Co-parenting may be the ideal, but it's anything but for families like mine.
The first time someone told me that I needed to focus on "co-parenting" with my soon-to-be ex-husband, I was sitting across from a police officer in my living room. Divorce is hard, he told me, but it's always better for the kids when their parents cooperate with each other.
I had never called the police before but it became a familiar routine in the months that followed. Sometimes, my ex-husband tried to bar me from leaving his home on my designated pick-up dates and times, pulling my infant daughters out of my arms as they screamed. Other times, he entered my home without my permission and tried to engage in conversations about custody and visitation.
Once, I was using the bathroom when he began pounding on my bathroom door and screaming at me about finances and visitation as my children sat in the next room. On that particular day, as I sat across from the policeman, I tried to explain what was happening but the officer was insistent.
All of this conflict, he told me, wasn't good for anyone, and the police weren't going to keep coming out every time I called them. "You two need to learn to work together," he said.
The officer's unsolicited advice about the importance of co-parenting was soon repeated by my lawyer, the judges in our case, and even our mediator. No matter how many times I tried to explain that there's no such thing as working with my ex-husband — a man who has admitted to emotionally abusing me and whose first wife tells eerily similar stories — everyone involved in my case simply told me to try harder: "There are two sides to every story," they reminded me. "Your daughters need you to work together."
I wasn't the only one to be lectured about the virtues of co-parenting. It's common for stories to go viral about everyone from average Joes to celebrities "doing divorce right" by remaining friends. As divorcees, we are often reminded that we loved our exes once, and it's up to us to create a collaborative relationship with them for the sake of our children.
Unfortunately, in cases like mine, co-parenting is not just impossible, but the emphasis on achieving it can actually prevent parents from developing a more appropriate and lower conflict method of communication with their exes.
No matter how hard I tried during my divorce, my attempts at co-parenting were an abysmal failure. Every time that I tried to discuss our situation over email, my ex-husband took a hard line and refused to compromise.
These conversations were aggressive and triggering, bringing me right back to the experience of having been married to him. I felt helpless and like I was doomed to be tormented by his rigid demands and abusive methods forever — or at least until my daughters turned 18.
Eventually, I had simply had enough. I recognized that there was no point in trying to collaborate with a brick wall and that I was re-traumatizing myself by purposely engaging with a man who had abused me.
I went to therapy and learned about setting boundaries, and I decided to try a different approach with my ex.
My first step was to establish crystal clear boundaries between myself and my ex-husband and enforce them at every turn. In practice, this meant that I informed him that I would no longer respond to any in-person communication, phone calls, non-emergency text messages, or emails that weren't directly related to the children's needs.
I made it very clear that my home was off-limits, and I went back to court to designate a neutral, public place for our designated child pick-ups and drop-offs (thanks for being everywhere, Starbucks!). When my ex-husband tried to speak to me at these exchanges, I didn't respond and maintained my focus directly on the kids.
Likewise, no matter how incendiary or absurd his texts or emails, I did not respond at all unless absolutely necessary (and, no, arguing isn't necessary). Eventually, he stopped trying to engage me in-person and the volume of other communications declined dramatically.
As time went on, I began to create two separate worlds for my children. I didn't try to find out anything about what happened in "Dad's world," and I made it clear to my daughters that Mommy and Daddy have different rules and expectations, and that's OK. Daddy may allow them to jump on his bed, but that's against my rules. This made sense to them and they quickly adjusted to this concept.
To further solidify this idea, I always encouraged my daughters to talk to their dad about anything that bothered or upset them while at his home rather than just coming to me. My daughters were never placed in the middle or made to feel like they needed to rely solely on one parent for emotional support, and that created stronger relationships with both of us.
Although it's commonly accepted that the ideal scenario after a divorce is shared holidays and special occasions, I let go of the idea that I was doing my children a disservice by not celebrating them as a larger family unit.
While it's possible for all of us to celebrate them together, the toll it would take on me simply isn't worth the minimal benefit to my daughters. Instead, I tell them how lucky they are to get to have two Christmases and two birthday parties. This has created stress-free, relaxed holidays that all of us can enjoy (and my daughters certainly don't mind having double the fun!).
While all parents like to believe that we are critical to our children, and of course we are, it's also generally the case that either parent is able to handle things like routine medical appointments or day-to-day decisions for the children on their own. Since I'm the only parent involved with my oldest children, it felt unnatural at first to step back and let my youngest daughters' dad handle some of these appointments and decisions on his own.
However, I quickly recognized that it was best for all of us if they proceeded without tension or conflict. In an ideal world, when parents can't be in the same room together, they would alternate so that each one has the opportunity to handle appointments and be involved.
Unfortunately, in my case, my ex simply isn't willing to take a step back and insists on being present at every appointment or event. While this is frustrating, my sense of stability and sanity have still benefited from taking a step back periodically (even if he doesn't return the favor). There's no such thing as winners and losers in parenting, and creating a low-conflict environment is more important than winning any arguments.
Despite the fact that situations like mine aren't rare — in fact, it's estimated that less than half of parents co-parent effectively — co-parenting is still promoted to the majority of divorcing couples as the ideal. For many families, this relentless focus on co-parenting simply doesn't work.
Although no one ever talked to me about "parallel parenting" during my divorce, I stumbled across the concept a few years later. Designed for high-conflict couples, it's essentially a method of co-parenting that allows the parents to disengage from each other while preserving their relationships with their children. In my case, as I tried to create a workable solution for my family, I unwittingly employed parallel parenting.
Because my ex and I share 50/50 custody, we are each actively involved with our daughters. Parallel parenting has allowed us to move past the conflict to a post-divorce detente. It's not always easy to parent with an ex, but by creating and reinforcing firm boundaries and disengaging from toxic and destructive cycles of communication, my family has finally found a method of parenting that's realistic for our situation.