One evening last week, we rode our bikes in a long caravan to an open house at my oldest daughter's school: me, my husband, my ex-partner Mimi, her partner Patty–and all three of our children. 

Somewhere along the way, what had initially been a light sprinkle turned into an insistent rain-shower. We didn't lose momentum; our pack kept making its way over railroad tracks and through puddles, without slowing or sharing concerned glances. It's just rain. We interact with weather so much more, traveling this way, and who cares if we arrive soaked? It's freeing, living at the margins–when you've stepped away from some of the busy-making currents and you find yourself apart from the others, squatting in the tidepools, holding something and regarding it curiously.

I am doing a better job parenting, now that we have let go of so much. There was an intensity to our days when business travel often took me far away from my children, and when our downtime was divided over the seductive demands of television, Internet, commerce commerce commerce. Others do it better than I did, I'm sure.

We don't make clean breaks; our parenting is messy, as with our haphazard style of co-sleeping (every combination, sometimes several different iterations in one night, especially the kind of nights when fans are whirring, and blankets are kicked off in the swelter). Now the days take on a framework defined by things like the wilting garden plants that need our attention, and the warmth of the slides at the playground and whether they will burn your bottom and if we should wait 'til the shadows grow longer.

That rainy night at the elementary school open house, we made a tribal appearance–for my ex-partner Mimi is the other mother of my oldest child, Rainer. Mimi and her partner Patty live a half-mile away, and it is they who facilitated our relocation from Texas to California in the midst of our recession-driven crisis.

We had been sharing custody of Rainer for five years, trading off school years, summers, and major holidays. When things came to a head financially and professionally, we joined forces, sold off some belongings, rented trucks, and made it out here to ride out the crisis and, also, to unite Rainer's caregivers. (Patty has lived here all her life, and Mimi and I have an amazing network of support here as well.)

The agreement was always that we are in this together, and that our broken and vulnerable contingent would find strength and security in the tribe. Since that union was forged, more jobs were lost–and gained–but we weather those storms as a group, and not alone anymore. If one has a bill that cannot be paid, another is there to find spare change under couch cushions.

My husband and I have two children of our own. They belong to Mimi and Patty as well, now. They insist on seeing each other, loving each other, being a family . . . even when the bonds and tangles become too sticky for us grownups, making us retreat to our separate corners. We spend all holidays together, and since no one we know can afford to fly anywhere to visit relatives these days, we have begun to form our own traditions. Doing the charity 3K run for hunger on Thanksgiving felt that way: all seven of us, trading stroller duty and snapping photos in our matching shirts.

For awhile, there was the default arrangement of group dinners on Sunday evenings, but that faded in favor of a more relaxed approach, and now we get together when it works, though our efforts as parents are negotiated on a near-daily basis. No matter how evolved the relationships, the communications in regards to coparenting are high-intensity, with a lot at stake. Care is taken, words are chosen wisely.

There's little separation between households; we are reliant on each other in ways that are complicated and demanding. Add to that a little girl who is entering the morass of puberty and middle school, and, well, let's just say I am thankful there are four of us, ever vigilant, passing the baton and trading duties.

I was a single mom once, briefly, long ago. I remember the stress of our insular world, the house of cards I built every day to do this, by myself, balancing and trying to breathe and knowing I could never be at ease or unfurrow my brow. I can't imagine that, now.

That evening, we bicycled in a row across the miles in the rain, and I could see all my children, and they were happy, muddy, wet, and safe.




Corbyn Hightower is living a life of joyful simplicity in the Sacramento suburbs with her three children and her sassy, ill-behaved husband.