There’s an odd twist of irony once the ink has dried on the divorce decree. There might be a sense of relief, a feeling of closure, maybe even the feeling that we can finally exhale – especially since we often don’t realise we’ve been holding our collective breath for that long.
The twist: Now that you’re no longer married to your children’s other parent, you must still work together to raise them. Welcome to the world of co-parenting.
The goal here is to find enough common ground in parenting styles, shared values and goals, and most importantly, a foundation built on an unwavering love for your children that minimises tension or drama.
Spoiler alert: This phase is about finding ‘the new normal’ as fast as possible.
There will be plenty of practical elements (along with emotional, mental, and even spiritual) to this. And quite a few of those “to do’s” early on in the newly single mum/post-divorce phase have to do with creating some structure to how you co-parent. Even for those who might not love structure (ahem…. myself included), trust me: Ten years in, I can tell you, the structure makes all the difference.
Here are my co-parenting tips I wish I had known from the start.
Further reading: Why you need a communication book for co-parenting.
Always put your kids first, without exception
First and most important on my list of co-parenting tips: You and your ex have already made a decision to zone your relationship into a co-parent-ship where one another's personal needs are no longer a priority. Remember that this decision IS separate from fulfilling your children's needs. If anything, your kids need more reassurance, protection, and compassion from you and your co-parent especially during the transition period.
Continue with your mission to be the best parent for your children, regardless of the transitional pains and issues you have with your co-parent. Do not get carried away by anger, resentment, vengeance, or envy.
If you don't want to see your ugly ex at at your kid's school recital, I'm sorry ma'am, that is really not up to you. Your child deserves to feel fully supported and adored during milestones like these, unconditionally. Sit your butt in that auditorium next to him, swallow your pride, smile, wave at your kid, and take lots of photos and videos of your child's performance.
The dark satisfaction you get from avoiding your ex and ranting about how you hate seeing him around is NEVER worth the damage you may cause to an important and happy experience of a child.
Good communication means good co-parenting
Remember when you were a teenager, and you and your mum were always in a row? The more she yelled at you, the more you wanted to act passive aggressive and resistant to her demands. While a lot of that behaviour can be owed to just being a normal teenager, it is our flawed human nature to want to fight fire with fire. In order to actually maintain civility, we have to rise above ourselves a lot of times.
No matter how much you want to wring your ex's neck, remember that speaking with him is no longer about you. You are now in a relationship that solely represent the wellness and happiness of your child. So be conscientious and kind with your communication. Speak in the best interest of your kids, and maintain respect and consideration.
Create a parenting plan while you are amicable
When you and your ex are in a good place in your new relationship as co-parents, take advantage of that time to come together and create a parenting plan.
Ask each other about your schedule demands and how you can maintain, or even augment, support and presence for your kids. This is the perfect time to update each other about your kids' changes and progress.
What are the new weekend routines your kids have adopted? How often does your boy need his asthma meds? What is your little girl's ballet class schedule? Where are the kids spending special holidays? Who is going to host the next birthdays? Sit down and talk about these important things with your co-parent.
This is one of those golden co-parenting tips I wish someone had told me when we first split up.
Be flexible and accepting to change
One of the worst things you can be for yourself and your kids when you become a co-parent is be a control freak.
Accept that you and your co-parent have to adjust to a new dynamic and setting. Changes are inevitable and it is now more likely that you will make some decisions based on different perspectives and beliefs.
Perhaps, you are an all-organic parent who doesn't like her kids being exposed to fast food. If you can't convince your ex to share the junk food ban decision while he has the kids, take a deep breath, and just look away as they enjoy a couple of bags of crisps and chocolate bars with their dad. It doesn't need to be the root of another huge fight and tug-of-war over your kids.
You don't also need to be the unreasonable mum who is screaming at her co-parent on the phone to drive through an evening thunderstorm because the kids are "supposed" to be back at your home by 10PM sharp. Doing so will just cause distress for everyone and actually put your kids at risk. Build a thick high wall between your kids' needs and your ego.
Respect each others parenting styles
If you and your ex had parenting style conflicts when your were still together under one roof, what makes you think that it will be any less different now?
There is no single correct or superior parenting style. Every style has its pros and cons. The best you can really do is be supportive, loving and to provide the best for your child. If you and your co-parent are doing your best, albeit separately, at their share of parenting, it is absolutely pointless to be critical and disrespectful of each other's approach.
Is your co-parent the good cop type of parent? That's okay, your kids can benefit from the contrast and balance more than you think they will. Is your kids' dad academically inclined? There's nothing wrong with having a parent who can motivate their kid to do better in school. As long as there is no abuse and the children are happy, let your co-parent BE a parent the best way he knows and can.
Try for consistency between households
When you have good communication with your co-parent, work together on creating a similar environment and a consistent routine in both your homes for your children.
Do your kids love books? Make sure that you both keep your separate houses stocked with your children's books. Are your kids used to sleeping in different beds and eating their meals together? Help each other as co-parents to provide separate beds and enough dining space for your kids in both homes. You don't want your kids to feel uncomfortable and out of place, or like they are living with one parent and occasionally "disturbing" the other.
Don't expose your kids to conflict
No matter what internal struggles or interpersonal conflicts you may have, it is your primary responsibility to be the provider of support, care, and nurturing for your children.
This includes protecting your kids from trauma, painful scenarios, and scary adult conflicts, especially between the two people they love and depend on.
Remember that seeing their divorced parents fight can heighten fears of abandonment, and isolation in your kids. Your conflicts with your co-parent are because of your differences and years-long issues with each other. Your children should not bear any of the emotional or mental burden from these conflicts.
Even though you're no longer together, your kids will feel safe and supported if they have two parents who show cooperation and courtesy towards each other.
Get professional support for co-parenting tips
Last on my list of co-parenting tips: I am not here to shame you if you find it almost impossible to deal with the trauma of your divorce and you are not quite close to becoming civil with your ex.
I know that during the course of this article, I have mentioned a lot of times that your children take utmost priority in your newly-singled life. But I would also like to acknowledge that, as humans, we all have our limits too.
If you feel like you have become unable to deal with your ex and it has affected your mental health and functional capabilities as a parent, it's time to set an appointment with the psychiatrist and therapist. This could be your first step towards prioritising your kids. An absolutely broken parent cannot raise happy and well-adjusted children.
This also goes the same for a situation where you and your ex are finding it hard to be on the same page when it comes to your kids. Are you struggling to agree on a parenting plan?
Have the humility and initiative to invite in a parenting counsellor or family mediator (Relationships Australia offer free and subsidised sessions) who can expertly guide both of you to the same table and create amenable terms for your and your ex to follow so you can become effective co-parents.