by Erin Skillen
Source: Island Parent Magazine
Originally Published: November 2017
Ending a relationship with someone you share kids with pretty much means “I don’t want to be your #1 person anymore, but let’s be in each other’s lives on a regular basis for the next 15 or so years.” Divorce is the end of a marriage, but when kids are involved, it’s also the beginning of an entirely new relationship—as co-parents.
My ex and I have worked really hard to create a co-parenting dynamic that works for our family. And yes, we are still a family. Our family just looks and operates differently than it did before. We do our best to be consistent, adaptable and supportive of one another to make a challenging situation as smooth as possible. We attend and co-host events and buy shared gifts for our kids’ birthdays. All of this comes after breaking almost every rule I share below. It was a battle with lots of lows and we’re far from perfect, but I have to say it is refreshing to see where we are now and to show up together at things like parent-teacher interviews and create zero drama.
No one knows exactly what a good co-parenting relationship should look like, because each one is different. But what I have learned is that there are some ground rules that seem to make for better co-parenting, and maybe even a better marriage for those parents who are still together. Note: All of these rules assume that there isn’t any abuse or other serious risk issues in the mix. That is a far more complex situation that likely requires professional intervention.
This rule is integral in the process of separation, divorce and beyond. Don’t use your kids as a bargaining chip in a separation agreement. Don’t withhold access to the kids from a safe, loving parent. Don’t dump your kids on the other parent. Don’t bribe your kids in an attempt to make them like you more. This rule isn’t just about being fair to your ex, in doing this you’re intrinsically being fair to your children as well. No one wants to grow up knowing they were pawns in a battle where anger was given priority over what would have been best for them.
Bite Your Tongue
The marriage ended for a reason, and typically that means there are some communication issues in the relationship. In the early stages of separation it can be hard to behave like the adult you’re supposed to be. You want to say hurtful things. You want to rehash arguments and stand on the peak of your resentment, screaming about how right you are and how wrong they are. You may be heartbroken and wanting them to hurt as much as you do.
As much as releasing that negative energy may feel vindicating, it only serves to undermine your ability to co-parent effectively. At some point you need to Elsa that shit and just Let It Go. Doing so is hard, and sometimes it’s insanely hard and makes you crazy, but ultimately you need to play the long game. If you really need to say something horrible, write it in a journal, tell a trusted friend or draft an email that you delete. Just don’t say it to the person who loves your children as much as you do.
Juggling a co-parenting schedule with your kids’ activities, your work, social plans, etc. is far from easy, but nothing makes it harder than a complete lack of flexibility. A parenting schedule is an art, not a science, and it will have to evolve as the needs of your family change. So act as you want your co-partner to act and adapt as required. Keep the give-and-take in balance. And when your co-parent is flexible with you, acknowledge it, thank them and return the favour when you can. Being rigid or vindictive to mess things up for the other person achieves nothing and only creates stress that will likely be felt by your kids.
Say You’re Sorry
Mistakes will be made. They just will. You might get dates mixed up or forget to do something or run late for a pickup. It happens. And when it does, apologize and do your best to prevent making the same mistake again. Being defensive and arguing about why you messed up is rarely productive. And sometimes the “why” itself might be up for debate, as you may point the finger at each other. Unless the discussion is about how to fix the mistake and avoid it in the future, just give a genuine apology and move on. Chances are arguing in your marriage wasn’t super productive, so why bother trying it all over again as co-parents? That being said, if you’re constantly messing up it might be time to take a look at how you’re managing things and make some changes.
Recently my six-year-old and his dad made an agreement that my son had to read a certain number of books before he was allowed to have something he wanted. My son decided that wasn’t happening fast enough, so when he was at my house he asked if I would get him the thing he wanted. I asked what his dad had said about it, and he told me “Daddy said it was okay.” So I picked up the phone and called his dad. And that’s when my son realized he couldn’t play us against one another. And together his dad and I decided that since he had tried to go around the deal he had in place, he would have to read twice as many books to get what he wanted.
Maintaining consistent rules and a consistent schedule for children between their two homes creates stability. Going back and forth is pretty disruptive, but if they know that the experience will be similar in each home it alleviates some of the uncertainty and stress. This also applies to fun. If one house is the “fun house” and one is the “boring house” that’s not fair. In my case, my co-parent and I generally take turns with fun things like movies and playdates and such. His house has the Wii and mine has the iPad. His had a pool in the summer and mine had a bonfire pit. Changes to routine, house rules and rewards/discipline are discussed and mutually agreed upon. We aren’t in competition to be the cool parent. We’re consistent, much to the annoyance of the kids who can’t manipulate us.
Everyone’s co-parenting struggle and journey is different. If we choose to be adults about the whole thing, honour the other parent and make the best of a tough situation, then hopefully our kids will benefit from our effort. The marriage may be done, but there’s no need to take the kids down with it. While the fact that you’re not married isn’t changing, the “how” of being co-parents can have a huge impact on your children and how they view their childhoods.
Erin Skillen is the co-founder and COO of FamilySparks.com, an education company that helps parents navigate the toughest job in the world. She’s also a mom and a bucket list slayer.
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