If you’re here, you probably have a divorce story (or you’re about to have one). Mine goes like this: my husband and I had a stable if contentious relationship. We were typical, ecstatic first-time parents, and the first year of my daughter’s life was my happiest. When she was 14 months old, my husband went on a work trip to Greece. My phone rang. His boss was on the line. My husband had fallen off a cliff, and it was serious. He had a brain injury, and the fall had nearly killed him. If you know about brain injuries, you know people are never the same, even when their recovery is — by all doctors’ measures — miraculous.
A month later, he came home. He was angry before. We fought before. Now it was impossible. Then I got pregnant again. And then, he left. I had a second baby, a gorgeous boy.
After separating, I got child support for a while, but that did not continue for long. I had to figure it out. So I did. I founded Wealthy Single Mommy to connect with other professional single moms and to explore issues we all faced, in our businesses and careers, with our money, sex, relationships and parenting.
I’ve learned a lot during this journey – especially about what it means to be a present, engaged mother while juggling so many other balls – and about how to navigate (and succeed at) co-parenting.
Before I Share My Tips
So we’re on the same page, I want to be perfectly clear: it is not divorce or separated families that harms children, but conflict between parents, which studies have found leads to fathers being marginalized in the family and distancing themselves partly or completely from the kids’ lives.
Together, we can work to stop that from happening, and promote shared parenting — no matter how many hours each parent has with the kids.
A full 55 peer-reviewed and published studies on shared parenting find that children fare better when separated, and divorced co-parents share parenting time and decisions approximately equally (courts and academics consider at least 40 percent time with each parent to be considered shared parenting, a.k.a. co-parenting).
So, whether you can stand the idea of relinquishing control of your children to an ex you dislike, loathe or hate, 1) thanks to the judge’s final decision, you likely won’t have a choice and 2) it’s in the kids’ best interest for you (and your ex) to suck it up and be adults that share parenting decisions and duties.
Even if the kids are with you a majority of the time, there is a lot you can do to promote a family culture of equality and harmony:
Here are my 26 tips for building and maintaining a successful co-parenting relationship with your ex:
1. Trust, not control The big, overarching theme in successful, harmonious co-parenting is that both partners respect the other to be a safe, decent parent when the other is not around.
If you truly believe that your kids’ other parent is unsafe, then you need to take legal action to minimize contact. That means that you do not try to control what happens at the other parent’s house.
Maybe he is the fun weekend dad, all the time, and you prefer children have structure, chores and downtime. You have to let that go.
The beauty of successful shared parenting is that once you trust each other and learn to communicate, you are more likely to peacefully negotiate differences for the sake of everyone’s best interests.
2. It’s about gender equality Accept that men and women are equal.
That includes that mothers and fathers are equal parents.
3. It’s about the kids If things are tense between the two of you, keep the focus of your interactions on the kids. Their well-being will always be one thing you can agree on.
4. The two of you are a parenting team Focus on parenting as a team. Ask his advice about behavior issues. You both get to play good cop and bad cop. Do not allow the kids to pit one of you against the other, and never vie for the position as favorite parent.
5. The kids have two homes — use pronouns accordingly When communicating with him, use ‘your house’ and ‘my house’ … not ‘Home,’ as in ‘When will you bring the kids home?’
It doesn’t matter how much time each parent has with the kids, keep these pronouns neutral.
6. Respect your ex’s time with the kids Do not call all the time to check in on the kids, or chat with them. Would you want your ex to treat you that way? Be patient, the kids are fine (see item #1 above).
7. Involve your ex in matters large and small Routinely involve your ex in decisions about the kids’ child care, school, health, and activities.
8. Boundaries IGNORE when s/he gets pissy or nitpicky.
DO NOT ENGAGE.
9. Let go of the heartbreak
Embrace this next chapter, for both of you.
As one member of my community shared: “LET IT GO. You are co-parents now, and it doesn’t matter how you got here, or whose fault it is. He’s your co-parent and children’s dad — not your ex. His girlfriend or new wife is just that, not his mistress/affair partner. Staying in a positive mindset about the now is critical.”
10. Invite your ex to parties Invite your ex to birthday or graduation parties you throw for the kids. It’s also a great idea, and an appreciated gesture, to them to participate in the planning, to bring the cake or otherwise be involved.
11. Stay involved with your ex-inlaws Stay connected to your ex’s family and friends. Divorce is hard on them, too. It’s in everyone’s interest to keep them in your children’s lives. Send them holiday cards and invite them to school, sports and birthday events.
12. Tell your kids happy stories about your ex
Share positive stories about the other parent with your kids. Tell them about how you met, or trips you took, or share their positive qualities. This communicates to your children something positive about a person they love – and it reconditions you to think different, and better about your ex.
