Strategies for Co-Parenting with an Uncooperative Ex

Almost six years ago, when the father of my children and I divorced, we wholeheartedly agreed to share joint custody of our two children, who were 3 and 6 years old at that time.

During our nine years of marriage, we had never argued about parenting philosophies or values. I saw no indication that parenting after divorce would be any different.

So, with the help of lots of books and research, I set about creating a lovely best-case scenario of how it would be after the divorce: co-hosting birthday parties, welcoming each other’s new partners into an extended and joyful family unit, sitting together at their school and sporting events while beaming with pride at the accomplishments of our beautiful children, and getting on the same page with mealtimes, bedtimes, etc., so that there would be as much consistency between our two home as possible. These are wonderful and healthy ideas, and many co-parents I know have achieved them.

But I forgot to allow for one critical variable in my lovely scenario. I had assumed that my kids’ dad would want to participate in this optimal arrangement.

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Shortly after our friendly divorce was completed, he informed me that our future conversations were to be confined to solely to the topics of scheduling and the exchange of relevant information, such as the results of their dental checkups. There would be no philosophical ‘meeting of the minds’ about parenting. He would parent our children as he saw fit on his time, and was not interested in my opinions or input.

I was horrified to think that our kids were going to be raised in two homes with no overlap. I had envisioned co-parenting as a bigger happy family spread out over two homes. Instead I faced the reality of parallel parenting—two separate worlds with no intersection except in a parking lot at exchange time.

That was almost six years ago. My kids have adjusted better than I could ever have imagined. Their worlds have expanded immeasurably—they have two new stepparents, and large extended families. They have stretched their minds and hearts in order to accommodate the wildly diverse values held by those they dearly love.

They are flexible, open minded, and think for themselves. They understand the relativity of truth—when my daughter was about four I overheard her tell a playmate, “Well, that might be true for you, but it’s not true for me!” They’ve learned how to discern what works best for them from a variety of options.

They’ve taken the lemons life gave them and made lemonade.

I’m writing this article to reassure those of you who have less than ideal co-parenting situations that there are things you can do in only one home (yours) that can make life better for your kids, and for you.
Here are some of my road-tested tidbits of advice:

1)Be available. Save your shopping, errands, etc. for the times they are not with you. When they first arrive at your house, just sit down. My kids usually join me for a snack at the kitchen table for about an hour, during which they unload their stories, complaints, news updates, school projects, etc. Sometimes one of them will sit on my lap, or my daughter will play with my hair.

Be still, and make yourself available for them to physically and emotionally reconnect with you. Give them time to re-calibrate to the rhythm of your home before you expect them to jump into chores or homework.

Of course, in order to be truly available for your kids, you need to:

2)Take good care of yourself. Get regular exercise. Spend time with a good friend or therapist who can listen without judgment to all your feelings. Write in a journal. Work through your anger and pain. Eat well. Don’t sacrifice your health or sanity thinking it’s noble or necessary for the good of the kids.

Just like they say on the airplane regarding the oxygen masks, secure your own lifeline before helping your child. You don’t have much to offer if your own basic needs aren’t being met.

3)Do not judge the other parent within earshot of your children. This may sound impossible, but let me assure you, it can be done. Your ex lives forever inside your children’s DNA. If you speak condescendingly about their other parent in any way, your child feels insulted. We may see the distinction and separation, but our children do not. Keep your judgments to yourself until you can safely vent them with your supportive listener from tidbit number 2.

It is imperative that you accept that there is more than one way to do things. I have a ‘no comment’ policy on what happens at their other house. I don’t ask them why it’s that way, or why their dad said this or did that. I simply acknowledge their communication in a neutral way, and reflect back whatever feelings they might be having. ‘Hmmm, sounds like you might be feeling disappointed about that situation.’ This way the kids can stay in their own experience and move through it, without feeling like they need to defend the other parent from your attack.

And prepare ahead of time for when your kids get old enough to become curious about why you got divorced. You’ll need a neutral and nonjudgmental answer. Here’s one I read somewhere during one of those many research sessions that I liked: Get out some pots and lids of various sizes. Show the kids how even when there’s nothing wrong with either the pot or the lid, not all of them fit together. “Mommy and Daddy just didn’t fit together in a happy way anymore.”

4)Do not judge your children’s feelings. Just listen. One day my son came home extremely angry about something that had happened at his dad’s. I followed my ‘no comment’ policy, not making his feelings right or wrong, but simply reflecting them back to him. Within a few minutes, the storm had passed. He gave a deep sigh of relief, thanked me for listening, and went out to play basketball.

There was no resolution, no problem solving, and nothing had changed in the situation. He just needed the freedom to vent his frustration, and to feel love and acceptance while doing so.

