The Myth of the Normal Family Unit

Corina Connell hosts a conversation among her co-parents on the evolving nature of the family unit.

Co-Parenting and Collective Mental Health Talk

Co-parenting describes a relationship in which a child’s biological parents may not be together yet still maintain equal responsibility for a child’s upbringing. It is based on a fundamental belief that a child has a right to be loved by both parents. We have expanded co-parenting from two parents to four parents through love and marriage, and have thus expanded upon our child’s right to know love and many types of family.

The Players: Mama= Corina + RyRy= Ryan Dada=Patrick + My Frida= Frida

Our Co-parenting Family Facts: Our child is nearly six, and we’ve been co-parenting since she was just a bean in a belly. Four parents are working together in raising one lucky girl, with the support of grandparents and our extended communities. We do holidays together, birthdays together; we attended each other’s weddings. We have never had a need for determining the functioning of our family through a court process. Our child lives 50/50 in two households, and she also has her own room at her grandparents. We communicate A LOT! We redefine the stereotypical notions of family through how we live our lives and through the gifts we give our child in allowing her to be loved by all of us; and by loving each other as family.

We do it with a positive intention, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy in practice. We acknowledge the realities that everything that goes along with co-parenting brings both positive and negative effects to our multiple realms of mental health (our own, spouses, child, and family). We may be separate people and households but our lives are intertwined as family. How we think about these issues help all of us cope, to continue to not only survive it but thrive. As four parents of one child (and two parents of her brother) we share some thoughts on co-parenting, mental health, and redefining family for the better.

What are areas in which co-parenting can impact your own mental health?

RyRy: As our child continues to grow, so will her knowledge of the world as she has more than one view of things, coming directly from each unique perspective that we as parents can give her. It’s positive for me as I’ve never grown attached to someone and cared about someone quite like our child. She has an opportunity to be quite a dynamic person through all of our tutelage. Some things we heavily disagree upon. At times it does take me longer to understand where everyone else may be coming from. You as a parent feel you know what is “best” for your child but you just have to trust the collective group.

Mama: Co-parenting helps me deal with some of my own childhood wounds of not having a father around; my child has two. From the beginning, I sought to give her father every opportunity to be in her life, which required letting go of some of my own hurts.  Now, I get a real sense of security in knowing that my child is provided for, so I worry less about all the what if’s. If something bad ever happened to any one of us, I know she would be taken care of. I miss my child when it’s not her time with us, but I always try to put her emotional needs first in giving her the benefits of family; perhaps at times I have sadness, but it’s tolerable to cope with. Part of the way I can do so is by going to therapy, which I can schedule when she is at the other home. In my mind I like to play up all the ways it’s good, because at times it has felt horrible. I knew I couldn’t change the situation, so I gave into being a part of it. I have found support through the co-parenting relationship as well; recently Frida wrote to see if I was okay as I had seemed down. In telling a friend about it I said “I love her” and it’s true. Co-parenting has given me more connections for coping with my own struggles.

Dada: A plus is you get breaks: half the week you’re on, half the week you’re off. It gives you space for downtime and being able to recharge. Missing your child sucks though. At first, I would fall into bad habits when she was with her mom. I would stay up too late, have that extra drink and wake up tired and worn out. When quitting smoking, it was always harder when I didn’t have her. In my experience, kids are connected to my will power, and my will power is connected to my self-esteem. I feel better and more capable when I’m around my kids. Once you decide to focus on what’s best for your child and not what’s ‘best for you’ or how you can win an argument, then there’s less internal and external drama. Anger doesn’t stick as long because you tell yourself to act like a grownup. You take it less personally. Being on good terms with the other parent lets you relax more and be more present with your child.

My Frida: I felt connected to this child from the start, accepted and welcomed. I developed an identity as “her Frida” very quickly. I became a step mother without all of the negative connotations of that word—mostly because I was not/ am not replacing anyone; rather I am an additional source of love, support, direction in her already very rich life. Now that I am a mother to her little brother, I worry a little about those two identities: mother and step-mother. Will I mother differently than I step-mother? Is that fair? Will that negatively affect the relationship between my stepdaughter and her brother—my son?

