What is coparenting?

Posted on Apr 29, 2022 by Katie Carter

Co Parenting BoundariesOn Wednesday, we talked about ‘parenting time’ and what that means in a custody and visitation case in Virginia. Essentially, what it all boils down to is finding more correct – and less alienating – ways to describe the way families parent their children.

Though some of the more negative language is still in our lexicon, attorneys, judges, and others have tried to find ways to talk about family life that isn’t damaging or hurtful to the people involved. Instead of calling it ‘alimony,’ for example, we now have ‘spousal support.’ Instead of ‘visitation’, we have ‘parenting time’.

Coparenting works along those same lines. Instead of calling parents custodial and noncustodial, depending on the amount of time they have with the children, we often refer to both as coparents.

You can see why dads would like this language; it legitimizes their role in the child’s life, and potentially even supports their petitions for more time with the kids. But, as attorneys representing women exclusively, why do we use this verbiage, too?

Well, I think that language matters. Like, it really, really matters. It matters in terms of getting what we want out of a case, too. We see more and more dads petitioning for shared custody these days, even all the way up to 50/50 custody. Though there’s no mandate in Virginia requiring 50/50 custody (and, in fact, under the current rules, all types of custody, including primary physical, shared physical, and split physical, have to be equally considered), a lot of dads wish that it would be that way. Millennials, especially, embrace much more equal parenting responsibilities than generations before them.

But what if you don’t want 50/50, or equal parenting time, or whatever? Well, my mom always used to say that you catch more flies with honey. I think that using softer language – like ‘parenting time’ instead of ‘visitation’ – suggests that we’re not attempting to diminish his role in the child’s life. Even at the same time that we ask for, say, primary physical custody, but we do so in softer terms, it’ll be less likely to get dad’s guard up and make him respond more aggressively in response. Besides, it demonstrates to the court, the guardian ad litem, and any other professionals that you’re concerned about supporting dad’s relationship with the children – which, I probably don’t need to remind you, is factor #6 in the ‘best interests of the child’ factors in the statute.

It doesn’t look good to be callous about dad’s role in the kid’s lives, or to insist on using antiquated and prejudicial language. To adopt it ourselves shows our mindset in a positive way, and ensures that we won’t rile dad up to the point that he continues to litigate out of vengeance. It’s entirely possible that he just wants to see his role in the children’s lives respected and his involvement encouraged. Framing that discussion in a positive context can go a long way towards helping reach a settlement.

Of course, it’s not just words; you’ll need to back it up with action. And that’s where coparenting really comes into play.

In general, we use the word ‘coparenting’ to describe the way two parties parent together after a breakup or divorce.

Coparenting – just a general way of working together to raise a child with a partner you’re no longer romantically involved with – can look very different in different situations, depending on your continued relationship with your child’s coparent. (See what I did there? Though I do think it’s fine to refer to your coparent as your child’s father, too; that language isn’t inherently discriminatory.)

What is coparenting? Am I coparenting?

The court uses ‘coparenting’ – it seems to me, at least – as a catch all for all types of relationships where two parents share responsibility for a child even though they’re no longer romantically or financially or legally attached to each other.

The technical use of the word ‘coparenting’ describes a specific type of relationship, though – one where the parties work together for the child’s best interests. Together, they make mutual decisions for the child, support the child, and discuss with each other the best way to address ongoing challenges or concerns. If it sounds easy to hear me describe it, I hope that’s not your takeaway; coparenting isn’t some magical kumbaya type of parenting. It’s really hard work, like any parents ever in the history of the world will attest. But, ultimately, in a coparenting arrangement, the coparents work together – for the most part.

That doesn’t mean that there’s not some bumps in the road, or that the two never disagree, but ultimately they forge at least a basically respectful relationship with each other for the purposes of raising a child together.

That doesn’t sound at all like how my coparent and I operate. Is there something wrong with us? What if we can’t coparent?

That’s not the way it is for everyone, either. Based on the dynamics of your relationship with your ex, it may not be possible to really coparent.

Maybe your ex was abusive. Maybe he’s a narcissist. Maybe he has substance abuse issues. Or maybe you do. Maybe, for whatever reason, you can’t work together. You can’t talk to each other; it just ends up with fighting. Maybe coparenting is not for everyone.

That’s okay.

For those people, there’s also parallel parenting – which is what we use to describe a situation where each coparent handles parenting on his or her own, separately from the other, during the time that the child is in their care.

Some things still have to be decided jointly, especially if you have joint legal custody – like non emergency medical care, religious upbringing, and education. But that doesn’t mean you have to cooperate for other things, or discuss day to day decision making in your respective homes.

Would it be better if you could? Maybe, but also maybe not. If there’s no common ground, or if he uses it as an opportunity to continue to abuse, control, manipulate, or otherwise mistreat you, what good are you serving, anyway?

Ultimately, what works best for each family is unique, and you should feel comfortable establishing the kind of relationship with your child’s father that you need to be able to be the best mom you can possibly be. Parallel parenting is a real, valid, and potentially perfect choice, and one that may very well cause less damage to your child than continued fighting or abuse.

Don’t beat yourself up over things you can’t change, or waste time wishing your relationship with your coparent was something different than what it is. Come up with solutions for the situation that you’re in, don’t apologize for it, and be the best mom possible.

For more information or to request a copy of our custody book, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.