My children’s father and I have a strong coparenting relationship, but it wasn’t always that way. In the years since our divorce, we’ve survived months of not speaking and our share of tense custody exchanges and text battles.
Even at our lowest point, I didn’t speak poorly of Billy to the children and we didn’t fight in front of them. At the time, I was proud of myself for continuing to respect the rules of coparenting. I told myself that even when their dad and I couldn’t get along, we were putting the children first.
The truth is a bit more complicated.
The basic rules I followed during our dark, no coparenting days had value. Not speaking negatively to the children about their father, avoiding conflict when we interacted, and keeping the lines of communication open via text and email were three important ways we parented consistently. Failing to accomplish those three things would have had a very real negative impact on our sweeties. But I now see those actions as the prerequisite to good coparenting.
The truth is, even as I talked about coparenting, I was making mistakes that actively sabotaged my efforts. Today in my coaching work, I see well-intentioned coparents make those same mistakes every single day.
These four coparenting mistakes are extremely common and each one can have a negative effect on the success of a long-term coparenting relationship.
Coparenting Only When it Counts
At a seminar I conducted once a mother talked openly about the importance of coparenting while her ex was in the classroom only to malign him to the full group seconds after he left. I recognized her behavior. In our early days, I thought coparenting only counted when I was front of the kids or my ex or our counselor too.
I’d nearly break my arm patting myself on the back for a positive custody exchange or not being triggered during a tense email exchange. The fact that I noticed a difference and congratulated myself on it means that positive interaction was different from my regular interactions, and different from my normal thought patterns.
Coparenting counts all the time. Our children are constantly reading me. Every fleeting facial expression, every low-volume phone call, every sigh. They also read Billy, our text exchanges (yup, even if they say they don’t), our body language and my journal. Children are always watching, and know when you’re putting on a show.
Until I was authentically enthusiastic and supportive of their father and the time spent with him, my coparenting show was just that.
Taking a Vow of Silence About the Other Half of your Kid’s Life
If I had a nickel for every time a divorced parent proudly told me that because they have nothing nice to say about the other half of their children’s lives they say nothing at all, I’d be living in Bermuda.
Imagine for a second, that the person you love most in the world never acknowledged how you spend the hours between 8-5 every day. He or she doesn’t speak negatively about that time, just never says a single word about it. Weird, right? That’s only a third of your life. In our shared custody situation, the kids spend half their life with their father.
When we don’t acknowledge the time a child spends with the other parent, we are sending the message that the time isn’t important, or worse, bad. That’s a direct contradiction to how children of divorce feel: time with each parent is sacred.
Often, when I was reluctant to ask about the time my kids spent with Billy, it was because I was afraid to look like I was prying. Truth? That was a convenient excuse. I wasn’t comfortable with our rhythm and asking brought our situation to the forefront of my mind. Today, I am sensitive to the possibility that questions could feel like prying, but don’t let that hold me back from expressing interest in their life at Billy’s house.
Today, we talk about dad, his family, his house and the jokes he tells at dinner. Not because I need to know the details of his parenting, but because I want the children to know I value their whole lives. The kids offer information freely. Life at Dad’s is rich and fun and important, and by making it easy to talk about here, I get a broader view of my children’s lives and keep them whole.
Allowing your child a vote rather than a voice
I often see clients avoid difficult discussions with their parenting partner in the name of what the child wants.
When our oldest son asked Billy recently if he could just stay at his place instead of come to mine on my scheduled night, it would’ve been easy for Billy to say yes, and tell me he was acting in Simon’s best interest. Billy did the harder thing: he called me and told me what Simon had asked. I was then able to share that Simon was frustrated with me and avoiding conflict. Rather than allow Simon an escape, we decided together to address his concerns directly.
Years ago we may have made a different choice, but trial and error have shown us that while children can have a voice in decision-making, adults do the voting. When we’re facing a decision that would’ve involved both parents in the past, it involves both parents today.
Secretly Believing You are the Real Home
I am ashamed and embarrassed to admit how long I labored under this misconception. For years, I believed that I was the kids’ better parent, and that my house was home in their hearts. This belief was so deep and secret, when I finally realized it, I was surprised.
Our children fully embrace both homes, and are equally loving and loyal to both their dad and me. And, as much as I hate the word should, I embrace it here: that’s how coparenting should work. Studies repeatedly show that children of divorce who are allowed and encouraged to fully live in each home, and transition lightly (in terms of both emotional and actual baggage) between the two suffer few if any long-term consequences of living in this non-traditional model.
The common thread in each of these mistakes I made early and often in this journey? My actions were about me. Me avoiding conflict or our new reality, or me wanting to dwell in my grief and righteousness. Only by shifting my perspective to the children, over and over again, was I able to stop sabotaging my efforts. It took me years to realize that coparenting well is simple but not easy. The prerequisites matter, but the real work happens in each parent’s head and heart.
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