Parenting is one of the most challenging tasks we have in life. We can’t get a degree in it, there’s no instructions manual to consult and even google can only tell us so much. While it’s rewarding like no other responsibility in life, it can kick the confidence right out of you.
Take this complicated and often times humbling experience and add a dumping of divorce to it. That’s right, two of lives major events coming together for one spectacular test of strength! Think you have what it takes to co-parent after a divorce? Well, here are some helpful hints to make the best of a, at minimal, trying situation!
Give Up The Control
When you parent your child in an intact family, meaning you and your spouse lives together, it’s a little easier to see eye to eye on parenting techniques and strategies. However, often times there is that one parent that takes on the primary parenting role, and the other parent is happy to relinquish some of that control to the other. So, when there is a difference in parenting philosophies, Primary Parent steps in and takes control of the situation. In one swift (okay, not typical) parenting sweep, all is good in the world of parenting and life goes on.
This cannot be said when parents are living separately. In the best case scenario, the divorced co-parents will make agreements on some fundamental parenting values, like little Jimmy cannot pogo stick while juggling the kitchen knife set. And at times, not even this can be agreed upon. So, what do you do when your co-parent has a completely different approach to parenting? Take for instance the co-parent who allows his seven and ten year old children stay up as late as they want and feeds them fast food for every meal while they are with him. The other co-parent believes children thrive in structure and has a set bedtime of eight every night, and has removed processed foods out of the children’s diet. Neither parent sees eye to eye on the other’s approach. Their disagreement in parenting leads to nasty text messaging, verbal confrontations and animosity between the co-parents that is palpable for even the most oblivious human being. And ultimately, the children suffer because they love their parents and it hurts to know that the two people they love the most, fight over them.
The solution? Give up the control. When parenting happens in two separate homes, Primary Parent has to take off the badge of honor and throw it in the garbage. While divorced co-parents may still have a lead parent who is more responsible for school, appointments, etc, they cannot be Primary Parent at all times. When the children are with the other parent, that other parent by default becomes the primary parent during their parenting time. There is nothing the other parent can do about what happens under the roof of the co-parent’s house as long as the children are not being harmed to a degree that requires child protective services. When the co-parents cannot see eye to eye on how to parent similarly but separately, control must be relinquished. This is a tough pill to swallow. After all, they’re your children! But, they’re also the other parent’s children as well. The sooner you accept the fact that you have absolutely no say over how your co-parent parents your children, the easier it will be to let go. You can discuss your concerns with your co-parent, you can share your choices and preferences and encourage your co-parent to join you on your parenting path, but you cannot force them to drink your kool-aide. This is an exercise in focusing on only what you can control and releasing what you cannot. You cannot control how your co-parent chooses to parent. So, buckle up baby and get use to letting go of the reigns.
No Bad Mouthing
So you’re ex is a jerk, obviously! He’s not the best parent in the world, and you always knew he wouldn’t be, but you figured you would be there to help him along. Then, BAM, a divorce! Now, not only did you realize he was a jerk a little too late, but now he’s responsible for the children without you there to coach him along. So, what do you do? Maybe you try to debunk his unorthodox parenting skills as straight up ridiculous to the children by telling them exactly what you think of their father.
That’s what we would call an epic fail. Children deserve to love their parents without negative influence. Think of it this way; when children live with both of their parents, typically there is a mutual respect between parents even when there is a disagreement. Mom usually doesn’t tell the children that her husband, their father, is a waste of a parent. Children in intact homes can love both parents without questioning the worth of their parents. It’s not until children reach adulthood that typically they begin to see their parents as individuals outside their role as parents and are able to recognize their characteristic flaws. In childhood, children only see their parents as just that, their mom or dad. They may not like all of their parent’s choices, but they accept them for who they are. In divorce, when one parent begins to degrade another parent, a piece of their childhood is being robbed. The parent, who is fighting so hard for control over how to protect their children from bad parenting, has now selected some very damaging behavior by putting down the co-parent to their children.
While you can disagree with your co-parent, and maybe even flat out dislike him/her, keep your opinions to yourself about who they are when you’re speaking to your children. Grant your children the right to love both their parents unconditionally and without guilt. When you speak poorly about your co-parent to the children, they begin to have an internal battle regarding if they are wrong for loving the other parent.
Everyone knows you’re not their biggest fan, hence the divorce. You don’t have to advertise your dislike to your children.
Don’t Make It Awkward
So, there’s the co-parent who bad mouths the other parent, and then there’s the passive-aggressive parent. The passive-aggressive co-parent makes it awkward for their child to talk about their other parent without catching a vibe that the other parent is feeling some kind of way. Confused? Here’s an example:
Sally comes home to mom after a weekend with dad and begins to talk about what a great weekend they had. She tells mom that dad took her to her favorite playground and then out to dinner for Chinese, Sally’s favorite food. Sally is filled with excitement, grinning ear to ear. She can hardly contain her happiness. Mom doesn’t look at Sally the whole time she is sharing her fun weekend and responds with an eye roll and a comment something like, “It must be nice to have money to go out to dinner. I wouldn’t know.”
Debbie Downer just took the wind out of her daughter’s sails with her snarky response. Sure, maybe money is tight for mom and she is upset that dad gets to have all the fun on the weekend, but ultimately, can’t she just be happy that her daughter had a good time? Mom didn’t take anything away from dad on this, but instead, she extinguished her daughter’s glee, and maybe even worried her about their finances.
Being a passive-aggressive parent is just as bad as being blatantly awful about the other co-parent. Just because you’re not name calling or cutting the co-parent at the knees doesn’t mean you aren’t hurting your child by showing them the green-eyed monster you have hiding inside. Learn how to let go of the animosity and appreciate your child’s happiness.
It’s About The Children
Parenting is supposed to be about making the best life possible for our children. The same is true post-divorce. It just gets a little, okay, a lot more complicated now. And, if you have fallen into the above traps of co-parenting, it doesn’t make you a bad parent. It makes you a divorcee who is trying their best, but has stumbled just a bit. It’s never too late to fix it. Children appreciate it when their parents own up to their mistakes. Whether you tell your child you realize you haven’t always handled the role of co-parent with superior grace, or you just try to correct the behavior moving forward, your children will appreciate it. After all, they’re typically the most forgiving people we have in our lives.
Keep the focus on your children and don’t make it about your co-parent. Before you speak, hear your words through your children’s ears. Before you act, see your behavior through your children’s eyes. Your children didn’t ask to be products of a divorced marriage. Give them the gift of being the best co-parent you can be with their other parent; not because the other parent deserves it, but because your children deserve it.
And remember, when children grow, they see their parents as those flawed human being they are. If your ex really is a jerk, your child will know it someday. Best yet, they’ll discover it while keeping you in a positive light because you never tried to force them to see their co-parent through your lenses.