“You two do it so well!” I have heard this comment many times from friends who know both of us when talking about how my ex and I co-parent. It looks easy because we have an amicable relationship and we live close to each other so that our family logistics are simple. However, what people see is the result of the choices we make.
It starts with a conviction that co-parenting is about the children, not about us. Every decision is made through the lens of what is best for the children.
For example, we are an international family. When we separated we lived in Spain and shortly after that my ex moved to Brisbane, Australia. After a year on my own in Spain, I decided that my daughter, who was seven at the time, could not be so far away from her father so we packed our bags and moved to Brisbane. This decision turned my life upside down. Yet, it was the right one for my daughter. Most co-parenting choices are smaller, day to day decisions, but no less impactful to your children’s wellbeing.
Here are five behaviours of effective co-parenting.
1. Reinforce the relationship with the other parent
This means realising that no matter how sour your relationship with your ex may have become, they will always be your children’s other parent. Research shows that children benefit when both parents are actively involved in their lives. What seems a given when you are part of a family unit, requires intention when you are parenting apart.
Praise the other parent
It sounds difficult to do, even unfair. However, your children have parts of both of you. My daughter has a talent for music, so I have said many times to her “You get that from your dad”, she rolls her eyes saying “Obviously!” (I cannot string a note…) Or when talking about work, I say: “Dad is really good at what he does”. Think about the value that your ex adds to your children’s lives and spell it out for them.
Actively support private communication with the other parent
Whilst it is not OK to ring your children unexpectedly when they are with the other parent, you can acknowledge and encourage that your children contact the other parent when they want to share something. Things like, “Mum I got a B+ in English!!”, “That’s great, etc”, “Why don’t you call your dad and tell him?”
Encourage your children to participate in special days
My daughter loves writing down everyone’s birthdays on a calendar. She does not really need to do that because she remembers them all, but it is a ritual of acknowledging days that are important for those we love. My ex encourages my daughter to still do a card for me and buy me a present. Help your children remember significant days and reach out to the other parent.
2. Remember that they are children
Yes, they are children. They cannot adequately carry the burden of conflict between you and your ex. Shelter them from disagreements and conversations about child support and care arrangements. This includes not having these conversations within earshot of the children.
“I think you should live with me during the week, but your dad says no”. This is what I said to my daughter in a stressful response to difficulties she was having adapting to the arrangement we had made. It was wrong of me to portray myself as the better parent and blame him for not agreeing with my proposal. I regret having said it, I apologised and explained to her why. It turns out I was also wrong, the arrangement we have now is much better for her and also for us.
3. Keep the other parent informed
I have a friend who has been separated for many years and does not receive any direct information from his kids’ school. Everything goes through his ex. She mostly keeps him informed. However, she may forget to share, not think it relevant or simply decide not to.
Education or medical information needs to be received by both parents directly where possible. This makes it easier to understand what is happening when, and ensure that each parent has unfiltered access to important information. It also removes sources of conflict.
The golden rule is, however you do it, always provide the other parent information that you expect that parent to give to you.
You may think having a conversation with your ex is near impossible, or the Courts may have restricted your contact with the other parent. However, effective co-parenting requires that you regularly exchange information about your children. You may use email, a shared journal, a co-parenting app, text messages etc. You can choose how you maintain that communication in a way that suits you both and is consistent with Court orders, if there are any. But you must do it.
4. Be respectful of time
Be on time for transfers
One of the most stressful events in co-parenting is changing from one home to another.
You are trying to get the children ready and they are not being helpful, your ex is waiting at your door and steps in trying to be helpful, you are both talking to the children at the same time, one child is upset, you get upset, you are trying to remember everything and start telling your ex all the things they need to remember about the kids’ activities, your ex at the same time is asking you a question about next weekend and expecting an answer you cannot give while you are trying to detach the upset child from your leg and hand her over, you don’t want your ex to come further into your house, no matter how helpful he may be, you try to be quick and feel rushed. It feels like chaos. Those 10 minutes leave you feeling exhausted. There have been no arguments and no conflict this time, but who is to say that there will not be next time? Sounds familiar?
For changeovers to run smoothly you need to prepare for them, find a place and time that suits everyone and you both need to be on time, arriving to pick up and being ready for pick up.
Follow the agreed time-sharing schedule
This seems obvious but one of the common sources of friction in co-parenting comes from parents scheduling something in the other parent’s time without asking for permission. The thought goes, “(whatever is planned) is good for the children, so why would she/he say no?”. Well, spending time with the other parent is what is good for the children. Don’t assume the other parent won’t have plans or will agree with you, always ask with enough notice. You can exchange time if necessary.
5. Encourage relationships with extended family
My first memory of my ex’s family was a little intimidating. Here I was, in a new country, New Zealand, with our four-month old daughter, stepping into a large house full of brothers, sisters, uncles, aunties, grandparents and cousins. And then, the baby I had in my arms was taken from me and passed around to be cooed, played with, admired, and welcomed to the family. I was overwhelmed. Where I come from, people ask if they can hold a baby, even if they are family. I came to understand, and share, their sense of family. This sense of kinship, of belonging to a shared story. Even after separating, I feel part of my ex’s family and I want my daughter to know them and be part of that large story.
This type of open, broad family may not resonate with you. However, grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins, and step-siblings bring diversity and richness to children’s lives. When you separate, these relationships may suffer. Sometimes it is just because they now require more organisation and more effort on your part and life gets in the way.
There are small things you can do, however, to maintain relationships with extended family, both yours and your ex’s.
- Have photographs of the other parent and your children in your home
- Have photographs of extended family, yours and your ex’s.
- Allow regular access to the other parent’s extended family, even if it is just through video calls.
- Encourage your children to remember important dates from their extended family, like grandparent’s birthdays, and call or write on that date.
As I write this I think that some of you may dismiss these efforts because I stated I have an amicable relationship with my former husband. Yes, that is part of it. However, I put it to you to think it the other way around. I have an amicable relationship with my ex BECAUSE I strive to do all these things. And he does too.
It is possible. And your children will thank you.
Are you ready to make the necessary changes to help your family thrive?
Your children thank you!