For divorcing couples with young children, resolving immediate critical issues -- from custody and time-share arrangements to education and religious involvement -- is just the beginning of their long-term work as co-parents.
The reality is that while the martial bonds may be broken, divorced parents will be connected to each other as co-parents for the rest of their lives and through each stage of their kids' lives -- from pre-school, the turbulent teens, college and beyond. And while the marriage ended in divorce, it's very possible for exes to be successful as co-parents. In fact, if you're involved in a contentious divorce, it's in your best interest to demonstrate to the court that you can be a good co-parent and are willing to facilitate a relationship between the children and the other parent, which is certainly not easy to do when you want your ex to disappear from the face of the earth.
As a divorced parent and a family law attorney, the best piece of advice I can offer is to be congenial to your ex. You're in the co-parenting business for the long haul. You can choose to make it a painful experience or one that actually strengthens the relationship between you and your children.
How do you co-parent with someone who you may at this moment despise? For the benefit of your child, you have to set aside your personal feelings. Your child's well-being has to come first. No matter how terribly your ex behaves, avoid the temptation to say bad things about him or her to your kids. These words end up hurting your children because they feel that both parents are part of them and therefore, they may internalize your criticism.
If you're struggling with co-parenting on your own, you may want to consider getting outside assistance in the form of co-parenting classes. A neutral expert's guidance can often diffuse the conflict with your ex and help you establish a co-parenting regime that's amenable to both of you. Your child's school can also help you co-parent more effectively by keeping both of you informed and engaged. For example, you can ask the school to send out duplicate progress reports and other important paperwork. Try participating in joint parent-teacher conferences. Yoga breathing will help you get through it!
You may find it difficult to communicate with or see your ex as you co-parent. Derive solace in the fact that your interactions with your former spouse have their limits -- you no longer have to share a bedroom, only your children. Recognize that you have created a new home and life for yourself that doesn't include your ex. Maintain a sense of humor too. If you want to increase the possibility of a new romantic relationship, don't ruminate on the past as there is nothing sexy about talking about your ex over candlelight and champagne.
Co-parenting changes as children grow and change. Just when you think you've got the whole co-parenting thing down, kids hit the teen years and you've got to agree with your ex on a new set of boundaries and limits. From how late they can stay out and what concerts they can attend to the rules for driving, drinking and dating, it's easy for parents to clash over these important issues. However, it's critical that parents be on the same page so that children are clear on what's expected of them. Remember, kids can be quick to divide and conquer when they sense there's disagreement between their parents.
Co-parenting adult children has its own set of minefields. Major milestones such as graduations, weddings and the birth of grandchildren can inflame long-festering wounds and soon, the divorced parents may be acting out and arguing like they did when they were married. At moments when they should be the happiest, adult children of divorced parents are often put in the painful position of being peacekeeper or taking sides. Avoid falling into the trap of pettiness with your ex and demonstrate emotional maturity during these momentous occasions. Your child will thank you now and in the future.
If you remarry, you may find yourself part of a blended family, with four sets of grandparents all vying for the kids' attention. The co-parenting skills you've developed will serve you well in your role as stepparent or step-grandparent.
I am a stepmother to my husband's grown son. When his baby Lila was born, I knew the issue of who was going to be called "grandma" would arise. In an effort to be sensitive to the other grandma's feelings, I chose to be called "La La." It was a win-win on all sides; the grown-ups avoided conflict and the baby has a special name for me that she was able to say as soon as she could talk. The bottom line is that children and grandchildren have the capacity to love both parents and many grandparents. The key is to focus on your relationship with the children or grandchildren instead of continuing to wage war with your ex.
A final thought to all the new co-parents out there: don't count the hours you have with your kids; you have a lifetime to love and be a parent to your child.
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