Did you stay for the children? You’re not alone. Many couples stay together, thinking it’s in the children’s best interests. The truth is, an unhappy home is not in anyone’s best interests, including your children. They can tell when things aren’t right, and in the long term, they will feel more stability and security with two happier, separate households to call home. But how do you get to that point? On this blog I share five ways forward when you’re co-parenting.
1. Accept that it will be different
You may be feeling guilt that life has changed so much for your children. You may be grieving the loss of everyday contact with them. You may resent sharing them, if you find your ex-spouse’s parenting or lifestyle questionable. Give yourself grace. It is hard and there’s no getting away from that. It’s a big change for all of you, and you need to process your own feelings to be able to help your children with theirs.
It can be tempting to ‘go with the flow’ when it comes to co-parenting, especially in the early days. But I highly recommend agreeing some clear principles with your soon-to-be-ex to get the new normal bedded in.
A parenting plan is the most comprehensive way to do this, and you can read more about creating parenting plans here. At the very least agree a rhythm, with clear timings, to your week. Their other parent having them ‘every other Saturday’ isn’t clear. Get into specifics, such as ‘their dad will collect them at 9am on Saturday morning and I will collect them from his at 4pm on Sunday afternoon on these dates’. Clarity reduces the scope for arguments, or for the other parent to wriggle out of commitments, if they are the sort of person who is likely to do that.
2. Embrace good enough parenting
Mum guilt/parent guilt can burn stronger than the sun! And especially if your children are finding life turbulent through separation. But it’s important to be kind to yourself. Everyone wants ‘the best’ for their children, but the reality is that life happens. Whether that’s separation, illness, pets dying, friendships imploding, you can’t always protect your children from difficult events, and you shouldn’t, either. What’s important is that you help them get through strife, so they develop resilience.
Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t meet every single need or desire, or if you make mistakes. An important concept of ‘good enough’ parenting is resolving issues when things get tricky. If you shout, explain, apologise, and move on. If they are unhappy about having to spend the night with their other parent, listen, validate, and explain that this is what’s happening and you will support them through it.
Let them see that their world won’t fall apart because things aren’t as they’d like them to be 24/7. Let them know they are loved, that you have their best interests at heart, and that you are a team. We’ll look at how you can talk to your children to help them navigate divorce in a moment.
3. Set the children up for success
Most of us find change hard, and children are no exception. That doesn’t mean they can’t handle it. But there are strategies you can put in place to make it easier on you and them:
Communicate: be clear about what’s happening, as far as you can. If you don’t know exactly what will happen, be honest rather than guess. It will be easier for your child to deal with, ‘I’m not sure where we’ll be living in six months but we will be together’ rather than a promise you’ll all stay in the marital home that doesn’t come to pass. And don’t forget that other vital part of communication: listening. Your children may need to vent, they may have questions, they may have ideas. You don’t have to agree, but listening will help them feel validated and secure.
Involve them: your children can’t be in charge of the divorce process and the big decisions. That’s a job for you and your soon-to-be-ex. But, it will help them settle into the changes if they have some say in what happens. Maybe they can choose new bedroom furniture, or come up with an after-school routine for the Friday nights they are with you. Giving them some input and agency in an age-appropriate way can help them feel more on board with what’s happening.
Support: children may not have developed the emotional skills to cope with change effectively. Equip them to understand what’s happening and how to respond. You can do this through reading books together, sharing ideas and enlisting the support of professionals. Gingerbread has a wealth of information and resources on supporting children’s wellbeing here.
4. Parallel parenting may be your best option
Parenting plans and co-parenting are a great idea if you and your soon-to-be-ex are on amicable terms. They can also work if you’re barely civil but can agree to prioritise the children’s needs: they can act as neutral territory to ensure that the children experience consistency with both their parents.
However, if you have a high conflict ex, co-parenting is often doomed to failure. High conflict personalities weaponise anything they can lay their hands on, including arrangements for the children. They may not even realise they’re doing it. But you will find everything becomes a power struggle. They will twist what you agree (especially if you haven’t got the details pinned down). They will not stick to joint principles around discipline or other family rules, either because it doesn’t suit them, or because they want to become the popular parent, leaving you to pick up the pieces.
If this is your situation, you need to turn to parallel parenting. Parallel parenting means you and your soon-to-be-ex operate as two, distinct units when it comes to your children. You set the bedtimes, rules, values for your household and their other parent sets their own.
Accepting that parallel parenting is your best route can be hard. It isn’t what you’d hoped for when you separated. You’d wanted the children to have as much ‘normality’ and stability as possible. You didn’t want the rulebook to be thrown away when they were with their other parents.
I get this. It is hard. But, be assured, children can cope with different arrangements in different places. Just like they wear uniform at school but not at home. They will get to grips with things happening differently: and it may actually make more sense to them that it did when you all lived together.
But what if you have concerns about the welfare of your children when they’re with their other parent? Let’s look at that next.
5. If there are safeguarding concerns
What if you are worried about your ex-spouse’s behaviour? First of all you need to work out whether it is a difference in style that you are concerned about, or a safeguarding issue. If their other parent is simply more authoritarian or more permissive than you would like, it’s unlikely social services would act.
Your role in this case is to be there for your children. If you have a workable relationship with your ex-spouse, you could suggest having a meeting, alongside a mediator, to agree on some shared principles. Don’t attack the other parent, but position it as a way in which the two of you can achieve common purpose for the benefit of your children. If that sort of conversation would go down like a lead balloon, your job is to be there for your children. Work on their emotional resilience when they are with you. Reassure them that they are loved, and help them come up with practical strategies to manage their time with the other parent if needed. For example, if they are ignored, can they take extra books or games to play?
If you have concerns, speak to your child’s school, health visitor or social services in the first instance. Keep a log of everything the other parent is doing, including dates. Ask for help and take everything that’s offered (even if you don’t think it will be effective). The reality is you may not get the outcome you’d like: your children may continue to have contact with their other parent, even when you feel it’s unsafe for them. This is not your fault. Continue to be there for them, and seek professional therapeutic support for both yourself and them if needed. Continue to log everything that’s happening: you may be able to challenge the child arrangements with enough evidence, but this will take months.
There’s a lot more detailed information on supporting your children through separation and divorce in How To Be A Lady Who Leaves: The Ultimate Guide To Getting Divorce Ready. The fully updated third edition is out now and you can get your hands on a copy here.
And if you want to talk it through with people who get it, come and join us in The Absolute Academy. I’m in there answering your questions every week, and you’ll have the support of other women navigating divorce. It can save you thousands in solicitor’s fees and give you peace of mind in your decision-making, whether it’s about co-parenting or anything else.
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Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is the author of the Amazon best-selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready the online self-study and group programmes. Emma has been featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. Emma is also the host of The Six Minute Divorce Podcast. To find out more visit www.emmaheptonstall.com