Coping While Co-Parenting: The Many Things I’ve Learned

The best security blanket a child can have is parents who respect each other.

Emma is probably the most resilient child I have ever met. She had just turned two when her father and I separated. At first, it was incredibly difficult because she couldn’t understand how all of a sudden her mommy and daddy were no longer under the same roof. Her meltdowns at pick-ups were completely heartbreaking. She didn’t want to be with just one parent; she wanted us both—at the same time. I had also never spent a single night without her. There were nights I’d cry from the anxiety and pain that came from having to leave her with her father. But this was a consequence to our separation, and I’d have to bear with it because I’m not Emma’s only parent.

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The last thing I wanted was for Emma to develop a trauma because the two most important adults in her life couldn’t get their shit together. Why should she have to suffer the consequences of our decisions and actions? Staying in an unhealthy relationship was not an option for me, so I did my best to make sure her assimilation to this change was as healthy as possible.

Emma’s father and I have polar opposite personalities from different cultures and different upbringings. We do not have the same parenting style and as a consequence, we bump heads a lot. It’s taken nearly four years and a hefty attorney’s bill to establish an amicable relationship (even though there are moments when I really just want to lose my shit). This journey has been a true test of my patience and good will, one that will continue teaching me to ALWAYS be the bigger person for Emma’s sake.

There is nothing better for your family than for you to be at your best, for you to be at your own peace, for you to be showing them in every way who you are, and what you stand for.

I’ve become aware of the many things one has to practice in order to keep your integrity intact through co-parenting, especially if the other parent is difficult or simply does not have the same values or priorities. Some might seem like common sense, but when the wrong buttons are pushed and emotions take over, common sense and propriety aren’t really our first impulse, are they?

Not in any specific order, but here’s all I have learned thus far:

Your child comes first

Always. Every interaction between parents should be based on this. Whether or not things ended on bad terms, you still have a child to raise, preferably with parents who are on the same team.

Never speak negatively about the other parent in front of/to child

This requires so much awareness! You think  your child is immersed in playing with their toys or hypnotized by their iPad, but they are aware of everything you say and sense the tone of the conversations happening around them. It’s so easy to vent to a family member or friend when asked what’s going on with the other parent, especially when you’re being crazed by never ending battles. If your child is near you and you don’t have anything nice to say, your response should always be, “Let’s talk about it another day.” Some of those people around you will be relentless and will make backhanded comments or make faces, but this is when you need to communicate that you don’t want that kind of behavior around your child.

At the end of the day, the only person changing the child’s perception of the parent should be the parent herself/himself. Through his/her actions and words, the child will eventually understand the parent’s true intentions. 

Never act out of spite

And I repeat, NEVER ACT OUT OF SPITE. At the end of the day, the ones most affected by your actions are your kids. Keep your heart in the right place and make sure that your choices will be ones to make your kids proud, not resentful.

Conversations with the other parent should not have “colorful adjectives”

I remember being introduced to the terminology “colorful adjectives” in our first mediation, which was a complete disaster. Still run with emotions and big time ego, it was a complete waste of three hours. The mediator suggested we start using a court mandated application for communicating about our daughter. Things to avoid (colorful adjectives): curse words, derogatory remarks, backhanded comments or threats, etc.

Communicate consciously, state the facts and recommend a solution.

The great thing about this communication app (Talking Parents) is that it’s a court admissible record of your communication with the other parent. If they chose to ignore or offer a nasty response and don’t take the child into consideration, you have recorded it.

Respect the time the child spends with other parent

When Emma left to her dad’s for two weeks at a time during the summer, I felt like I was missing an extremity. It felt abnormal to be away from her for so long and of course, I worry. But the point of the summer schedule was for her to make up time with her dad and his family that she loses throughout the school year. I would not want for him to intrude on our time together, so I don’t intrude on theirs. I wait until our designated FaceTime call or I receive a random call from Emma throughout the day (I like to think it’s because she misses us). Seeing her and hearing her voice once a day is enough to calm my nerves and remind me to back off. I’ll follow up with a text to her father for clarification if she tells me she’s not feeling well or I find that something is off.

Promote inclusiveness and healthy relationships with other parent’s family or significant other

This has to have been the most difficult part of moving forward in trying to build a relationship with Emma’s father as a co-parent. Now if anyone’s met Jarred, you know that he’s covered in tattoos from his chin down, including his knuckles and feet. If you’re from the Latino culture, you would completely understand that the older generation harbors a complete distaste for tattoos and judging is instinctive. Jarred and Emma’s father met for the first time during a pick up and he was waiting at his house with four cops because Emma had said that Jarred hit her. Now I completely understand his concern, even though I know Jarred would never lay a hand on her. But as adults, wouldn’t the right way to have handled this was to have a mature conversation and formally meet the other man in Emma’s life?

And as our relationship grew more serious and we started living together, the more the animosity was affecting Emma’s relationship with Jarred. She’d come home telling Jarred that he wasn’t her daddy, even though no one ever forced her to call him daddy. But as a parent, you can’t reprimand your child for saying these things because a then three year old, and a now five year old, could not be guilty of outside influence.

One thing I have ALWAYS told Emma is that no matter who it is, if they love and care for her and earn her respect, they can be her family. I always give her the example that is mirrored on her father’s side. I ask her if his wife loves her and cares for her and treats her well? And her answer is always yes. I explain to her that if she ever feels the desire to call her mommy or anything similar, I would have no problem with it because she earned that right. I remind her that she is a very lucky girl to have such a big family that loves her.

