Over the course of my 40+ years, I have experienced all the roles in the “co-parenting after divorce” process. I am the child of divorce, the child of step-divorce, a step-daughter, a step-sister, a step-mother, a long-term significant other to a man with a child, a divorced parent, and part of a Brady Bunch situation where both of us had children. I’ve been a willing ear to many friends and family who’ve gone through co-parenting challenges (both positive and negative) and I’ve seen certain trends and patterns emerge over and over again. Divorce is never easy, and neither is recovery. In my own divorce, after a challenging and undeniably traumatic end to our marriage, my ex-husband and I eventually found our way through various disagreements and have become a friendly, low-drama team of co-parents. There’s no exact science to this process—every relationship is different. But it’s my hope that by sharing what I’ve learned, I can help your path be a little clearer.
This is rule/secret #1 because all the other secrets really support this main theme. As a parent (or step-parent) your primary job is to help your children become happy, emotionally healthy adults. This is true of sig-others of a parent as well. If you’re involved enough that you’ve met the kids, then their happiness needs to be your priority as well. If that’s not your gig, then find someone without kids to date. [Full stop.]
Chances are, if you and your ex have gotten to the point of divorce, you harbor some latent hostility for him or her, especially while the divorce is fresh. I’m willing to admit there was a point in time during my divorce where I would have happily lit my son’s father on fire, and I have it on good authority that he felt the same. Fortunately, he and I have worked to become not only good co-parents, but friends. I feel this is true in part because we have the benefit of knowing where each other’s buttons are, and we have the wisdom not to push them.
Endeavor to find whatever part of your ex you once loved, recognize that he/she helped give you the child(ren) you share, and forgive them their part in your divorce. Forgive yourself your part as well. And recognize that while your world has changed drastically, your priorities (i.e., your children) have not.
Scheduling conflicts are going to come up. Court-approved shared parenting plans can’t anticipate every eventuality, and sometimes saying “yes” to a request like “I have to work next weekend, can we switch?” or “I want to take the kids to a festival, can I borrow them for a few hours on Saturday?” will go a long way toward generating goodwill, and will allow your kids get to do fun things they might otherwise miss out on.
If parenting time isn’t 50/50, recognize that if your child is engaged in extra-curriculars that fall on the non-residential parent’s time, that it’s important to make sure that the non-residential parent gets good, quality time. Quality time is not defined by a quick run through the McDonald’s drive through on the way to soccer practice while going over the week’s spelling words.
You and your ex need to determine and agree what the basic rules are, and make sure that everyone understands the reason for them, and then provide a united front to your children. If a kid gets in trouble at Dad’s house, and Dad cuts off electronics for a week, Mom needs to back that up. And if Mom is concerned that watching cartoons with fighting in it makes Junior think that every yardstick, broom, and pool noodle is a sword or other weapon, then Dad needs to back her up and keep him from watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Good communication and the start/end of parenting time will go a long way toward making sure your little monster angel can’t divide and conquer the parental team.
As the residential parent of my son, I know it’s so much easier to make day-to-day decisions than to discuss it with his dad. I was generally the decision-maker when we were married. (Which, in retrospect, was probably one of our issues.) However, I’ve learned that “Hey. The fruit of our loins has the opportunity to take part in X, Y, or Z, what do you think about that?” goes a long way toward making him part of the decision-making process. Being ring-side to a friend’s ex who makes all the decisions for their children has made me very aware that telling my son’s dad about a decision is not the same as making it together, particularly when it comes to extra-curriculars, school issues, and health decisions. Remember that communication is a two-way street. Listening is even more important than being willing to speak.
Growing up, I always had a feeling that my step and half-siblings were treated differently than my (full) sister and I were. It gave us the feeling of being “other”, and that was one of the worst feelings in the world. My father, who lived 2000 miles away, remarried and had two children with his second wife. Due to distance, he wasn’t an “everyday” dad to us, but he was to his other children, and it felt different. In retrospect, I don’t think he loved us less, but he did love us differently. My step-father treated his biological children much differently than he treated my sister and me, and I suspect he didn’t do either his kids or my sister and me any favors with this approach.
In recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to see the flipside of that coin. Two friends of mine married, divorced, and married other people—then divorced and re-married each other. In the intervening years, they ended up with a multitude of kids, step-kids, and former-step-kids. They are now in their fifties, with grandkids, and step-grandkids, and former-step-grandkids… And they are Mimi and Pops to each and every one of them, regardless of who gave birth to the kids or who gave birth to their parents.
Making sure you have the same rules for all the kids in your household, and that everyone is given the same amount of love, support, and attention, will go a long way toward your children (and step-children) not feeling like outsiders in their own family.
As cathartic as it might be to refer to your ex as a “vicious, rancid cow” or “that feckless jerk to whom I gave the best years of my life”, it does nothing to help your kids. And even if your children never hear you say it, they do actually know when you think it. If you are able to convince your children that your ex is a heinous monster, have you done them any favors other than make them question why they love their other parent? And if you aren’t able to convince them of your ex’s evilness, could you instead be convincing them that perhaps you are the monster?
I’m looking at you, step-parents and significant others! This is a game you WILL NOT WIN. There are times when it behooves you (and definitely the children) to cling to the high road (especially when the high road feels like a sunbaked path leading straight to Hades.) Even if your beloved’s ex is a complete troll, you need to do everything in your power to get along, even if it requires biting your tongue when you most want to unleash it.
I know how tempting it is to hate your ex’s new love, and to express in gory detail everything you despise about him or her. But what good does that do to your child? You might think, “I don’t care if Johnny doesn’t respect that [expletive deleted]!” But his disrespect is only going to create strife between your child and the new S.O., and in the end hurt your child far more than your words or feelings will hurt the S.O.
Divorce is a family affair, and rarely does everyone come out unscathed, sometimes leading to an extreme resentment. However, remember that your ex’s family is also your child’s family. If you impart the level of ire in your child(ren) then they will have to drag that with them to every family event. Conversely, encourage your own family to speak civilly of your ex for the same reason.
Children have an endless ability to love. Your kids can love both you and your ex (as well as any associated step-parents or significant others). The beautiful thing about love is that the more love you are given, the more you have to give. There is no reason to resent your former spouse or his/her new love. Instead, once your own healing allows it, open your heart to accept the other people in your children’s lives. I suspect you’ll find, as I’ve seen over and over again, that new love will enter your heart as well.