Few of us decide to have kids with the intent of one day co-parenting. When we’re faced with this reality, it can be hard to let go of the life you had originally envisioned for you and your family. Below are some things to keep in mind to ensure you’re doing the best for yourself, your kids, and your new co-parenting relationship with your ex. If you’ve read my last two columns you’ll know that this is a new-ish reality for me. I’m writing these as much for myself as for others. I’d like to believe I can step up and fulfill each of these with the same ease in which I’m writing them out, but the reality is that every day takes effort and some days I do better than others. Just keep going. That’s all we can do.
Be honest with kids
Kids know what’s up, and they know when something is wrong even when they’re very young; hiding it is only going to make them feel out of the loop. The trick is to include them in an age-appropriate way and ensure you and your ex are delivering the same message. It’s okay to start with something simple like, “Mom and Dad are feeling a little sad these days, but we want you to know that you can always count on us for everything you need.” Being direct and honest while trying to remain positive can also help: “Mom and Dad are each going to live in their own house now, but the cool part is you’ll have two rooms!” I recommend the book, The Co-Parenting Handbook for practical advice on how to do this and how to get specific when the time comes.
Create time away from kids to talk with your ex
Get a sitter and head to a neutral spot like a park or coffee shop where you and your ex can sit and talk without worrying about the kids. It’s extremely helpful to get out of your familiar spaces, especially the home that one or both of you may soon be vacating. It’s so easy to fall into negative patterns when the environmental stimulus around you is reflecting and reminding you of harder times. Get a coffee or a beer and change it up for more productive conversations.
Stick to a schedule
Kids thrive on routines and schedules. Come up with a schedule that works for your family, and then stick to it! This doesn’t mean that changes will never happen, but they should be kept to a minimum. If you’re supposed to drop the kids off with their dad at 5:00 pm, be there at 5:00 pm every time. Treat it like a job, but also work together for reasonable things that come up.
Be consistent with routines
It’s okay if you have different parenting styles, but you want to create continuity between the two homes about everyday routines. This depends on the age of your children, but some of the big ones are nap and bedtime rituals, how and where homework is done, screen-time rules, and general guidelines for consequences. You can’t have one parent grounding a kid for a month when they get in trouble at school, when the other does nothing.
Don’t badmouth your ex in front of the kids
Do not put your kids in the position of having to defend one parent to the other, or feeling like they have to listen to bad things being said about them. The divorce is between the two adults not the kids, so don’t involve them –ever.
Involve a counselor or mediator
Not every family needs counseling, but if you’re finding yourselves stuck please reach out. It’s possible you’ve fallen into unhealthy patterns of communication that will need to change, and it’s really hard to do that on your own. I speak from experience. Your children may also benefit from professional help, and their school counselor is a great place to start. Make sure they’re in the loop. Don’t wait too long hoping that things will get better. Get help. That’s what it’s there for.
Play the long game
Your ex will always be your kids’ parent, and your kids will always be your kids. Forever. Whatever is bothering you this week, or this month, or this year will pass, and in the end the parents will still be the parents and the kids will still be the kids. Think long term about how your words and actions are ultimately benefiting or hindering your child’s well-being.