There is no need to create tension in Emma’s mind and pressure to feel that she has to act or be a certain way to appease her parents. There are moments when you can see the battle she suffers when she wants to call Jarred daddy, but has to sort of explain to herself that it’s okay because she’s with us.

Through my actions towards her father and his wife, I have hoped to create an amicable interaction. I invited him and his family and his wife’s family to Emma’s birthday party. For Christmas, I got a little gift for their not yet born baby boy from Emma. This and many other little things I’ve done with good intention and sincerity because I want Emma to see that it’s okay to love people who are not blood, like family.

Today, we are on a good path. I think Jarred has proven to be someone special to Emma, even though the only person he ever needed to prove anything to was Emma. We are patient and sympathetic to her confusion, helping her understand the guilt she feels and allowing her the right to make these kinds of decisions on her own.

Support one another

Whether we like it or not, Emma’s father and I will have to deal with each other for about  another 12 years; if not, more. As adults we both made the conscious decision of bringing her into this world and took up the responsibility of being her parents. So why would I want to see him, as Emma’s father, fail? Why would I wish him any wrong? Now don’t get me wrong, in my frustration I have thought that it’d be easier if I didn’t have to deal with him—-I’m only human.

Today I feel like we have finally reached a place where we can text each other and say “Listen, Emma is being a pain in the ass and I had to put her in time out.” During the summer, for example, I had noticed that Emma was finally chewing her food and actually eating at a normal pace. I texted him telling him that I had no clue what they did when she was with him, but it worked and I thanked him for it.

At the end of day, we are a blended family trying to do what’s best for Emma. Keep in mind, this is not a competition of who is the better parent/stepparent; you’re a team.

Remind yourself that you are not the only parent

As a mother, this is such a difficult thing to do because you feel that you always have your kids best interest at heart—-and I do. Learning to let go has been rough, but I’ve tried my hardest not to lose my head over things I cannot control, especially when she’s in his custody (i.e. bedtime, mealtimes, how they spend their time). I have had to come to the understanding that he will never wish her any ill or would never put her in danger. As long as she is well-taken care of, he is doing his part.

Sharing the responsibility of decision making has also been something that I’ve learned to do. I was raised by a single mother, bearing all responsibility for my brother and I, but this was only the case because my father could give a rat’s ass. Emma’s father WANTS to be involved, he WANTS to partake in Emma’s life, and what gives me the right to take that away from him or from Emma for that matter? Because I’m Emma’s mother? No, he’s Emma’s parent too. Even if he didn’t pay child support (which isn’t the case) could I impede his existence in her life because Emma has the right to have her father in her life. I include him in every decision made, in every school event, in every issue regarding health.

It isn’t asking permission, it’s considering the other parent’s rights in your child’s life.

Others do not have a say in your co-parenting arrangement

Just like any other aspect of your life, there will always be people that will have an opinion on how you handle your co-parenting arrangement. The most common complaint I get is, “Why does it seem like Emma is with her dad every weekend?” My first thought is: what would I have given for my father to want to spend every weekend with me. Yes, I would love to spend time with Emma on the weekend, uninterrupted by routine, and I do at least one weekend of the month. And as Emma’s father once told me, this is a consequence of my decision of moving an hour and a half away from him. So we compromised and Emma gets much needed time with her father and his family.

Another biggie is child support *rolls my eyes*. This was definitely not my priority during our final mediation. I wanted to leave there and not ever have to fight over my daughter like she is a possession. As long as we left with a final custody agreement in place and my integrity in tact, I felt comfortable with the end result, even though it would take a lot of getting used to.

Compromising on a custody agreement and co-parenting arrangement is not to be built based on what others think is best for you and your child; IT SHOULDN’T EVEN BE ABOUT YOU. And sometimes doing whats best for your child means sacrificing certain things.

People aren’t always going to understand, but what does that matter when the only person you owe an explanation to is your child?

Children are not messengers and never pump them for information

It’s as simple as that. My questions to Emma go as far as: Did you have fun with Daddy? Did you eat? Did you poop? How did you behave? I don’t probe any further. I have already had serious conversations with her about abuse, and not because I think it goes on, but because I want her to know that its something she should make me and her father aware of in case it ever happens.

Whatever needs to be communicated to her father, I do so directly to him. Emma is never aware if I am upset or bothered by something regarding her father. It’s not something she should be concerned about. I don’t ever want her to think that she needs to feel the same way towards him.

Keep a journal

From early on our separation and once we started dealing with the courts, I started recording any incident that made me uncomfortable or just details regarding Emma’s everyday. Lately, her weight and health has been of concern, so I have started to meticulously record what she eats when shes with me and her weight at the end of the week.

When you have to discuss something that bothers you or try to bring a concern to the other parent’s awareness, you have to have specific details to back your point. Whether directly to the parent or because you are dealing with it through the courts, its imperative to support your concerns through real incidents. Hopefully, they’ll note that you aren’t doing so because you are bat shit crazy and vindictive, but because you have your child’s best interest at heart.

Things will work out…

I promise. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is the right thing. Continue to keep your heart in the right place and you will reap blessings into your life. Every decision you take, every action you make—one day, you’ll be held accountable by your children.

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