I’ve been co-parenting for the past six years. There are certain aspects that, while they are our normal, they aren’t easy. At times I check myself when I think, “why haven’t I gotten used this yet?” Besides working to be a great mother in general, I consider managing the co-parenting relationship and a child’s adjustment to co-parents to be the most important thing I can do for my son’s well-being. How ironic, the personal relationship that for whatever reason didn’t work out, is still a relationship that requires your effort and commitment. It can be quite a daunting task, giving care to your child’s and your own emotional needs as well as tending to all the involved relationship dynamics. Over the years there have been plenty of ups and downs in my family, and through the challenges I’ve held on to (and continually developed more!) coping strategies.
Figure Out Your Child’s Transition Needs
When my son’s father and I divorced, my son was three years old. He’s an only child and has always enjoyed playing independently while I do chores or something else around the house. I noticed early on in our “two homes” life that if I carried on as usual when my son first returned from his dad’s, I would see more acting up and little behavioral issues. As part of his transition between our homes, he needed a period of undivided attention. If I stopped what I was doing and spend some one on one time doing an activity with him for 30-60 minutes, the rest of the day would run more smoothly. Now that my son is older, and frankly much of the time he doesn’t want to play with me, that period when he first comes home he is more likely than other time to sit with me and read mail that came while he was gone, play, or fill me in on what he’s been doing the last couple of days.
Cultivate Your Own Interests
This is a self-care necessity and an opportunity you may not have had if your child was with you every day. I got a divorce in the fall of 2010 and it didn’t take long to notice the emotional dip I experienced when my son was with his father. That sadness doesn’t go away, but finding constructive and enriching things to do with that empty space can make a world of difference. For me, cultivating my own interests meant starting CrossFit. Following divorce, suddenly 50% of my time was no longer devoted to family life. I needed an outlet, and CrossFit was an hour of my day that I wasn’t thinking about missing my son or worrying about all the life changes, but simply listening to my coaches and focusing on my body working. Since then, it has morphed into a bigger part of both my and my son’s lives, but initially it was simply a new hobby.
Seek out activities that provide an emotional, social, and physical outlet, can be done regularly, and fit your schedule. Meditation practice, fitness classes, some type of spiritual exploration or community activism groups come to mind as examples.
Find Community with Other Co-parents
Some of the best support comes from commiserating with other people who are also co-parenting. Whether discussing nuts and bolts like the costs and benefits of various parenting schedules, to general moral support from someone who truly understands, these relationships are invaluable. Fellow co-parents can be great, non-judgemental sounding boards.
Keep a Schedule
Maintaining a clear schedule can be helpful for everyone involved. I know my son gets a lot of solace from knowing what is happening when. Sometimes he remembers the schedule better than I do! The amount of fluidity that can be accommodated in the schedule is based on how smooth the dynamic is between the co-parents. If things are tense, a more rigid schedule can be a helpful tool to avoid ongoing disagreements and cut down on the back and forth.
Be Prepared for the Ebb and Flow
Your child’s experience and perception about their home life is going to shift as they enter different developmental stages, have various social interactions, and experience more life. We’ve had periods where there were many questions and discussions about the divorce, mixed with long periods where it doesn’t come up at all.
Like almost anything else, a co-parenting relationship itself is going to have different phases and stages. If things are tough, take heart, it doesn’t have to stay that way! It’s not static, it’s a constant process of adjustment to find a balance that works.
Maintain Transparency with Your Child
This point was brightly illuminated for me when my son was young. I always wanted to develop an open, communicative relationship with any children I would have, but one encounter made it an even higher priority. I was explaining divorce to my three year-old (not fun!) and in the course of the explanation I said something like, “sometimes when a mommy and daddy can’t get along, they have to live in two different homes.” He replied, “and then little boys live alone?” My heart was pretty much demolished at that point. Imagine if he hadn’t asked the question and left the conversation thinking that! The blessing was that it reinforced the importance of talking frequently, as clearly and honestly as possible, and verifying in every way I can that the intended meaning is understood. Ask your child questions, find out what things look like from their perspective.
Keep the Communication Flowing
So many tools are available for keeping the lines of communication open with your child and co-parent. FaceTime, Skype, text, social media accounts, private blogs, Google docs… the point is, take advantage of them! Use them in whatever way works best for your family.
Books are a fantastic conversation starters, and I know in my household have been invaluable to normalize emotions, and revisit important themes. During stretches of time where I’d think divorce is the last thing on my child’s mind, I’ve had him grab a book like, It’s Not Your Fault KoKo Bear off the shelf to read together.
Consider an Unattached Approach
One thing that has been very empowering for me from an emotional standpoint is being less attached to societal norms when it comes to family life. The expectations of what family looks like, what Thanksgiving celebration looks like, what a co-parenting schedule looks like—these are not rules or even helpful guides to figure out what works in your situation. I don’t attach myself to what a certain day is ‘supposed’ to be like, for example if I’m not with my son on a holiday the way ‘normal’ families are. This point of view has helped me release a great deal of sadness and embrace that I can share special things with my son in our own unique way.
Look at the Bright Side
Although there’s pain and disappointment that comes from the circumstances that lead to co-parenting, there can also be some bright sides if we allow ourselves to acknowledge them. A few I have identified for myself:
My son gets to see different lifestyles and ways of running a home. The same things that can cause conflict in a relationship, demonstrate the varied choices we have in life. It gives him an opportunity to see that when he grows up he can live the lifestyle of his choosing and there are different, equally good ways to live.
He is adaptable. Although as co-parents we try to provide consistency on big things, the reality is each parent does things differently. My child (kind of amazingly) flows back and forth through those differences. This adaptability and fluidity is a great life skill.
A shared parenting schedule allows me time to refresh myself. I have time to cultivate my own non-parenting related interests. When my son is with me he gets a more energized version of me because I’ve had down time from parenting to take care of myself. We cherish our time together because of the times apart.
At the end of the day, my ultimate mantra to myself when it comes to co-parenting is, “it’s not about you.” Of course I need to tend to my own well-being, but as it pertains to my relationship with my child’s other parent, it’s not about me and my feelings. It’s about doing everything in my power to create a loving base of support for my child, even though it’s located in two homes.