Ashley Kelsch Navigates the Highs and Lows of Co-Parenting
The podcast host and mother of two has spent years learning how to raise children with her former partner
It’s been close to a month since I’ve been home. I’m on a plane now, heading back to Austin with my ex-boyfriend. We just left my youngest child in Paris by themself (they identify as non-binary and use the pronouns they/them) to finish their last week of school. My son and his girlfriend already returned to the U.S. after spending a week with us abroad.
People are always curious about my family dynamics. Everyone assumes my ex-boyfriend is my husband and the father of my children. I don’t dispute it or feel the need to make any clarifications about my family at this point in my life. If it comes up, I’ll let people know that Nick and Faith’s dad died when they were 4 and 7. If it comes up, I’ll let them know that my ex is not my boyfriend or current partner. If it comes up, I’ll tell them that he and I have been apart three times longer than we were together.
It’s hard for people to wrap their brains around this at first. “Wait, he’s not their dad? Then why is he still in their life? You don’t see any chance of the two of you getting back together? There must be something there.”
When our relationship ended, Nick and Faith were in middle school — old enough to have developed and formed their own relationship with my then-partner. My breakup was our breakup. They were devastated and worried that this person may not be in their lives anymore. I questioned if my soon-to-be ex would have it in his heart to continue being in their lives.
Have you ever seen “Clueless?” There is a scene where Cher is griping to her dad about her stepbrother Josh coming to stay for the summer. “He’s not even your stepson anymore. You divorced his wife,” says Cher.
“You divorce wives, Cher. Not children.”
After the kids and I moved out of his home, I wasn’t sure how serious his commitment to them would be, but I had decided that I would nurture and support my children in their relationships with him. They each seemed to have filled a hole in each other’s hearts. Who was I to get in the way of that?
Each week, my ex would sit with us for dinner. Looking back now, I can see that I was a little agitated. The point of breaking up with someone is that you never really have to see them again after all. I also wondered how long this could last and if this situation might end up hurting the kids more. I kept these things to myself, but these were thoughts I had.
When I went out of town for work, he offered his home to the kids, saying, “They still have their rooms here.” Holidays? We spent them together. More than a year after we had broken up, we were eating dinner without the kids. I started to say, “I just want to have a check in,” when he interrupted to say, “If you think my long game is to get back together, you’re mistaken. I think what we are doing now works better for both of us.”
“My breakup was our breakup.
I still hadn’t completely relaxed into the idea that this person was going to be a permanent mainstay in our lives. The thought that he might back out at any point still lingered. As did the question of, “Is this the person with whom I want to co-parent my kids?”
It takes time to get to know a person, and for me, as a person who has made 99% of all their decisions with their kids at the forefront, I wasn’t going to let just anyone be a permanent influence in my kids’ lives.
One night in 2019, we were having a conversation that involved politics and reproductive rights. My son was grappling with trying to understand his position on the matter. I’ve never told my children what to think or believe, but instead, I’ve urged them to ask questions and dig into understanding all sides of a matter before forming an opinion. That night, my son asked my ex what his thoughts were. I held my breath and listened. I knew the impact his answer would have.
What came out of his mouth were words that, to this day, I have not forgotten. It was at that moment, nearly five years after our first meeting, that I knew and consciously decided that this was my co-parent. It wasn’t because he answered with one side or the other or said what I would have wanted him to say. It was the way in which he said it. To this day, he continues to answer their questions in the same way that informed that moment — the moment that defined all of our futures.
As time has gone on, it has been his ever-persistent and consistent way of showing up unconditionally for two children that are not his that has garnered all my respect and love. Sometimes, I can’t believe what he does for them, but in his words, we are his family and those are his kids.
That is not to say that this has been easy. “Easy” would have been not having this person in my life. When you’re a fully single parent, you experience a special kind of difficulty that most divorced parents will never understand. There are no weekends off, but there’s also no constant negotiating and checking in with the other parent. I had 100% of the say when it came to raising my kids.
Making the choice to have a co-parent, who wasn’t my kids’ dad or my partner, was one of the most thoughtful decisions I’ve ever made. A decision that he and I continue to make now as there is nothing binding us besides our word.
After the first few days of this trip, we found that there were no tickets available to get us to the next place we needed to be. No trains, planes or automobiles. We also had to be out of the hotel. That morning, we got into a fight that I noticed was the same fight we always get into, just different circumstances. At one point, I said, “You should come up with anything else to say. I know word-for-word what you are thinking and are going to do before it even starts.” His response? “You’re not exactly original either.”
I left and went for a run. I thought about that interaction for eight miles. The words we say on repeat. The reactions to one another. The time arguing. Why do we do it?
I walked back into the hotel room and I said “I think we can make the most of the day.” He said, “That’s exactly what I’m thinking.”
At that moment, we put our heads down and started booking all the tickets possible to get us from one county to the next and told the kids, generally, what the day would look like.
The day was like the “Amazing Race,” complete with showing up and missing a boat, getting off a train in the middle of nowhere with 100 people who are also trying to get to the next train station and seeing only one cab and telling your child to run to it as fast as they can.
By the time we were on the last leg of our trip, the five of us, we were kind of stunned, but laughing. We started talking about the day. I mentioned how the day had started with us having a fight. I went on to say that I noticed that we had the same fight we always had and how pointless it is, despite our end goal always being the same: getting this family where it needs to be.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m going to stop repeating the same script.”
“It’s like you tell Faith and I, Mom. You both have more in common than you don’t,” said my son. “Start there.”
Ashley Kelsch, former owner of Teddies for Bettys, a lingerie and well-being store, is a top-certified coach who works with parents and caregivers of teenagers and young adults who are struggling to understand their child’s gender identity and sexual preferences. She helps guide her clients from confusion and conflict to curiosity and connection by teaching them how to manage their thoughts and emotions. She also has a weekly podcast called House of Other: a modern update and sex-positive education about human sexuality, gender sexual diversity, intimate justice, trauma healing, consent and loving relationships. Ashley continues to explore “your brain on dating, love and relationships” through her writing and with her private clients. You can follow her on Instagram @house_of_other and read more of her Tribeza columns here.