(see also Co-Parenting with a Difficult Person)
Imagine a situation where you have a last minute event that suddenly arises where you need someone to step in and take the children for a time. Imagine that you can call your ex, who is happy to help you out and get some extra time with the children, and imagine your children being excited that they get to spend some bonus time with their other parent rather than being left with a babysitter. Is this scenario possible? Absolutely, but it takes cooperation and a dedication to building trust.
Do not expect that at the end of a marriage or relationship that you and your ex can easily or instantly make this transition to healthy and beneficial co-parenting.
Often getting to this level of trust and cooperation takes work on both sides, and that work ideally begins immediately upon living in separate households. Unfortunately the “adversarial” nature of divorce and child custody proceedings means that parents are encouraged to track all the failures of the other parent and to use that against the other parent in arguing over allocation of parenting time. That fact, combined with the very long period of time that it takes from the beginning of filing a Motion or Petition to when the Court enters a final Order, makes it very difficult to effectively co-parent. The length of the litigation process and the adversarial nature of the process also set the stage for emotional hurt, personal attacks, distrust, and competition rather than cooperation. Never mind the fact that the litigation process takes place in a time of great stress, and few people are on their best behavior or have good self control in a time of great stress. So, how do we get from the end of a relationship or marriage to a good co-parenting relationship?
Here’s my advice, based on what I have seen that works:
1. Let’s Be Realistic About ... (click to open/close)
a. Being Realistic About Your Co-Parent:
As you may know from other portions of this site, I practiced Family Law with my father for a little over 8 years. One of his favorite sayings was “you picked this lemon out of the garden of love.” When I use that saying in this context, I mean this: the person you had children with is who they are, and you cannot expect them to change their personality.
If you had a partner who you felt placed work commitments ahead of child needs or child events, that partner is not likely to suddenly change their priorities. If you had a partner who was late for everything, that partner is not going to suddenly start being on time for everything. I think one of the most important things you can do to save yourself constant stress and disappointment is to set your expectations in accordance with who your co-parent is.
And help your children to set their expectations in accordance with who their other parent is. I am NOT advising that you tell your children things like “your other parent thinks work is more important than you are”, or “Mom/Dad is late again, like always”. Those kinds of messages to children are incredibly harmful, and should be avoided at all costs. What I am advising you to do is to plan around who the other parent is so that you aren’t setting expectations that the other parent is not likely to achieve, and that you plan around the realities of your co-parent.
So, for example, if you know the other parent is always late, try not to plan child exchanges right before you have an appointment somewhere. Also, try to plan child exchange locations where the children are not going to be bored waiting. If you have young children, consider doing the child exchange at a park or at a McDonalds that has a play area, so that the child won’t be disappointed if the other parent is late. If your co-parent has a highly demanding job, or has historically relied on you to do things like staying home with sick children or taking children to day-time appointments, then have a realistic conversation in advance with the other parent as to what their plan is for getting children to appointments during their time and during your time, or for taking care of sick children. In making that plan, try to help each other out and think of solutions that are going to be the easiest for your children, and that are going to encourage parent/child contact without becoming overly burdensome on one parent or the other.