by Sarah Herndon
Parenting within a traditional marriage, with two amicable partners, comes with its fair share of anxiety and gray hairs. But for separated or divorced moms and dads who share custody—“co-parent”—raising a family comes with a new set of obstacles.
Kathleen Moll of Abita Springs, mother to seven-year-old and 11-year-old girls, reflects on a particularly emotionally charged moment that came only days after her divorce was finalized—it was the first time that her two daughters were leaving her to stay with their father overnight.
“The girls were scared and crying and I was pretty much an emotional mess,” Kathleen says, “They had to be peeled from me. Although they were going with their Dad, which should be an easy transition, it was far from it.”
During her marriage, Kathleen was the primary caregiver to her two children while her husband was the sole financial provider. She was the one who took them to and from school, helped with homework, and attended all extra-curricular activities. “They depended on me 95 percent of the time and even when he [their father] was home from work, they were my responsibility.”
Kathleen says that she spent the next several months in a state of constant duress whenever her daughters had their visit with their father. “The stress I was under worrying if their basic needs were being met was overwhelming,” she says.
Helen Stravos, Ph.D., a licensed clinical social worker with Ochsner Medical Center, works with divorced families and has seen this rocky transition with co-parenting, especially when children are attached more firmly to one parent than the other. She states that children can easily pick up on a mother or father’s anxiety and that it’s important to stay positive.
“It will be easier on the child if the parent can be re-assuring and build up the time that will be spent away, such as saying, ‘You are going to have a lot of fun with your dad [or mom],” says Dr. Stravos. It is important to encourage a positive relationship with the other co-parent. She also talks about how they need to let go of being in control and to trust that their ex-partner has their child’s best interest in mind.
Another contributor to effective co-parenting is for the parents to be able to set aside their own hurt and anger. “They need to stay focused on their children,” says Dr. Stravos.
When the going gets tough
So, as a co-parent, how do you let go of all of the burning emotions and ease the tension that has built up over those years of marriage?
George Pierson* of Uptown has been co-parenting his two teenage daughters since 2007 and while he and his ex-partner’s parental views have always been aligned, he admits that being in this situation is never easy.
“When you are married, there is a reason to make concessions. After a divorce, coming to an agreement is just not there anymore,” says George. He and his co-parent decided on an approach that helps to diffuse any hurtful feelings; they e-mail when discussing upcoming schedules and if they have any outstanding issues with their girls.
“We found that this works the best, to have a delayed conversation and to remove the emotions. You can always delete it and then write something more tempered,” remarks George. He also adds that it is really important to remember that the other parent is also trying to do what is best for the children; knowing this can make some of the conversations less painful.
However, there are those circumstances when co-parenting is done ineffectively. Dr. Stravos has met with many families where the parents are putting their child in the middle, imploring them to live with them fulltime and constantly quizzing them on what goes on in the other household. This leads to confusion and undue stress for the child, Dr. Stravos explains, and intervention needs to be sought immediately—from a clinical social worker, a family psychologist, or a parenting coordinator (also referred to as a mediator) who can often times be court-appointed. She also recommends The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital which offers a recurring Focus on Children Divorce program.
In trying to align schedules and synchronize calendars, Kathleen recommends a tool that has been helpful in keeping their co-parenting life better organized: ourfamilywizard.com.
“This website streamlines everything so that the co-parents can view each child’s schedule and knows who has upcoming birthday parties or doctor appointments. It’s almost like a big brother aspect and it keeps things civilized,” says Kathleen.
a silver lining
Staying in a broken marriage where a child is constantly exposed to conflict is never a good thing. Most children are relieved to be out of that situation, states Dr. Stravos.
George says that he and his ex-partner are much happier now, even if it means raising their daughters separately. Co-parenting has allowed him to spend more enjoyable quality time with his two girls. He is also making the effort to attend more of their extra-curricular activities, when in the past, he had been working.
“This has forced me to be the primary parent when I never really had been,” he says.
As for Kathleen, the separation from her daughters has become easier as her trust in the other co-parent has grown more solid.
“After two years, my girls are still sad when they have to leave but it is not as traumatic for them,” Kathleen says, “My hope is that as time goes on, the transition will get easier. And, if not, I am hopeful that my co-parent and I can work out a schedule that puts the girls first. It’s really all about what works best for them and what makes them the happiest.”
* name changed at the father’s request
Important Tips for Co-Parents:
- Have consistent rules and discipline at each household.
- Anticipate the schedule and help prepare your child for each transition (i.e. “What are you going to take with you while you’re at Mom’s or Dad’s house?”).
- Speak positively about what your child will be doing while they are with the other co-parent.
- Set up a specific time to speak with your child while they are at their co-parent’s house.
- Try not to argue or resolve any outstanding issues during the exchange period.
- Always expect an adjustment period when your child returns to you.