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“For the Sake of the Children” Cooperative CO-Parenting During and After Divorce

Written by Pam Leo   
Sunday, 01 June 2008 00:00
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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.