My son’s father and I were never married. I found out I was pregnant after we’d decided to go our separate ways, and since I made the decision to keep my baby without his input, I gave him the option of sharing in parenting responsibilities or in relinquishing all parental rights. He went all in, and he’s been a proud papa from day 1.
However, it took us a while to gain our footing as co-parents. From unhealthy relationships with partners who didn’t respect the role of the other parent to petty disagreements, it was a rough road to figuring out how to be parents together while we weren’t together.
Even so, we managed to put aside our own differences to do what we could in the interest of our son, and once we did, he was better-adjusted and we were all happier. These are the 5 keys that have built the foundation for a healthy co-parenting relationship.
Don’t stay together for the kids.
Be respectful of and to each other.
Be flexible and prepared for compromise.
Work together to sync up routines and rules for easier transitions.
Keep the lines of communication open.
We decided early on that while we would always be a team, we wouldn’t force a relationship that we already knew didn’t work. I grew up in a home with parents who were constantly fighting. Each parent loved us, but we didn’t see them love each other as much as we saw them fight, and I never wanted that for my son.
Instead, we determined that we’d rather our son have 2 happy homes, rather than 1 that is full of tension, arguments, bickering. We wanted our son to learn happiness by experiencing and witnessing it, rather than watching the closest people to him live together out of obligation, tolerating instead of loving.
I’m not saying divorce or separation is always the answer, but if you’ve come to the point where your differences are irreconcilable and the only thing you have left in common are your kids, you’re not doing them any favors by staying miserably together. If you can be happy apart, let your kids see what a happy adult looks like by being one (or at least trying to, rather than resigning to unhappiness).
We’ve all seen the episodes of Dr. Phil and Maury and whatever else where a parent uses the kids as a pawn to get back at the other parent. It’s a horrible thing to do as humans and it’s a horrible thing to do to a child. Show each other respect and provide your kids the opportunity to form their own perspectives.
Talking badly about a co-parent is like poison to every relationship in the circle. Being disrespectful of your partner clouds your own judgment and prevents you from seeing eye-to-eye. You’re sowing discord between your child and the other parent by not only disparaging the parent, but by keeping your child from developing a relationship with and showing them that it’s okay to be disrespectful of the other parent. You’re even damaging your own relationship with your child because you’re forcing your own feelings on them and preventing them from forming an independent opinion of that parent on their own terms.
Remember: you know your partner from a romantic perspective. Romantic relationships and parenting relationships are so incredibly different, so put aside the romantic issues and work together on just being the best parents you can be. Your kids are not your therapists, friends, or confidantes – they’re your charges. Your job is to take care of them, and sometimes that’s going to mean you’re going to keep your problems to yourself. Growing up is hard enough without shouldering the burden of your parents’ problems, so don’t force that on them.
Granted, I’m not saying you have to romanticize the situation either. Real talk time: I know that not all parenting situations are civil, comfortable, or even safe. If you’re stopping the cycle of abuse, I applaud the hell out of you. It’s scary and it’s difficult and it’s probably not exactly applicable to this post, but I will say this much: you don’t have to pretend things are sunshine and rainbows. You don’t have to create a fantasy world that doesn’t exist.
Holidays. Need I say more?
Actually, I do need to say more. Life will come up. Injuries might happen, work emergencies might keep a parent at the office late, and a lot of times, these things won’t be anyone’s fault. They just happen. When they do, be prepared. Have a sitter and a backup sitter’s number on hand just in case. If you’re comfortable with it and your co-parent has a long weekend, consider letting them have the extra day with the kid(s). As kids get older, they’ll have sleepovers and birthday parties to attend, so know that someone’s time may be cut short for these. Get comfortable with discomfort (like you already aren’t – kids, amirite?).
You’ll also need to brace yourself for shared holidays, and this can be really hard for a lot of families. Between my partner’s family celebrations, my family’s gatherings, and Bug’s dad’s family parties, he has a lot of people including him in their plans. We have to make our plans months in advance so we know who will be where, which parties we’ll attend, and who will have Cameron for them so our families can plan accordingly, too. Some holidays are easier than others – we skip St. Patrick’s day and Valentines, but Christmas is so much more fun with kids around and New Year’s Eve is.. well, it’s more of an adult holiday. Just understand and prepare accordingly.
Preparing WITH each other is probably the easiest way to stay ahead when changes do happen, so coordinate as best you can.
There are some things Bug gets to do at his dad’s house that he doesn’t get to do at mine, and I’m sure the reverse is the same as well. However, there are some things that are the same for each house that makes it easier for him to settle in without an uncomfortable “recovery” period. I’ve learned this because early on, there were really uncomfortable readjustment periods after each weekend visit that may have been eased if we’d synced up routines (which is especially important for young children).
When primary rules are the same from house to house (like no shoes on the furniture, no swear words, limits on screen time, certain required chores), they’re easier to enforce for both parents.
Sidenote: We’ve found that dropping our son off for visits and returns is a lot easier than picking him up from the other parent’s home. This way, he has time to prepare for the transition and he’s not being removed from one of his homes. It only took us 3 1/2 years to figure it out.
I hope this one is obvious. Talk to each other about what is going on in your child’s life. Keep abreast of milestones, inform each other of behaviors to watch out for so you can catch patterns and find mutually agreeable solutions, bounce ideas off of each other when concerns arise. Keeping open communications will make it comfortable for both of you if your kid(s) want to call the other parent before bed or after they’ve done something that makes them feel proud, and is another way of showing your respect for one another.
See, if you can get into a comfortable co-parenting groove, you’re not alone as a parent. You have another parent in your corner to work with you and help you work through problems. You’ll be able to make the best of what would otherwise seem like a less-than-ideal situation.
I’ll admit, this glosses over so much, but I can only speak from my perspective. It’s never as simple as a 1-5 list, but they’re not terrible places to start, even if your co-parent doesn’t reciprocate. You can set a positive tone and redirect situations as they arise by maintaining a level head and keeping your emotions from overwhelming your sense of reason.
What are some of your biggest coparenting struggles?