all of us” to him meant: his father, his step-father, his mother, brother, sisters and all grandparents, including step-grandparents and nannies! In his young mind, there should be no impediment for this situation to one day become a happy reality. In the meantime, we may not be living in the same house, but living in the same building is as close as it will ever get. It’s not uncommon to see my husband and ex-husband chatting by the pool while the children happily paddle and splash about them. It’s a scene that a few of our neighbours had to adjust to at first, when they learned of how our unconventional family unit works.
When I witness these heart-warming family moments, I simply thank my lucky stars for having picked two admirable and unique men in my life to have had children with. Both men have been able to put egos aside for the love, happiness and well-being of the children. This is what is at the heart of our family’s genuine partnership, and at the core of our big, beautiful village.
We all lived this way during six years, and then as the children grew up, my ex-husband bought a flat 10 minutes’ walk from us. Today, even if we are not living in the same building anymore, we are one family and still feel part of the same big village. Most importantly, this experience has taught me that from failure and pain, you can find success and hope. If you work hard to make the best of any situation ultimately, you will discover the silver lining and be able to nurture it into something positive and beautiful.