What are areas in which co-parenting can impact your spouse’s mental health?

RyRy: Corina and I have similar perspectives on raising kids, which is good since we are living in the same house doing just that. It’s often tough to hear drastically different views from the way I was raised, and about someone you care a tremendous amount for. I can see my wife get frustrated but I also see that amazing brain of hers ingest the information and compromise. During the beginning of our relationship we were able to have a true “courting”. Without having that time to visit other places, have time to see a movie, go to dinner I am not positive how we would have developed and if we would be the same couple we are today or if we would still be more in the “beginning” stages of the relationship.

Mama: I think Ryan gets some worry over not knowing what his legal rights are, and if something bad were to ever happen—would he still have the same legal rights as a parent, when he is in fact one as we all are? I think it must be difficult to feel accepted, to feel on an even playing field as everyone else, just due to the traditional power roles in such relationships … (not because it IS that way). At times I think it can get confused or chaotic, with so many channels of information how to funnel it all the directions it needs to go; that can induce anxiety in us all. I think as a man he has really stepped up in being able to love our child as his own, and to allow this family to be about what is best for our child.

My Frida: Patrick facilitates our child’s relationship with various members of her family. In the past, when a number of those relationships were frayed, being in that position caused him a lot of stress. At this point, it is more of a logistical burden than anything else. I think he wonders how living in two different households with two different modes and sets of priorities will affect our child in the long term. How will she integrate her different ways of being in different households into a single identity? How will she reconcile aspects of her personality? I think he is confident in her (and our) ability to deal with all of that when the time comes.

Dada: Getting my wife feeling (and actually being) included in all the info sharing and decision making was a challenge at first. I got married when my daughter was 4. Her mom had been with her now-husband for 3 ½ years by then. We had systems and patterns of communication already set up. Changing it to be inclusive of my wife wasn’t perfect and that caused her some stress. A real positive is that my wife got to be a mother figure for half of the week and a newlywed the other half, so we had the best of both worlds.

What are areas in which co-parenting can affect your child’s mental health?

RyRy: I often wonder will our child ever have to get to a point in her life where she has to “choose” where she lives or what school she wants to go to? One can only hope she realizes we will never pressure her to do something she does not want to do, but as parents we know we will be facing hard choices. Will she make potential wrong decisions based off of which house is closer to her friends?  I feel so strongly that she has so many people that love her and offer different, unique perspectives on life. She will develop into quite the amazing young woman. Will she ever get slack when she is older for having a “RyRy” or “My Frida”? I am unsure as children nowadays can be very cruel! Having four incomes is better than two to support her future education and dreams. I know my parents raised me to provide the extras in life if you are doing well in school. Will the other parents see this as “excessive” whereas I would not?

Mama: I think she misses us, all of us, frequently; but she appears to easily tolerate the transitions, having known no other way literally being born into a co-parenting situation.  If you ask our child where she lives, she says “Everywhere” and it’s true, girl has three bedrooms of her own.  We have really embraced the notion that it takes a village to raise a child, and I think she has so many examples of what love can be that she is filled with an unusual optimism. Sometimes I see people with mental health issues related to attachment; I worry if she will have attachment issues as an adult? I take steps with her to feel attached: every night she is at our house we have a routine of “having a dream together.” It’s one way I help her learn to feel comfort of being together even if we aren’t.

My Frida: She is an inquisitive, energetic, loving child. She is also head strong and easily distracted. Her arrival at either of her households (and her grandparents’ house) is a special occasion. Almost all her time is “special” time. That is wonderful. But it also skews her view of the world. She is protective of the co-parenting relationship, protective of all of us … in a way that she might be too young for. She does not play favorites. She is generous and fair with her affection. I think she misses us—but not in a debilitating or melancholy way. She is where she is and she is happy there. Her ideal is all of us together all the time. She sees herself as part of a big loving family—in fact she sees herself as the center—the hub—of a big loving family. Things are changing as she gains a sibling and will continue to change as more siblings are added. Among my family she is one of five kids and she does just as well there (and at times better) as she does when she is the only kid at a holiday gathering. At the end of the day, she is loved and loving and that is a credit to the co-parenting relationship.

