I have been divorced for a bit over five years, during which I have been co-parenting three children, two boys currently aged 8 and 9, and my teenage daughter, 14. Since I got divorced, both my ex-wife and I have started new relationships, and moved jobs and homes, all while co-parenting our children. The experience has been far from perfect (could it ever be?), but I still feel like we both did what we could to be good parents for our children. Co-parenting is hard, probably the hardest part of going through a divorce in the long-term, but there is no way around it, especially for parents that take their responsibility towards their children seriously.
My perspective is that normally all the parenting responsibilities remain firmly with both parents after a divorce. Actually, given the emotional toll that a divorce takes on children, divorcing parents have the added responsibility to help children cope with the pain of the divorce and make the whole process as painless as possible for them. Much easier said than done, especially when the parents themselves are hurting.
Everyone that has gone through divorce knows how emotionally hard it is. Just the process of separating assets (and often debts), moving out of the family home, possibly selling it, deciding who gets what, etc. is hard enough in itself. It’s made much harder by the fact that most likely both ex-husband and ex-wife hold accumulated resentment, anger over lost time and dreams, possibly feel betrayed or at least let-down by the other spouse. This could be a topic for another post, but often, the lawyers don’t help, encouraging their clients to approach divorce as a fight. In most occasions, couples use the divorce process as a fight and to make the ex-spouse suffer, instead of trying to make it as painless as possible for everyone. When there are children involved, the whole process gets exponentially harder. A clean and permanent break is not possible. Staying for a moment with the logistics, divorcing parents need to agree where and with whom the children will live, how will they stay in touch with both parents, how often, how long, how will both parents support them (which will mean one of the parents paying child support), and a myriad of other details. Much harder to agree upon, and many more things to possibly fight about.
Divorce is obviously also traumatic for the kids. Just looking at my children’s reactions: my daughter was the one that suffered the most at the time. She was old enough (around 9) to know what was going on, and she felt scared and uncertain about the future. She is now completely ok with it. She has several friends that also have divorced parents, and things have stabilized. The boys didn’t immediately understand what was going on. They missed me when they were with their mother, and missed their mother when they were with me, but didn’t feel the same uncertainty my daughter did. They did feel it, though. Even now, after their mother remarried, and I got engaged with a fiancée the kids love, the boys still often ask me why their mother and I separated, if I’m mad at their stepdad, or other such questions that clearly show they are still dealing with it.
That brings us to co-parenting: I feel we are doing it right (or at least not poorly). I didn’t think too much about it until being told that by a couple of other people that they admired the effort we were putting in, and even by our children who can see the difference between our approach, and that of the divorced parents of some of their friends (to be fair, I feel also pretty lucky that we didn’t have to deal with some pretty nasty situations, as other ex-couples have). If I would have to write down a few guidelines we try to go by, I would highlight five:
- Stay objective and focused on what is best for the children. This is probably the most important rule. There will be times when things don’t go well, when you don’t agree, when old wounds resurface. On those occasions, we need to remind ourselves that it is not about us. We have responsibilities to the children, and this is about what’s best for them, not what’s easier for us.
- Communicate. This is one that probably most divorced couples would rather not do. The natural reaction is to close the chapter and move on. Communicating with your ex is hard, painful, often a minefield. But you need to do it. You need to discuss and agree on the approach to help them deal with difficulties in school. If they can have the iPad. When (and with whom) will they go on vacation. Which electives to choose, etc. We do not have a set rule about what this means, but sometimes we can go several days without talking, and sometimes we talk several times per day (like was the case in the past couple of days, as our daughter was having a mini crisis in school and we were discussing the best course of action).
- When we start getting aggravated, de-escalate. It happens, despite our best intentions. When that happens, the best is to say “we are not agreeing on this and just getting aggravated. Let’s take a breather and come back to this later”. Easier said than done, but very important.
- Agree on the rules. It gets easier as we go, but it is important to agree on the ground rules ahead of time. What decisions do you want to make sure you discuss, and which ones are you comfortable with not being consulted? Are there times that are better for your ex to contact you, or times that you want to keep off-limits? Do you prefer to text, call, or email? Etc. In our case, we use mostly phone calls, or texts if calls are not convenient, but others will prefer a different approach.
- Don’t criticize your ex in front of the children. This one seems obvious, but I’ve seen lots of people fail at it, with nasty consequences. Obviously, you will not agree on everything. One of the parents will feel that a little more TV (or phone) time is ok, while the other doesn’t. One will set bedtime earlier. One will be stricter. If you must disagree with your ex, do so in private. If you don’t agree, go with the strictest option (sorry, kids!), and jointly own the decision – say, “we decided you can’t go,” even if you though it would be okay for your daughter to go, and her mother didn’t agree. It may be tempting to play the cool parent and blame your ex, but it’s the worst option in the long-term. Children see right through it.
Obviously, it is not easy. As I mentioned earlier, old wounds will resurface – it’s inevitable. Kids will drive a wedge if they can for something stupid as a second piece of cake, a new toy, or some time at the mall with friends. I’ve had a relationship after my divorce where my girlfriend couldn’t deal with me spending so much time talking to my ex-wife. It helps going back to that first rule and remembering – it is about what’s best for the children.
I would like to end with a note: I feel that most advice or resources that are available to divorced parents is pretty basic and not addressing the nuances and complexities that we have to deal with. What I wrote is based on my experience, built on attempts and lots of errors. I would love to hear the experience of others dealing with co-parenting. With that said, I have some questions for you.
- Have you had different experiences?
- What have you done that you feel works well?
- Any other “guidelines” you would add?