Co-Parenting After A Difficult Divorce: A Delicate Balance

The term for this arrangement, “co-parenting,” isn’t entirely accurate, because it implies that it’s something his mom and I are doing together, which, at least on a daily basis, we’re not.
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Blood-curdling screams pierced the foggy night, and I glanced at my five-year-old son’s face, scanning for signs of nervousness. Gore-flecked zombies lurched about in our midst, seeking, it appeared, to feast upon our flesh.

But the boy was thoroughly unfazed.

In fact, he was literally bouncing with excitement, waiting his turn for the haunted house with his mom and me at his school Halloween carnival. He’s pretty bouncy as a rule, but tonight he was bouncier than usual, which I’m pretty sure had something to do with the fact that he doesn’t often get to spend time with both parents at once.

His mom and I are divorced, and our divorce was not an easy one. Maybe not as bad as some of the ones you read about. But still pretty rough.

So the fact that he’s so obviously thrilled whenever the three of us get together reassures me. Apparently, splitting up and moving into two separate homes didn’t damage him too badly.

He now lives with me half the time and with his mom the other half. His two homes are separate, autonomous realms, each with its own unique rhythms and routines.

When he’s at his mom’s, he lives under her rules, and she calls the shots on day-to-day decisions. Likewise, when he’s with me, we do things my way.

Co-Parenting: Parenting Together, But Separately

The term for this arrangement, “co-parenting,” isn’t entirely accurate, because it implies that it’s something his mom and I are doing together, which, at least on a daily basis, we’re not. It’s more like high-intensity interval-parenting, where we each take turns parenting solo.

The schedule can be confusing at times, but overall he seems to be doing fine with it.

Which is a relief, because kindergarten has been a huge adjustment. His school is a K-8, which means it’s big, and even the good-natured rowdiness of the middle-schoolers can be overwhelming.

We made it out of haunted house alive, but a little later, as we threaded our way through the crowded hallway of the main school building, he burst into tears.

It took a moment, but we were soon able to work out that he’d been scared by the costume one of the bigger kids was wearing.

And of course, when you see your child in tears, your instinct kicks in and you immediately switch into the mode of making it better. My ex and I happen to have different approaches in this area. Not that one is better than the other, nor are they necessarily incompatible. They’re just different.

Embracing Different Styles Of Parenting

Her instinct was to reassure our son that the boy in the costume was just a kid from school, that he wasn’t trying to be scary, that he was a nice kid, and so on.

Mine was to validate his feelings, express that I could understand why that costume would be scary, that it was OK to be scared, and so forth.

And of course we’re both hugging him and doing our best to comfort him physically as well. But he was having none of it.

He was inconsolable in a way I’ve seldom seen, and it occurred to me that since the divorce, nearly two years now, he’s no longer accustomed to being literally co-parented. These days he’s got either me or her, but not both.

Was it confusing, or overwhelming, to have two separate parents trying to comfort him at the same time? Was he feeling like he had to choose between us?

So I consciously backed off. For one thing, I want to honor the parenting schedule, and this was her night.

I also want him to see that one parent doesn’t overrule the other. I know I wouldn’t want her doing that if I were the one who was bringing him home, if it were my job that night to wind him down, get him ready for bed and so on.

And if I wouldn’t want that, then I wasn’t going to do that to her, either.

Men: Don’t Undermine Your Ex’s Authority

Equally important is for him to see that his father, a man, respects the authority of his mother, a woman ― that I don’t, intentionally or not, communicate to him that a man’s word carries more weight than a woman’s.

This is something I addressed in an article about the need for fathers of sons to model appropriate ways of relating to women. It’s an understatement to say that the way a boy’s father relates to his (the boy’s) mother is going to massively influence the boy’s attitudes about how men should treat women.

This all sounds terribly enlightened, but I want to make clear that while this was happening, I was struggling mightily. It was painful to see him so upset and yet feel constrained from taking a more active role in doing something about it.

And while my ex and I are generally able to cooperate when it comes to our son, I think it’s fair to say that we haven’t fully healed from the divorce, and we’re certainly not always perfect communicators.

But I’m committed to working those issues out behind the scenes, so that our son doesn’t feel caught in the middle.

That’s the goal, anyway. As with most things, it’s a work in progress.

Co-Parenting Means Learning To Let Go

Eventually we said goodnight, and as I walked home from the carnival, my thoughts felt twisted into a knot. Was he OK? Would he be traumatized by Halloween forever? Was there something I should’ve have done differently?

And the biggest question of all: Do I trust his mother to do what’s right, even if it’s not exactly what I would do?

Big question, but not a hard question. I do trust her, and I know when our son is with her, he’s safe and happy.

I need periodic reminders that I can’t drop a protective shield around him to keep him from harm, or even from feeling scared. When your kid spends half his time somewhere else, you have to learn to let go, and trust that he’s in good hands.

And that’s the essence of co-parenting: Both parents trusting each other and letting each other do their job. Kids have two parents, and they deserve as much of each parent’s love and nurturing and support as possible.

Which can be difficult. After all, no one ends up co-parenting because of how excellent their marriage was.

But you really have no choice. Children of divorce do so much better behaviorally, psychologically and academically when they have stable relationships with both parents, and when they see that both parents are working together to do what’s best for them, the children.

So if there’s acrimony, put it behind you, and if you can’t do that, then at least put it aside. It might feel like if you stop being mad, you’re letting your ex “win.” But you are not on opposing teams. And as long you stay hung up on winning, the only one who loses will be your kid.

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