Divorced? Follow This One-Step Co-Parenting Plan
My gut twists, thinking of the difficult path ahead for these families. I want to sneak into their still-shared homes at night and place hot water bottles over their hearts. And maybe stash some red wine in the fridge, while I'm at it. They're going to need it.
There are plenty of reasons for divorce. No one, absolutely no one, can guess at what happens behind closed doors. I will never dare to assume I know what brought them to this point. I know how much it stings, being on the receiving end of that jabbing, that speculating. The only thing I know for sure is there sure as hell are always two sides worth considering.
As a marriage sputters and dives, the reasons to leave become more compelling than the reasons to stay. It's simple physics. The downward momentum is deadly.
A few years out, when the ink has dried, the once razor-sharp reasons for divorce become pretty darn foggy. Often, the reasons become downright moot. The relationship is over. It was what is was, and now it isn't what it isn't. Period.
"Justification" and "validity" and "grounds" are perfectly satisfactory legal terms, but I've found none of them come close to the soul's painful vocabulary for the ending of a marriage. Attempting to build a brand-spankin' new, separate life for yourself while you're knee-deep in the scorched, smoking crater of all that you once believed to be true -- of all that you once hoped would be true -- is no task for the faint of heart.
Trying to parent wisely and compassionately while you rebuild yourself and recalibrate your compass (when you're not sobbing on the bathroom floor) is then, perhaps, the greatest and most daunting challenge of all, especially if custody is shared.
If you poke around into the etymology of divorce, you'll find the word means "a turning away," rather than a separation or a severing. This is never more apparent than when a divorce happens to a family, rather than a couple. There can be no complete separation, no true and final division.
Children bind two people -- no matter how desperately they wish to be unbound -- inexorably, permanently. Parents can turn their backs on each other, but they still must share the same heart space: the love of the wonderful, confounding, curious creatures they brought into this world.
Loving long and loving true is a Herculean task without the strain that children can cause -- through absolutely no fault of their own -- in a partnership. Someone once said to me, "Having a child is like tossing a grenade into a marriage." I admire the partners who are able to defuse the danger, plant flowers instead and stay the course.
But many of us can't make that happen. And if, while married, you can't get your collective crap together to agree on a solid, mutually satisfactory and satisfying game plan for raising the kids, agreeing on a strategy for raising them post-divorce is about as daunting as a one-armed, one-legged search for the Holy Grail.
Co-parenting after divorce is a precarious business at best, even when there are two good, loving parents who are invested in their children. For all of our problems and lurchy communication, I'd still count my ex and me in that category. We've been at it for three years, and God knows, we are still learning -- and smarting and wincing and biting our tongues.
Sometimes, we celebrate the little victories in passing. We recognize the beauty of these children of ours, after all. But communication is painful, often veiled and anything but simple.
After several years of thought, much stupidity, much angst, much frustration and too much useless wishing, I've come up with this handy-dandy one-step plan to co-parenting. Please hold your applause:
1. Extend the benefit of the doubt to the other parent.
Lather, rinse, repeat -- forever -- as necessary. Make this the rule of your co-parenting relationship; not the exception.
There will be many times when you think -- make that, you know -- they've dropped the damn ball. Newsflash: There will be just many times when they're thinking -- no, knowing -- the same damn thing. There will be teeth-gnashing, brow-slapping, private eye-rolling on both sides.
Please get over it; for the sake of the kids.
Huge Honkin' Disclaimer, So Don't Get All Up In Mah Grill: I recognize this one-step co-parenting plan is only useful if you dare to believe your co-parent is -- like you -- simply a flawed, loving, messy, imperfect human being who genuinely is trying to do his or her best with the tools he or she has.
I realize that is a big if. Feel free to exit this advice using the emergency exit to your left if you are not/can not be in that head space. I'll wait.
Oh, good. You're still here. We're lucky. It's true.
Mindful co-parenting doesn't mean you're perma-blissed out with multiple, daily respect-gasms for your ex-partner. It simply means you are willing to extend courtesy and respect to your ex daily, even when you don't always understand or agree with that person's point of view; even when your ex is not present.
As far as love-that-is-no-longer-love goes, this is a pretty radical concept, but the rewards are massive.
If you can set aside your own crap, and do your darndest to see the best in your co-parent, your kids will have more than a fighting chance to become their most amazing authentic selves -- compassionate people who breathe easy because they were able to grow up loving both parents openly, without needing to hide or deny the love that makes them whole.
So, when you can, bite your tongue. Ask yourself if it's worth it. If you are truly concerned about something, speak up to your co-parent, but kindly. Ask to understand, not to judge. Listen before you condemn, accuse, blame.
The fact is, you are no longer one household. There are two homes now, with different rules, different expectations, different needs. It is unfair and realistic and absolutely crazy to expect your rules to be implemented in a home that is no longer yours.
Your ex-partner does not love you anymore, but, if you're lucky, you know deep down that he or she loves the kids as much as you do. Return to that, again and again. Nurture the love you see in your kids for their other parent. Kids do fine, if they know upfront that their two homes have different expectations. They just need to be let in on that.
Be the head of your own household. Make clear rules. Delineate expectations. Talk to the kids about what is important to you, the home you'd like to create with them. Let them in on your thinking process and your feeling process. They are more resilient than you guess and more thirsty to understand than you know.
If you loved the person enough to dare to have children together, chances are good your children see the same good you once saw.
Extend the benefit of the doubt, and maybe you will find it coming your way more often, too. No promises, but the universe has a funny way of rewarding compassion and humility -- if you just get out of your own damn way and give it a chance to do its business.
OK, now you're gonna get all up in mah grill. I can feel it. But I'm just going to zap super-heroine rays of loving kindness and compassion your way.
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