Parenting is never easy, but it can get much more difficult during a divorce. How do you co-parent when you’re no longer married?
I work in the marketing department of Goldberg Jones, a prominent West Coast law firm specializing in family law with a focus on men and fathers rights. In my position I have had the opportunity to observe many of the issues that arise for fathers during a divorce and the impact that they can have on children.
As a husband and father myself, a lot of what I have seen has resonated strongly for me. I was asked to write a more technical instructional post on “co-parenting” for our Portland office’s blog but as I began to write, the piece evolved into more of an editorial based on my experiences and observations. Since I’m not a lawyer, editorializing on a law blog probably isn’t the best place to share my observations but everyone in the firm liked the piece and urged me to find another way to go about sharing it. The Good Men Project seemed like the perfect fit.
I’m going to start with my personal perspective and make a statement based on my own empirical findings; Parenting is hard! I have three teenage daughters and they all have drastically different personalities. They’re all very pretty, which I think is my karmic punishment for having been a teenage boy at one point in my existence, and like most kids, they have varying degrees of skill when it comes to manipulation. This is something they all have in their intellectual toolboxes. This isn’t where the true difficulty lies though. The real stress comes from co-parenting with my wife. I really can’t remember what we fought about (if anything) before we had kids. We were married five years before the first one arrived but I can’t recall anything specific.
If you’re doing the math here, I’ve been married awhile. We talked about all the things we thought might be issues in our marriage before we actually walked down the aisle, but somehow we missed talking about parenting strategy. She was a far less unruly child than I was so she hadn’t had much experience with the “parental penal system.”
I on the other hand, was apparently the result of one of my grandmothers bestowing the dreaded “mother’s curse” upon my mom or dad. If you’re not familiar with the “mother’s curse” it’s always a variation of; “I hope you have a kid JUST LIKE YOU someday!” Let me stress that the mother’s curse is for real, it is not to be trifled with and my poor wife unsuspectingly married into it. She has made a point of never passing it along to our kids regardless of the magnitude of their shenanigans for fear of turning our future grandkids into demon spawn.
I can say that co-parenting with a woman I love is a very hard thing to do. I know from reflecting on how my parents dealt with me that the best solution is clear rules, pre-defined consequences/rewards for their choices, and constant consistency. My wife, on the other hand, is the bestower of endless “Mulligans.” Who’s right? Neither of us if we disagree and fight about it in front of the kids. They skip off to their next misadventure while we go through the multiple steps of having and then reconciling after an argument. I could probably write a book about this but I’ll leave that for another day — or never. I’m feeling noncommittal at the moment.
So you’re probably wondering why we’re talking about how hard it is to raise kids as a married couple when you started reading this out of curiosity as to how that might look for someone who is no longer in a relationship with the mother/father of your children. The point here is that raising kids is hard even for a couple in a committed relationship. It goes to a whole different level when you are not able to act in concert with your kid’s other parent. You may really hate your former spouse but as a wise person once said, “Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” The main person(s) who will be hurt if you can’t find a way to effectively co-parent with your former spouse will be your children which will of course trickle down to you.
Regardless of whether you were raised in a military boarding school or a hippie commune, you ultimately want the best for your children, right? They’re probably already struggling with the blow to their personal sense of security dealt by the divorce and are liable to act out in ways that will be distressing to you. If you are “Mr. Consistency” and your ex is “Ms. Mulligan”, you need to find a way to put a program in place that everyone can adhere to. No matter how right you think you are or actually are, if your kids aren’t receiving some level of consistency, they will learn very little and probably resent one or both of you, their parents.
The first step is to work closely with your attorney as well as your ex and their attorney to hash out a parenting plan. Remember that this is about the kids not you. If you find yourself unwilling to be reasonable because of your level of dislike for your ex, you might have been the problem that destroyed your marriage. Your kids are likely to be a key component of the happiness you obtain in life. Conversely, if you screw it up, they can be the key component of your sorrow as well and knowing deep inside that you are to blame for that is emotionally crushing. Endeavor to be reasonable and come to equitable agreements. A solid and well thought out, court mandated parenting plan is the foundation for all future decisions and actions and an experienced lawyer can help you see the situation from every angle and not miss anything important.
Just remember that a parenting plan tends to cover the broad strokes though. Drilling down into the more granular aspects of how your children will be raised requires a functional working relationship with your former spouse that is going to require a great deal of patience and selflessness from both sides. Just remember that ultimately, you can’t change anyone but yourself. If you could, you’d probably still be married, right?
Once the divorce is final and you’re moving on, you have to strive to maintain a good working relationship with your ex. I tell my daughters that if a guy takes them out and is nice to them but rude to others, they aren’t really a good guy. I think most fathers impart a variation of that advice to their daughters. If you are seeking to find happiness in a new relationship and someone you really would like to get to know better sees you nursing a grudge against your former spouse at the expense of your own children, that sage advice from their own fathers might start nagging at their subconscious. It would be a shame to ruin your chances to find someone you can have a future with. It’s kind of like drinking poison … well, I think we’ve covered that already. If acting like a jerk doesn’t bother your new love interest, they might be a narcissist themselves and that could eventually lead to divorce; round two.
Though we as a law firm earn our livings helping men end bad relationships, we like to think that we’re helping you fix a mistake so you can move on toward happiness. We just want to stress the importance of remembering that your children’s happiness and well being is tied directly to your own and it is of the utmost importance to make sure that you do everything that you possibly can to help your kids, teach them and provide stability for them through your divorce.
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