Dada: Everyone is always excited to see her. She loves walking into a room- giving and receiving smiles. Having both of her households being on good terms has allowed her to enjoy the handoffs. She can earnestly express being excited to see the half of her family she hasn’t seen in days without worry of hurting any parent’s feelings, or sensing competition. For the potential negative: she has two modes of being. She says she likes different things in different houses. It’s hard to help her feel continuity. I’m curious how this will play out in the teen years.

What advice do you have for others who are trying to detonate the myth of the ‘normal’ family unit?

RyRy: What is “normal” in today’s society? With the divorce rate now, this is almost the norm, no? I think what separates us from others is we always have the child’s best interests at mind and never malicious intent. Think outside of the box as society teaches us that a proper family is a “mom and dad” and not a “mom and mom” or “dad and dad” and especially not a “mom, RyRy, dad and Frida”. Always look at what you can bring to the table as a parent and realize what the other parents can bring; contribute to the child what your strengths are.

Mama: Be open to how a village provides support so that you don’t have to be alone in the world; keep a positive frame of mind. It’s easy to dwell on the negative, but I also challenge you to consider the positives of what a co-parenting relationship can be.
I find it best to actually care about each other- and not just go through the motions. Do your best to talk to each other, and talk to your children, about the benefits of being intentional and positive. Don’t get caught up in what other people may think of how you are raising your family if you co-parenting in the best interests of your child.  People will always have something so say, so retune your focus to keep the good stuff.

Dada: Actively show respect for each other-both in front of the kids and when childless. Always apologize for what you did. Don’t wait for the other parent. Don’t play a tactical power game, or wait for the other to give in. Be an adult and apologize for your actions and their effect on others. Pick your issues: if you don’t like how your ex does something then do it different at your house, but don’t tell the other how to be a parent. Kids learn through modeling—and so do adults. Don’t have battles which create winners and losers. When you’re co-parenting, the winner or loser is always your child. The other parent will trust you much more if they can clearly see your priorities are in the right place. Plan ahead of time to deviate from the agreed upon schedule: Then make it easy for the other parent to adjust. Co-ordinate discipline, as your child will do much better with similar expectations at each house.

My Frida: There is no normal when it comes to what family should be. The so-called nuclear version of mom, dad, two kids, cat and dog was a creation of television and advertising—it is not an ideal to emulate. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, neighbors have always been part of the mix. Create the family that will best serve and support the development of a well-rounded, loved and loving child. It is about the kid. It is not about passing on your views or values or being right. It is about what’s best for the child. That is the core of the relationship.

We all agree: co-parenting is best for our child and our family.

In addition to being co-parents, we are all working to better our communities:

Corina “Mama” Connell is a clinical Social Worker in crisis services, and writes on mental health for sanity as a peer provider.

Ryan “RyRy” Connell works in non-profit mental health world, running two residential programs. He is also passionate about his small organic supplement business and can be spotted in the local gym crushing it on a daily basis.

Frida “My Frida” Berrigan is a proud new mommy and writes regularly for Waging Non-Violence.

Patrick “Dada” Sheehan-Gaumer works in a program funded through The Fatherhood Initiative, empowering fathers with support to be more actively involved with their children through parental responsibility.


Read more on Mixed and Step Families on The Good Life.

Images courtesy of the author

About Corina Connell

I'm a proud Alumni of Earlham College and the University of Connecticut, where I earned my Master's Degree in Social Work. Professionally, I am a clinician for mental health crisis services. I try to prevent suicide, homicide, domestic violence, trauma, abuse, addiction and provide much needed connection to people who feel they cannot fall any further. Some days it's intense, most days I know I made a difference. I get exposure to so much in the community, and I'm seeing the bigger issues; I'm working in a community in need of healing, and thus getting some healing for myself. I am committed to reducing stigma through who I am and what I do. I regularly blog to share experiences and process my own mental health (
I'm also a wife to an awesome husband, and a co-parent to a near six year old girl; I recently had a conversation with my family on our mental health experiences of parenting--Four Parents Deep. I appreciate a man's perspective, and firmly believe that the personal IS political.

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