26 Ways to Win at Co Parenting This Year (and Beyond)
If you're here, you probably have a divorce story (or you're about to have one). Mine goes like this: My husband and I had a stable if contentious relationship. We were typical ecstatic first-time parents, and the first year of my daughter's life was my happiest.
When my daughter was 14 months old, my husband went on a work trip to Greece. My phone rang. His boss was on the line. My husband had fallen off a cliff, and it was serious. He had a brain injury, and the fall nearly killed him. If you know about brain injuries, you know people are never the same, even when their recovery is, by all doctors' measures, miraculous.
A month later, my husband came home. He was angry before, and we fought before. Now, it was impossible. Then, I got pregnant again. And then, he left. I had a second baby; a gorgeous boy. After separating, I received child support for a while, but that didn't last long. I had to figure it out. So I did.
I founded Wealthy Single Mommy to connect with other professional single moms and to explore issues we all faced in our businesses and careers and with money, sex, relationships, and parenting. I've learned a lot during this journey, especially about what it means to be a present, engaged mother while juggling so many other balls – and about how to navigate (and succeed at) co parenting.
What harms children
So we're on the same page, I want to be perfectly clear: It is not divorce or separation that harms children. It is the conflict between parents that harms them.
Studies have found that conflict leads to fathers being marginalized in the family and, thus, distanced partially or completely from their kids' lives. Together, we can work to stop that from happening and promote shared parenting, no matter how many hours each parent has with the kids.
A full 55 peer-reviewed and published studies on shared parenting find that children fare better when separated and divorced co parents share parenting time and decisions approximately equally. (Courts and academics consider at least 40% time spent with each parent to be shared parenting, or co parenting.)
So, whether you can stand the idea of relinquishing control of your children to an ex you dislike, loathe, or hate, 1) you likely won't have a choice because it's the judge's decision, and 2) it's in the kids' best interest for you (and your ex) to suck it up and be adults who share parenting decisions and duties. Even if the kids are with you the majority of the time, you can do a lot to promote a family culture of equality and harmony.
26 tips for a successful co parenting relationship
Here are my 26 tips for building and maintaining a successful co parenting relationship with your ex.
1. Trust; don't control. The overarching theme in successful, harmonious co parenting is that each parent trusts the other to be a safe, decent person. You do not try to control what happens at the other parents' house. (Of course, if you truly believe that your kids' other parent is unsafe, then you need to take legal action to minimize contact.) Maybe they are the "fun weekend parent" all the time, and you prefer children have structure, chores, and downtime. Let that go. The beauty of successful shared parenting is that once you trust each other and learn to communicate, you can peacefully negotiate and fulfill everyone's best interests.
2. It's about gender equality. Accept that men and women are equal. This includes the fact that fathers and mothers are equal parents.
3. It's about the kids. If things are tense between the two of you, focus your interactions on the kids. Their well-being will always be one thing you agree on.
4. The two of you are a team. Parent as a team. Ask your ex's advice about behavior issues. Further, do not allow the kids to pit one of you against the other ... and never vie for the position of favorite parent.
5. The kids have two homes, so use pronouns accordingly. When communicating with your ex, use "your house" and "my house" ... not "home," as in, "When will you bring the kids home?" It doesn't matter how much time each parent has with the kids. Keep these pronouns neutral.
6. Respect your ex's time with the kids. Don't call every hour to check in on the kids. Would you want your ex to treat you that way? Be patient. The kids are fine. (See item #1 above.)
7. Involve your ex in matters large and small. Routinely involve your ex in decisions about the kids' childcare, school, health, and activities.
8. Keep healthy boundaries. Ignore when your ex gets pissy or nitpicky. Do not engage.
9. Release the heartbreak. Embrace this next chapter in life. As one member of my community shared, "Let it go. You are co parents now, and it doesn't matter how you got here or whose fault it is. He's your co parent and the children's dad, not your ex. His girlfriend or new wife is just that; not his mistress or affair partner. Maintaining a positive mindset about the now is critical."
10. Invite your ex to parties. Invite your ex to birthday or graduation parties you throw for the kids. It's also a great idea, and an appreciated gesture, to include them in the planning of these parties, whether it's bringing a cake or something more involved.
11. Stay connected to your former in-laws. Maintain relationships with your ex's family and friends. Divorce is hard on them, too. It's in everyone's interest to keep them in your children's lives. Send them holiday cards, and invite them to school sports and birthday events.
