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“For The Sake Of The Children” Cooperative Co-Parenting During And After Divorce

By Pam Leo

In 20 years of being a family child care provider and 12 years of conducting parenting workshops I have seen parents struggle with and children suffer from uncooperative CO -parenting.

Years ago when couples found themselves in an unhappy, even unhealthy marriage they usually remained married “for the sake of the children.” Today unworkable marriages dissolve in divorce. At first a divorce usually meant Dad moved out. The kids lived with Mom and visited Dad every other weekend. Now joint custody is often awarded to parents when both parents desire to raise the children. Depending on the maturity of both parents involved, joint custody can mean, at best, both Mom and Dad sharing the nurturing of their mutual children. At worst, it can mean two parents dividing time with their children 50/50 as if children were marital property with each parent fighting to make sure they each get and do exactly their share.

There are as many different divorce situations as there are couples who divorce. There are situations where only one of the parents wants to be or is capable of being the custodial parent. There are situations where even when custody is not in conflict there are conflicts over child support and visitation. There are even situations where parents divorce amicably and are able to communicate and collaborate in matters concerning their children even though they no longer wish to be a couple. However, there are many divorces in which there is a bitter battle for custody, with each parent trying to prove to the court that the other is unfit to raise the children.

When the legal resolution to these battles is joint physical custody the battles often don’t end in the courtroom. In these battles there are no victors; there are only victims. While a 50/50 time share may seem to be what is fair to the parents, it is often not what is fair or nurturing to the children, especially very young children. In those early years, children need security and roots. Transitions are most difficult for toddlers and pre-schoolers. Being constantly in transition between Mom’s house, day care, and Dad’s house is a stress that takes its toll on young children. Imagine putting a seedling into the ground and then moving it to a different spot in the garden every couple days. It might survive but it’s unlikely to thrive. For older children the constant back and forth between Mom’s and Dad’s can also be tough. They either have to have two of everything or be constantly packing and unpacking between houses. When they want to make plans to do things they practically have to carry a calendar with them so they know where they are scheduled to be when. How much more considerate and compassionate might parents be if they had to be the ones whose lives were constantly fractured by moving themselves and their belongings back and forth between two residences?

Children need a mother’s nurturing and a father’s nurturing. Children love, need, and want to be with both parents. Often parents are unaware of how deeply their behavior affects their children emotionally. Whenever parents criticize and talk negatively to their children about the other parent, it puts children in an emotional “catch 22.” They don’t want to contradict or argue with that parent but it hurts them to hear bad things about someone they love and they may feel guilty if they don’t defend the other one. In her book In Praise of Single Parents, Shoshana Alexander quotes 12-year-old Danielle, “My parents told me stories about each other…I felt like I was part of both (of them), but instead of being part of two good things, I was part of two bad things. So I always felt I must be something bad, because that’s what my parents were.” Not criticizing the other parent does not mean that we should paint an unrealistic rosy picture of the other parent or that we shouldn’t be truthful about our feelings. It means we stick to the facts and leave out our judgments. Children see that their parents are human beings who have different strengths and struggles. Children learn that each of their parents have qualities they love, as well as qualities that are hard to love. Children need to love their parents as much as they need to be loved by their parents.

When parents want to avoid confrontations with the other parent they sometimes use their children as messengers to communicate information concerning finances or plans they want to make or change in scheduling. Children hate to be put in that position. It is not the children’s responsibility to be messengers or mediators for their parents.

When sharing physical custody of children, the question that must be constantly being answered is not who is best for the child, but what is needed by this child at this particular time. Children need different things at different times. Parents have different things to offer at different times, both because of their strengths and because of their circumstances. Even children who live with both parents go through stages and phases of needed or wanting one parent more than the other at different times. If parents have joint physical custody of three children all at different stages of development, an iron clad schedule, of who has the children when, does not allow for the needs of the individual children. If two-year-old Betsy doesn’t want to go to Dad’s today it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love Dad. It means today she needs Mom. If it is ten-year-old Tommy’s weekend to be with Mom, but Dad was given last minute tickets to a hockey game, it’s hurtful for him to have to choose between feeling like he’ll hurt Mom’s feelings and wanting to go with his Dad.

It’s not the child’s responsibility to make sure each parent gets 50% of their time. It is the parent’s responsibility to contribute at least 50% of the love, time, and work it takes to raise the children. Children have more than enough needs for two parents to share. If we have committed to meeting at least 50% of our children’s needs, we will get ample opportunity to do that over 18 years. Being with each parent exactly 50% of each week may not be what each child needs that week, or what each parent has to give that week. It may be 20% this week and 80% next week. It may be 30% this year and 70% next year depending on the child’s needs and the parent’s circumstances. When both parents are 100% committed to cooperating to meet the needs of the children everyone can get more of what they need.

The keys to cooperative CO-parenting are communication and commitment. Although the commitment to love and nurture each other has ended, the commitment to love and nurture their children must continue. However, much as an ex-couple may disagree about other things, the one thing they still have in common is that they love the same children and want life to be as good for them as possible. With that as a foundation they can learn to build a new relationship as CO-parents. Nurturing CO-parenting is the collaboration of two adults who are more committed to cooperating to meet the needs of their children than to competing to have their own needs met by the children. Children have enough love for both parents.

Even when parents have the maturity and commitment to put their children’s needs ahead of their own anger and hurts, learning to communicate and cooperate during and after divorce is not easy. Fortunately there are now resources to support parents in this process.

“Resources for Divorced Parents” (1-800-640-3405), a nonprofit Maine corporation committed to reducing the negative effects of divorce offers “Kids First: Parenting Through Divorce,” a four-hour educational program for parents who are involved in a court case involving rights and responsibilities of their minor children, and “The Next Step,” a six-week group program for divorcing parents who want to “learn healthy, effective ways to parent children, to resolve conflicts and empower themselves during and after the divorce process.” Kids First and The Next Step Fact Sheet.

Mary Folsom (207-892-1263), licensed clinical professional counselor in Windham, who works with both adults and children, offers CO-Parent Counseling to parents who want or feel they need a neutral third party to help them establish a cooperative CO-parenting relationship.

The Family Business (207-839-6478) offers a seven-week parenting reeducation workshop series, “Meeting The Needs of Children” and a two-hour workshop, “Healing the Feeling Child” for parents who want to feel more empowered to respond to children’s crying, temper tantrums, anger, and grief.

Divorce may rearrange families but it doesn’t have to permanently damage children. We can significantly reduce the negative effects of divorce by using these and other available resources to learn as much as we can about children’s needs and by committing ourselves to cooperating in meeting those needs. Even when parents can’t still live together, they can and must learn to still parent together “for the sake of the children.”