Telling him not to feel that way, refusing to allow him to speak of his father in my home, making excuses for his father, or jumping on the blaming bandwagon with him would have inhibited the clearing of his emotional energy. Just listen.

5)Teach your child to solve his/her own problems. In that idyllic world of healthy co-parenting, you can hold a family meeting with all of you present to address any problems. For those of us in the adequate but not ideal world of parallel parenting, that’s not an option.

Instead, I’ve helped my kids to learn effective communication and problem solving strategies, and we practice them in our home.

I do not intervene in any problems they are having with their other family. After reflecting back their feelings, I encourage them to speak directly to their father. Often, they decide not to.

This is hard for me to watch, but I’ve learned to let them take full responsibility for their actions and choices regarding their father. My job is to keep my own lines of communication clear and available for them.

6)Buy doubles. It’s embarrassing how long it took me to figure this one out—we had far too much stress about boots or snow pants or dress clothes being at the wrong house at the wrong time.

I finally went to Saver’s and Goodwill and spent just a few dollars on extra clothing. Now on exchange days, the kids have a choice. They can wear the cheapie clothes, and not have to worry about remembering to bring them back, or they can wear their good clothes, and the prospect of wearing the goodwill ones when they return helps them remember to bring them back. Problem solved!

7)Don’t use your kids as messengers, or ask them to speak for you or their other parent. And don’t think you can fool them, either. They know when you are plying them for the scoop on the other parent, no matter how subtle you think you’re being. And they hate it.

Unless you suspect abuse or neglect, what happens at the other home is not your business, so don’t ask for details. Of course you can listen if the kids want to tell you something, but don’t pry.

Don’t wonder out loud what Dad was thinking when he took them to McDonald’s for both breakfast and lunch. Don’t ask if Mom’s boyfriend went to Water World last weekend, too. If you really want to know, ask your ex and leave your child out of it. Kids hate being asked to spy for you. They may feel that giving these answers is a kind of betrayal, or fear that they will be punished for something that was not under their control.

(a little sidenote here: don’t ask your kids to keep secrets from the other parent. This puts them in a terrible position. If there’s something you don’t want the other parent to know about your life, simply do not tell the children about it.)

Develop a direct channel of communication between the parents. We use email, and before that we used the back door option on voice mail to send each other messages without ringing the phone. Some parents send a communication notebook or folder back and forth in one of the kids’ backpacks.

Just last night my daughter told me her dad wanted to know if I would take her to sports practice that would fall on ‘my day.’ I could see the relief on her face when I said, “Honey, don’t worry about that. I’ll talk to your Dad about it and we’ll work it out.”

8)and the corollary: Don’t speak for the other parent. Sometimes my kids will ask my why Daddy won’t let them spend their allowance the way they want to, or why he thinks this way or that.

It took more will power for me not to speak for my ex at the beginning, when I still knew him well enough to have an idea about the reasons why he did things. Now, I honestly have no clue what he’s thinking, so it’s easy to refer them to him for the details.

It’s important that you give the other parent the opportunity and responsibility to speak for themselves with their children. Don’t run interference. Don’t defend or protect the other parent from the true consequences of their actions. Let them explain to your child why they were late, rather than covering for them. The sooner your child faces the reality of who their parent is, the sooner they can get about their business of forgiving them and making whatever adjustments need to be made.

9)Free your children to love both of you without reservation or fear. And any new partners, as well. Please, do whatever internal and emotional work you need to do so that you are not threatened by your child’s love for your ex or stepparent. This might the most important tidbit of them all.

Show your child how a candle can share its flame to ignite other fires without losing any of its own light. Love is infinite—it cannot be diminished by sharing it with others. Let your child know that it’s OK for her to love both mommy and daddy, regardless of how they feel about each other, and that you are confident that she has so much love inside her that it can never run dry.

10)Be a storehouse of happy family history. If it is true, your child will love hearing that she was conceived in love, or that Mommy and Daddy were so happy when he was born. Kids with co-parents probably get to see them engaging in peaceful and productive, sometimes even warm, interactions. My kids hardly ever see both of us in the same place at the same time, and even less frequently do they witness an actual interaction.

My daughter was only three when we divorced, and has no memory of her dad and I being happy together. So I gathered some pictures of good times that included various permutations of her family forest (*it’s bigger than a tree – this concept came from a book in the resource list below), and I hung them in a big collage frame in her room. She beamed, and told me that her favorite was the one of me and her dad holding her when she was a baby.

And when she asks, I tell her stories about her birth, and how we loved her so much, and how we would take her on walks around the neighborhood together. Little, everyday kinds of stories, to fill in the blank places in her memory with joy.

That should be enough to give you a good start. Oh, wait, just one more:

On the hard days, when you’re tired or frazzled or overextended and you slip up, please forgive yourself and just start again. Be gentle with yourself … you’re doing the best you can.