Overcoming Common Co-Parenting Pitfalls
Co-parenting can sometimes be a series of ups and downs. Even after you’ve been separated or divorced for years, there are common problems that many co-parenting families must face. Whether these are big or small, the key is to find a reasonable way to work through the problems and preserve your cooperation.
Using Kids to Create Reconciliation
Because your children are at the center of your relationship with each other, some parents end up using the children as an excuse for things. Sometimes this means using the children as a vehicle to try to reconnect or rekindle the relationship. If you find that your ex is doing this, it’s best to have a conversation (away from the children) and lay it on the line. If you’re not interested in reconciliation, be blunt and make it clear (without causing overt hurt feelings). Tell the other parent that you value his or her friendship and want to continue to parent together closely, but that you have moved on. Spending time together as a family as fine, but it cannot and will not be a courtship.
Children as Messengers
One of the most common mistakes divorced parents make is to expect their kids to carry messages to the other parent. Sometimes these can seem harmless, “Tell Mom I’ll be half an hour late picking you up.” However it is easy for mild messages to evolve into much more emotional jabs, such as, “You tell him if he doesn’t send that check he’ll never have visitation again.”
The best policy is to simply make it a rule to never have your child act as go between. Even asking a child to carry a sealed envelope to the other parent is dangerous. The child witnesses the receiving parent’s reaction to whatever the message is. Often the child absorbs the anger or hurt expressed by the parent and misinterprets it as being directed at the child. Be responsible for your own communications with the other parent and do not expect your child to be involved.
Any parent who shuttles a child back and forth to the other parent knows how frustrating it is when the child leaves something important behind. Whether it is a beloved stuffed animal, homework, cell phone, or a hair brush, keeping track of your child’s stuff can sometimes feel like it is a full-time job.
When transporting an infant or toddler, create a checklist of important items that must go back and forth. Designate a bag to keep it all in. Encourage the non-residential parent to get duplicates for every day things like clothes, bottles, pacifiers, and so on. School age children need help remembering what to bring along. Before leaving home or before pulling out of your ex’s driveway, take a moment and run through the list of important things to be sure your child brought them all. Teens should be encouraged to keep track of their own items.
Despite all of this careful planning, things will get left behind. Although it might seem to make sense to create a hard and fast rule, such as “whoever’s house the stuff was left at has to transport it,” in reality that may not work out. That parent might be at work and your child is at school desperate to get her homework before the bell rings. Try to work through these problems as best you can and as cooperatively as you can. Encourage your child to get in the habit of double checking everything has been packed.
No parenting schedule is written in stone, and it’s likely you and your ex will end up making adjustments for each other’s lives. It’s important to be flexible with each other, but sometimes one or both of you can lose track of what you’ve actually agreed to. Some parents institute a rule that they must make schedule changes in writing (or by email) and require that requests must be made a week or three days in advance (except for emergency requests). It can be helpful to print out a calendar with the changes you’ve agreed to, so you’re both clear on what is happening when. Make sure you clue your child in on changes—he deserves to know in advance what his life will be like too.
Clash of the Calendars
There may come a time when one of you requests a schedule change and the other one won’t agree. The first thing to do is to find exactly why the first parent is requesting the change and why the second parent won’t agree. Refusing to agree just to be stubborn is a bit different than refusing to agree because that night is the mother-daughter luncheon at your church that you plan to attend with your child. In general, try to give preference to the parent with the most pressing or important event. So for example, a mother-daughter luncheon would take preference over wanting to take the child to the opening of a new movie.
If you can’t reach an agreement about a change, it makes sense to go with your original schedule. That is your fallback whenever you can’t agree on a change. If possible compromise as often as possible. In the example above, you could agree that mom will take the daughter to the luncheon then dad will get the rest of the day to go to the movie.
The Big L
Laundry is one of the biggest conflicts parents face. It sounds odd, but when Doug and Tammy came to Family Court in a case I was Law Guardian on, laundry was one of their biggest complaints. Doug had residential custody and his new wife was very angry about the fact that when the kids returned from their weekends at Tammy’s house, they came home in dirty clothes and none of the clothing they took with them was clean. Doug felt that this created extra work for his wife, who did not plan to do all of that extra laundry. Since Tammy was not the residential parent, she didn’t think she should have to have any responsibility for the kids’ laundry.
In many cases, it makes sense for the parents to agree they will each be responsible for the laundry the child creates while at their respective homes. However if one of you has a washer and dryer whereas the other has to shlep to the Laundromat, this would not make sense. An even simpler solution may be for the non-residential parent to simply keep some clothing at his house and wash what has been worn each week.
Late for a Very Important Date
A major pet peeve of some parents is that the other parent is always late. Late for pickups, late for drop offs—running behind no matter what. If lateness is a problem, bring it up in your conversations with the other parent. Explain how this not only inconveniences you, but it is difficult for your child who anxiously waits each time. Establish a rule that either parent will call if he or she is going to be more than fifteen minutes late. Some parents get angry and want to force the late parent to forfeit his visitation if he is late, but all this does is punish the child, who loses out on time with that parent.
It can be disconcerting to send your child off for a weekend with her father, only to find out that she spent much of that time with a sitter. Parenting time is meant to be used by parents. There are times when things come up unexpectedly; however, in general, the schedule should be designed to optimize time with each parent. If you’ve got things set up for your child to spend Saturdays with her dad, but he works every Saturday, this is a waste of time. First, design a schedule that maximizes both parents’ times with the child. Next, agree to give each other the first right of refusal for babysitting. This will ensure the child is with a parent whenever possible. It may also make sense to agree that the child will be cared for by a grandparent if neither parent is available. This is not to say that babysitters are not a good idea. It’s perfectly fine for children to have sitters. Instead, the point is that parenting time is meant to be used by parents whenever possible and whatever you can do to maximize that will benefit your child.
With some care, you can avoid co-parenting pitfalls and make the most of your child’s time with both of you.