In 2008, we co-founded CoParenting101.org after friends and colleagues repeatedly praised us for being the "poster children" for divorce. We wish we could have been the poster children for successful marriage, but it didn't work out that way. Because we've kept things amicable publicly (we do have some old emails that would make a sailor blush), we're often asked "How in the world do you do it?", and CoParenting101.org is our answer. We do it because our children deserve peace and reassurance. Though divorce ended our marriage, our family endures.
Unfortunately, this explanation hasn't deterred strangers and others from making disbelieving comments, the wildest being that since we socialize and take an annual vacation together with our kids and our respective new spouses, we must be swingers. And this person was not joking.
Regretfully, the reality of our co-parenting relationship isn't anywhere near that spicy. It reads more like this: Once upon a time, girl met boy in college; began dating the first week of classes; married a year after graduation; had two kids; after a decade-plus, came apart at the seams in pretty much every way imaginable except parenting; separated and committed to a 50-50 shared parenting partnership; weathered a divorce that was 98% non-combative; got individual counseling; gave each other time and space; and then managed to cobble together a friendship that buoys their current co-parenting arrangement.
In a culture where divorce is more synonymous with "combat" than it is with "cooperation", it's difficult for some people to fathom that parents could resolve to act in their children's best interests, with no ulterior motives (or alternative lifestyles) lurking beneath the surface. In addition to the swinger myth, here are a few others we've encountered that we'd like to bust:
Myth #1: "You only get along so well because one or both of you still has a 'thing' for the other."
I (Deesha) can't tell you how many times I heard this from guys I dated when they learned that my ex lived a block away. One date narrowed his eyes at me and asked, "Does he drive past your house on a regular basis?" My answer: "Yes... he has to in order to get to his house!" Thankfully, my now-husband had a completely different view of the situation when we met. He saw my living in proximity to Mike as proof of the lack of drama between us. Instead of being suspicious of our commitment to our children, he admired it.
As parents, we do what we feel is best, feasible, and appropriate for our kids, given our circumstances. And at the time, living near each other is what we considered best to ease our children's transition into our post-separation living arrangements, and best for all of us logistically. Fortunately, we had the resources and opportunity to make it happen. (We now live a whopping 15 minutes apart, by car.)
Myth #2: "If you guys are such good friends now, you should have been able to make your marriage work."
This one is usually put forth a tad more diplomatically, but the underlying presumption is the same. The comment is based on the false notion that a successful parenting partnership and a successful marital partnership rely on the exact same skill sets. They don't. Someone can be a terrible spouse, but a great parent. Sometimes, parenting is all a former couple can agree on, or all they are good at, together. The qualities that allow them to co-parent despite their differences (parenting-related and otherwise) won't necessarily hold their marriage together.
In our case, not having to contend with the pressure of the troubled marriage and the expectations related to it was precisely what allowed us to interact without an undercurrent of frustration, anger, and tension -- eventually. That's not to say that we don't still have disagreements -- after all, there are reasons why we aren't a couple anymore. But we're much better at working through our differences now that our only expectations of each other are related to our children's needs.
The other problem with this myth is that it fails to give co-parents the benefit of the doubt: If they have gone so far as to take themselves and, more importantly, their children, through the pain and upheaval of divorce, hopefully, it was only after they searched themselves deeply for any hope for reconciliation, and found none.
Myth #3: "You go on and on about how great cooperative co-parenting is, you must think divorce is a good thing."
Divorce has been a hurtful thing, for us as well as for our children. We feel that we are now giving our children our 2nd best, which is to co-parent peacefully and to limit their exposure to parental conflict. In the wake of divorce, that is indeed a good thing when compared to the alternative: subjecting our kids to ongoing post-divorce drama.
Myth #4: "By being friendly and vacationing together, you're going to give your kids false hope of reconciliation."
Now that we're both remarried, we don't hear this one as much anymore. Still, we've learned from adult children of divorce that the fantasy of parental reconciliation is so persistent, it can live on even after decades pass or after remarriages. Our daughters (now ages 12 and 7) have never seen us engaged in heated conflict, so perhaps they have believed (or hoped that) our friendliness would lead to reconciliation. In our earliest divorce-related conversations with them, we emphasized the permanence of our decision. In the five years since, we've had countless informal and formal talks about their feelings, concerns, and needs related to our split and living across two households. We've always tried to listen more than we talk at these times, and the closest thing to reconciliation that ever came up is several years ago when our oldest asked if we would hug each other as friends, that it would make her feel better if we did. So we did. Then she asked if we would ever kiss again. We told her that we would not, that we weren't the kind of friends that kiss, and that was that.
Some of what we committed to at the time of our separation might be considered a bit much or impossible in the eyes of other co-parents. We pass no judgment on those who opt for a more business-like co-parenting arrangement and don't feel the need to be friends with their ex. Strokes for folks. Co-parenting is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and yet it seems that contentiousness or a cold war between former spouses is considered more "normal" (as opposed to merely typical) than civility or friendship is.
Our family's appearance on CBS's The Early Show this past September really brought this point home. We were of course thrilled for the opportunity to rep for cooperative co-parenting on national TV, and we know we were chosen because our situation is atypical. But we weren't thrilled about all of the footage that ended up on the cutting room floor, reducing us to that amazing family that vacations together post-divorce. (Soon-to-be-former Early Show host Harry Smith gave a serious gas face during a promo touting us as "a divorced couple that vacations together!") This portrayal reduced us to our social interactions and belied the hard work on behalf of our children that we, like all committed co-parents, put into our partnership. Worse, it makes us seem super-human and makes cooperative co-parenting seem out of reach to mere mortals.
Barbra Streisand probably wasn't talking about co-parents when she said, "Myths are a waste of time. They prevent progression." But the sentiment certainly holds true when it comes to co-parenting. Our wish for all co-parents, for the sake of their children, is a sustainable parenting partnership that allows their children to thrive. Joint vacations and swinging: optional.
Deesha Philyaw and Michael Thomas are the founders of CoParenting101.org.