We often think of co-parenting as a topic for divorced or separated parents and it definitely is a big one. Co-parenting can also be a challenge for married or ‘together’ parents too. Just because two parents live in the same home doesn’t mean they are successful at co-parenting.
What is co-parenting?
Co-parenting is when both parents assume the responsibility to equally care for and nurture their children. Its when both parents work together to make sure that the children have a safe environment, good education, their basic needs are met and there is agreement on discipline as well as rewards and treats. Co-parenting allows the child to have a secure and reliable upbringing.
With this definition we can see why co-parenting may not be a topic for separated or divorced parents alone.
For purposes of this post I will focus my attention on separated and divorced families (though intact families may recognize themselves in the descriptions).
Co-parenting is hard! My gut tells me that most parents are not very good at it and the children suffer as a result. When two parents are able to co-parent the children are free to love, enjoy and bond with each parent in whatever way they wish or naturally do and there is no guilt or pressure about those relationships. The child feels loved by both parents, loves both parents freely and is not stuck in the role of navigator in a high tension parental relationship (parentification).
Co-parenting is touted as the gold standard of parenting in seperated/divorced families. You will find it all over the internet, in books, and promoted by the judge overseeing your custody case. But, what happens if co-parenting is not possible?
Consider these possibilities:
The parents had/have an abusive relationship – abuse comes in many forms (physical, emotional, verbal and sexual). Emotional and verbal abuse will likely continue even after the couple has separated. This pattern of abuse does not stop just because the two adults are not in the same home.
Gaslighting relationships – gaslighting is a type of emotional abuse (google it…its pretty interesting) where a person is so subtly manipulative that the victim doesn’t even know they are being abused or manipulated. For example: your child leaves their favorite stuffed animal at your co-parent’s home and is now with you for several days. Your child really wants to get their stuffie and you don’t mind doing it but your co-parent says “she doesn’t need it, she’s too old for a stuffie anyway. You are too soft and just give her everything she wants, you need to be firmer.” You and your child are stuck and powerless. This feeling of having to choose between going to battle for what you know is right (getting the stuffie and alleviating your child’s sadness) or accepting your co-parent’s position and not getting the stuffie and trying to figure out how to explain this to your child without putting your co-parent down, is the emotional abuse of gaslighting.
Substance abuse – if one parent is using or abusing substances this can impair their ability to be attentive to and gentle with their children.
Poorly managed mental illness – If one parent has poorly managed mental illness and the symptoms are not recognized or addressed by the parent (and hopefully their health care provider), these symptoms can also make it difficult to parent well. Think about the disconnectedness or anger often seen in depression or the hyper-vigilance sometimes seen in anxiety or the unpredictability possible in bi-polar disorder. Personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder are very difficult and always involve gaslighting.
Parental lack of support with school work – if one parent consistently takes the lead on supporting school work and school endeavors and the other parent doesn’t carry their weight the effect on the child and the school supporting parent is rough. The attentive parent’s home may become the ‘homework house’ because that parent is trying to get the weeks’ worth of work done before or around the co-parent’s time when homework won’t be reinforced.
And many more….
In any of these examples, co-parenting, as defined above, probably isn’t possible. In fact, attempts to co-parent may actually serve to keep the victim of abuse or gaslighting or manipulation in the cycle of violence with the other parent, their abusive ex.
In these situations I think that another approach to parenting is helpful – parallel parenting.
Parallel Parenting is a type of parenting that promotes keeping the co-parent informed of what you and the kids are doing, how school is going, what the doctor says at appointments, sending updates on their social lives but it doesn’t involve the level of collaboration as co-parenting. Collaboration is not possible and not emotionally safe for the person who has been the victim in an emotionally manipulative or abusive relationship with the co-parent.
Here’s an example:
Situation: you want to enroll your child in an extra curricular activity, say ballet or soccer. Your child wants to do it.
In a co-parenting relationship: you inform your co-parent that your child wants to sign up for this activity. You suggest sharing the cost and sharing transportation to the activity. You ask how your co-parent feels about this and are open to their questions, concerns or challenges in supporting the activity. Ultimately, you both work out a way to allow your child to go to the activity.
In a parallel parenting relationship: you know from past experience that your co-parent is not expected to support your child’s interest and desire in the activity. You find a class/activity that is available on your parenting days/times. You plan to pay for it and transport your child. You inform your co-parent in a neutral tone that your child wants to start this activity, you have found one on your days and you will pay for it. You plan to start taking your child on a particular date. You send pictures to your co-parent so they are able to enjoy your child’s participation in this event that is important to your child. If your co-parent protests you can probably ignore it if you have made all the plans on your time, with your money and with your efforts. (if you have a court order please consult your court order for nuances).
See the difference? In one relationship you are collaborating, open to ideas and feedback and able to cooperate for the child’s best interest. In the other, you are striving to be the best parent you can be within the constraints of a custody arrangement. You are advocating for your child, sharing information with your co-parents but your actions are not dependent on the co-parent’s thoughts, feelings, or desires. You are not stuck in a powerless position to parent your child and protect yourself.
This is a very simple explanation of both co-parenting and parallel parenting and neither are easy. My hope is to make a distinction between two different styles of parenting in separated and divorced (and in some intact) relationships.
If you need hep with parenting or your child needs help navigating their divorced life, please seek help – You and your child deserve it!