Working together with your child’s father isn’t easy, especially after you’ve decided that your future plans really don’t include each other. Breakups and divorces happen all the time, but, ultimately, the impact that these things have on your children is up to you. You know, or at least you probably already suspect, that your future life WILL include your child’s father – that particular fact is something that you probably realized right around the time you birthed your first child.
Even if you don’t stay together, there are tons of events for the kids – while they’re young, there are parent teacher conferences, sporting events and competitions, holidays, birthdays, and other shared experiences. As they grow up, there’ll be graduations, weddings, grandbabies… In short, all the things that make up a life will happen, both to you and to your children, and your child’s father will, forevermore, share a part of those events, whether you like it or not.
Coparenting successfully isn’t easy. In fact, it’s really, really difficult. It’s difficult even for married people who love each other! In almost every situation where I’ve talked to parents, both personally and professionally, they allude to some of these difficulties.
Parents don’t share the same experiences, backgrounds, or views on raising children. I often hear that moms are too lenient, while dads are too discipline-driven. Parents have different opinions on how to treat medical diagnoses, whether to baptize their children or rear them in a certain faith background, whether to send them to public or private school (or even homeschool them), and on and on and on. There are as many different opinions on childrearing as there are issues that come up during the course of the average child’s childhood.
Hey, it’s normal. We all have different backgrounds and experiences and socioeconomic levels, all of which inform our decisions about parenting and drive our assessments of what is important to us. It’s unrealistic to expect that we’d all just completely agree on parenting!
Unfortunately, though, these issues are often exacerbated with a divorce or a break up. In many cases, I think this has a lot to do with the fact that the time you formerly had together becomes split into “his time” and “her time,” and there isn’t necessarily cohesiveness between those periods. Where you might have been able to insist on certain standards when you and your child’s father were together, it’s harder to do that when your child and his or her father aren’t physically with you.
I see a lot of moms doing whatever they can to get their child’s father to follow their rules even when the kid is out of their care. I see tons of agreements where moms try to get dads to do things – like follow a no sugar diet, guarantee an 8pm bedtime irrespective of anything else that might be going on, disallow movies rated higher than PG, restrict types/categories of gifts given to the child, etc – on their time that coincide with the way mom wants the child raised.
I’m a mom, too, so I get it. I have very strong opinions about certain things (like no screen time under 2, and very minimal screen time thereafter), too. It would be hard for me to think that someone else could un do what I’ve been trying to do, and that my child might be harmed in the process. (After all, increased screen time really does seem to have bad consequences for children! Seriously, this is important to me.) All of these types of things go to the root of the type of mom you want to be, the type of childhood you want your children to have, and the way you’d like your children raised.
If you want to coparent successfully, though, you’re going to have to let go a little bit. There are some truths that those of us who are experienced in handling custody cases have come to accept, and it’s probably a good idea for you to begin to accept them, too.
1. You won’t be able to control how he parents on his time with the kids.
You can be creative and come up with some specific terms that govern how you plan to raise your kids, but you’d be hard pressed to come up with an elaborate arrangement that governs his every waking moment. Generally speaking, the court feels that each parent should be able to parent the way they want on their own time. He can’t dictate what you do, and you can’t dictate what he does.
Of course, there are exceptions – certain things you have to discuss and agree on. Specifically, anything that relates to legal custody (healthcare, religious upbringing, and education) should be discussed and jointly decided on. But other stuff – like bedtimes and sugar consumption and, yes, screen time – well, each parent gets to parent on his or her time, without interference from the other parent.
2. Coparenting classes or coparenting counseling can really help.
Courts order coparenting classes in some cases, but, even if it’s not ordered, it can be really helpful. Navigating these new waters is tricky, and you’re not the only ones to have stumbled a little bit. There are often growing pains, too, and working on coparenting – whether in a class or through counseling – can help make sure that you work your way through establishing this new normal.
3. You don’t really want a judge or a GAL to decide what happens with your kids.
That’s…scary. Especially considering we’re talking about literally the most important thing in the world – your kids.
Though I think GALs are often great, there’s also no denying that there’s a huge risk involved here. Will you damage your kids? I think it depends on how a lot of factors work together – like how nasty the situation is at home, who the GAL is (some have a heavier hand with kids than others), how the situation works out…
Sit and think about it. If the GAL asks the child where he or she would like to live, it sets up a really harmful internal conflict. Should the child be honest? Will it hurt one parent or the other? And then, if what happens IS what the child wants, then the child thinks that he or she is all powerful, and can change these things based on a whim (think: “I’m going to tell the GAL I don’t want to live with you anymore because you’re a mean mommy!”). If what happens isn’t what the child wants, then the child feels powerless (think: “It doesn’t matter what I say, nobody cares what I think anyway.”) Depending on the sensitivity of the child, there can be serious consequences here.
Don’t get me wrong. Guardians ad litem are great in many cases. And, really, I don’t know a better system or a better way of talking to a child without having them testify in court (which would be WAY more damaging). But there’s no doubt that there’s some cost to all of this, and its generally the children who pay it.
Coparenting successfully is really important. It’s not easy, though, and it’s something that you’ll likely have to work on. For more information or to talk to one of our attorneys about how to coparent, finding a coparenting class or a good therapist to work through some of your coparenting issues, or to schedule a consultation , give our office a call at 757-425-5200.