“Co-parenting” describes a parenting relationship in which the child’s parents share responsibility for bringing up their child/children despite not being in a relationship with each other. It is often held up as the ideal way to parent children following a separation or divorce.
I have two teenage boys with my ex-husband. They divide their time approximately 60/40 between our respective homes. Both my ex-husband and I are remarried, so they have step-parents at both houses. They also have a younger brother with their dad and step-mum, and older step-siblings in my second husband’s grown-up children.
We have been divorced since our boys were 3 and 1. Over time, we have settled into a co-operative and successful pattern of co-parenting. It hasn’t been without its challenges of course, but our children are happy and settled, and have learnt a great deal from watching the way we have worked together for their benefit. They are very far from being the “damaged” children from a “broken home” that the media often portrays. I would go so far as to say that they have learnt many life lessons from watching us forge a path to successful co-parenting – including lessons in communication, compromise, flexibility and give-and-take.
These are my top four tips from my experience of co-parenting with my ex-husband:
If you intend to co-parent with your ex, it helps to have a joint vision, and awareness of how you want your relationship to look and feel - not just now, but in 10 or 20 years’ time.
When you are working together towards a common, defined goal, it helps to focus the mind on where you are headed. Keep that shared goal at the forefront of your mind in all your discussions and refer back to it. This long-term vision of your future relationship can keep you on track when things get a bit heated, or your ex does something that you don’t agree with. It refocuses you on what you have both agreed is important.
My ex and I agree that the emotional wellbeing of our children is paramount, and that we want our children to know that at their major life events, we will both be there for them. This shared goal informs our communication, whether that is by email, text, phone or face to face.
Of course, it may not be possible to sit down and have this conversation with your ex. If that is the case for you, then having your own personal vision can be just as powerful – take a look at my earlier blog on communication with your ex for some tips.
When I was thinking about this blog, I asked my ex-husband what his top tip for successful co-parenting would be. His reply:
“Always back each other up in front of the children, even when you might not understand the reason behind a decision from the other house. Children need and value consistency from both parents.”
Just this morning, we have had a conversation about our younger son’s mobile phone usage. We have agreed on a consistent approach across both houses and a joint message that we will both give. On fundamental issues of parenting like mobile phones, use of the internet, general acceptable behaviour, we try our best to agree on a strategy.
What if you can’t agree on a strategy, or you have totally different opinions?
If we can’t agree on a strategy, and we agree to disagree, then I always say to our children that sometimes parents have different viewpoints. This would happen if their Dad and I were still married. Sometimes, what might be OK here isn’t OK at Dad’s and vice versa. They can cope with different rules, so long as their Dad and I are consistent in our support of each other.
Research shows that divorce is most damaging for children when they are caught up in conflict between their parents. If you do have disagreements or arguments, avoid discussing those with the children, and don’t lean on them for emotional support. Don’t ask them to take sides or use them to pass messages between you. Your children love you both, they don’t want to be caught in the middle, or to have to choose between you. There’s nothing more uncomfortable for a child than to hear his parents criticising each other in a way that he/she just doesn’t understand.
In the beginning it was painful when I had to wave my boys off for a weekend with their Dad. I was angry with him at first, as he had left very suddenly and was already in a relationship with a new partner. It would have been easy to punish him for hurting me by being difficult about his time with our children.
My mantra at that time was that it is about them, not me. They are 50% of both of us. Our children need and deserve a good relationship with both of us. Whatever I was feeling in the early days, I plastered a smile on my face as they drove off for time at their Dad’s. They didn’t need to see my pain or worry about me when they were away. They needed to be free to have a strong bond with us both.
I have always told our boys that it is important to me that they spend time with their Dad, and that they are happy there.
When they are happy, I am happy.
Even if co-parenting as described above isn't possible in your situation - perhaps your ex is particularly difficult or there is too much conflict for you to talk - it is always possible to be the best parent you can be, and the best role model you can be for your children.