12. Tell your kids happy stories about your ex. Relate positive stories about the other parent to your kids. Tell them about how you met or trips you took. Share their positive qualities. This communicates to your children something positive about a person they love, and it reconditions you to think positively about your ex as well.
13. Be thoughtful on the holidays. Buy holiday and birthday gifts for your ex on behalf of the kids.
14. Be supportive of a new partner in your ex's life. Be positive about any new romantic partners in your ex's life. Communicate your positivity to the kids and to your ex. It doesn't matter if you like them or whether they were an affair partner. It is what it is; move forward.
15. Stay respectful. When your ex makes a suggestion or request about parenting, listen. Follow it unless you actually object.
16. Support their parenting. Think about what you can do to help the other parent win at parenting. This might include copying them on scheduling emails or follow-up phone calls. Do these things from a place of love and unity without being condescending.
17. Let them fail. There is a fine line between being supportive and co-dependent. Ultimately, your ex is responsible for being the best parent they can be. I have heard moms say they schedule fun activities for their kids' dad to do with them "because I love my kids and want them to have fun weekends." That is actually controlling and co-dependent, and it doesn't work in a co parenting relationship.
18. Celebrate the kids with your ex. Share the kids' successes. Screenshot good grades or cute craft projects, and send pics or videos from sporting events the ex misses. Don't do this in a passive-aggressive way to punish them for not being there, either. Do it in a way that nurtures your shared love for the kids.
19. Say yes more than you say no (if you can). Say "yes" as often as possible when your ex asks for flexibility in the schedule.
20. Say please and thank you. Thank your ex when they are flexible with you, no matter how much more of the work you think you do.
21. Don't keep score. Let go of the "I bought those clothes, so they stay at my house" mentality. If you're running short on certain items, just ask that enough be returned when you are running low, and pay that favor back later.
22. Let the kids see you speaking well of one another, to one another. Compliment your ex. Do it in front of the kids. They're watching and learning from your interactions.
23. Be careful with new relationships and social media. Refrain from posting social media pics of your new romance with the kids unless everyone is really getting along well and it truly is no big deal. Otherwise, it is not only counter-productive for co parenting, it is mean-spirited and targets the other parent's vulnerabilities on a primal level.
24. Always, always be the bigger person. When you feel the rage coming on, stop. It's not about you. Save your energy for battles that really matter.
25. Accept that you don't have to force the relationship. You may not want to spend the holidays together or share bleacher space at the kids' volleyball match. That is fine.
26. Be patient. People change, grow, forgive, and mellow. Over time, handoffs at the police station can cease and be replaced by shared holiday meals. Explosive texting can stop, and words of support and encouragement can reign.
Life is long. My post-divorce road with my ex has been rocky. We're several years into this co parenting business, and we're far from hitting a permanent groove. In the early days, aside from screaming matches in front of the kids and neighbors, there were in fact calls to the police and a restraining order. Weeks would go by without seeing him, and last-minute cancellations were commonplace. Fast-forward to today. That which I could never imagine has come to pass: smooth communication and regular visits. Spontaneous meals together with the kids, whether at my place or restaurants. Rides shared in one or the other's Subaru to soccer games. Gifts exchanged on birthdays and holidays. Chit-chats and the occasional hug after a successfully co-hosted birthday party at the local bowling alley.
As I told my ex recently in a therapy session, I love him. I've known him for more than 15 years, and we have two kids together. He's a good person. I'm a good person. We both love the kids. At some point, everything calmed down. The divorce was finalized, and life moved forward. The trauma of divorce subsided.
I am here to tell you that it can get better. One day, while you're both at the soccer game expecting the usual arctic glacier to stand between you, you might find you need help passing out Rice Krispie treats in order to make it to the team manager meeting for your other kid across the park. And you might say, "Hey, can you handle this for me?" And they'll be so glad to thaw the boreal tension that they will chirp, "Sure!" And suddenly, there will be a bit of a rapport, a hint of coziness that suggest the potential for more good vibes and less teeth-grinding hostility. It will feel good, for you and for your ex.
And after a while, you'll forget why you were so freaking angry all the time. Because being angry just sucks, and getting along is so much better. Even if it isn't fair or logical, you let go. You forgive. They forgive. You see that this has been hard for them, too. You see that they do love the kids, and that means a lot.
So, you offer them a ride home. They offer to help you replace your windshield wiper blade. Steel yourself not for friendship or even a sense of family. Not yet, at least. Instead, open yourself to a relationship that you have not yet defined but will explore. That, I want you to know ... I need you to know ... is possible.