13. Be thoughtful on the holidays. Buy holiday and birthday gifts on behalf of the kids.
14. Be supportive of a new partner in your ex’s life Be positive about any new romantic partners in your ex’s life — both to the kids and to your ex. It doesn’t matter if you like him/her or whether they were the affair partner. It is what it is; move forward.
15. Stay respectful
When your ex makes a suggestion or request about parenting, listen and follow it unless you actually really object.
16. Support his parenting Think about what you can do to help the other parent win at parenting. These might include daily reminders, copying them on scheduling and planning emails or follow-up phone calls. Just be sure to do it from a place of love and unity, without being condescending!
17. Let them fail. There is a fine line between being supportive and co-dependent. Ultimately, your ex is responsible for being the parent they can. I have heard moms say they schedule fun activities for their kids’ dad to do with “because I love my kids and want them to have fun weekends.” That is actually controlling and co-dependent and doesn’t work in a co-parenting relationship.
18. Celebrate the kids with your ex Share the kids’ successes. Screen shot good grades on homework or cute craft projects and send pics or videos from sports events the ex misses. Not in a passive-aggressive way to punish them for not being there, but in a way that reinforces you know they share your love for your kids.
19. Say yes more than you say no (if you can) Say ‘yes’ as very often as you possibly can when your ex asks for flexibility in the schedule.
20. Please and thank you Thank your ex when they are flexible with you, no matter how much more of the work you think you do.
21. Don’t keep score of stuff Let go of the, ‘I bought those clothes, so they stay at my house.’ If you’re running short on certain items, just ask that enough be returned when you are running low, and pay back that favor.
22. Let the kids see you speaking well of one another, to one another Give your ex a compliment. Do it in front of the kids. They’re watching and learning from your interactions.
23. Careful with new relationships and social media Refrain from posting social media pics of your new romance with the kids, apart from when everyone is really getting along awesome and it truly is NBD. Otherwise, that is not only counter-productive for co-parenting, but it is mean and targets the other parent’s vulnerabilities on the most primal level.
24. Always, always be the bigger person. When you feel the rage coming on, STOP. It’s not about you. Save your energy for the battles that really matter in the long-term.
25. Accept that you don’t have to force the relationship. You may not want to spend the holidays together or sit on the same bleachers at the kids’ volleyball match. That is fine.
26. Be patient. Take it from me: people change and grow and forgive and mellow. Over time, handoffs at the police station can cease and be replaced by shared holiday meals. Explosive texting can stop and words of support and encouragement can reign. Life is long.
I’ll be honest. My post-divorce road with my ex has been rocky. We’re several years into this co-parenting business, and we’re far from hitting a permanent groove. In the early days, aside from screaming matches in front of the kids and neighbors alike, there were in fact calls to police and a restraining order. Weeks would go by without seeing him, and last-minute cancellations were commonplace.
Fast-forward to today, and what I could not have imagined has come to pass: More or less regular visits and smooth communication. Spontaneous meals together with the kids, whether at my place or restaurants. Rides shared in one or the other’s Subaru to soccer games. Gifts exchanged on behalf of the kids to the other parent on birthdays and holidays. Chit chats and the occasional hug after a big argument or birthday party co-hosted successfully at the local bowling alley.
As I told him recently in a therapy session: I love him. I’ve known him for more than 15 years and have two kids with him. He’s a good person. I’m a good person. We both love the kids. At some point everything more or less calmed down, the divorce was finalized and life moved forward. The immediate trauma of divorce subsided.
I am here to tell you that it can get better. That one day, while you’re both at the soccer game expecting the usual arctic glacier to stand between you on either side of the sidelines, you will find that you need help passing out rice crispy treats for the team in order to make it to the team manager meeting for your other kid across the park. And you will say, ‘Hey, can you handle this for me?’ and he will be so glad to thaw the boreal tension that he will chirp, ‘Sure!’ and suddenly there is a bit of a rapport, a hint of cozy relations that suggest the potential for more of good vibes and less of teeth-grinding hostility, and it feels good. It feels good to you, and it feels good to him, too. And after a while you forget why you were so freaking angry at him all the time, because being angry just sucks and being nice and getting along is so much better. Even if it isn’t fair or logical, you let go. You forgive. He forgives. You see this has been hard for him, too. You see that he does love the kids, and that is a lot. You offer him a ride home. He offers to help you replace your windshield wiper blade.
You get on with it. Steel yourself not for friendship or even a sense of family. At least not yet. Instead, you open yourself to a relationship that you have not yet defined, but will explore. And everything is better.
That, I want you to know — I need you to know — is possible.
A version of this piece originally appeared on WealthySingleMommy.com. Edited and republished with permission.