The (Co) Parent Trap
It was Father's Day this past weekend, and I’m lucky. I’m blessed and fortunate. I hear so many stories and have connected with so many who are single parents and have very little or no support from the other parent of their child/children. Most of these are single moms, mostly because that's who I connect with and we form the greater part of this kind of population, but single dads who are doing it all on your own and rocking it without support, I see you. I feel such compassion if you’re in this situation regardless of whether you're a mom or dad; my ex-husband is a great dad, and he spends time with our daughter every weekend and at least once during the week. We talk through parenting challenges and do our best to ensure that she has stability and consistency; of course, with two different personalities (and two separate homes), this is an imperfect process, but what parenting situation is perfect?
I don’t take for granted the position I’m in when it comes to fatherly involvement in my daughters’ life. I have recently become a part of an inspiring group of women who are motivated, entrepreneurial, and elements for change, and they’re all moms, too. One of the things we were asked when we first started with the group as a way to get to know each other better was “what are you winning at?”. I felt like this was a pretty tough question, because I am better at looking at my flaws than my awesomeness (and know I’m not alone in this), but it didn’t take long before I realized that I’m winning at co-parenting.
Even though my separation and divorce have been heartbreaking and their presence in my life continues to whisper “you failed” at me, I refuse to bad-mouth my ex-husband in a public forum or to my daughter. Of course, when things fall apart, it’s easy (and often socially-acceptable) to fall into the trap of saying nasty things about the person with whom you had the falling out, but when that person is half of another human (or two, or three…) that I love with all my heart, it makes it harder to justify emotional and harmful outbursts.
Every morning, my daughter talks to her Dad on the phone, and every night, they video chat to say goodnight (and the opposite happens when she’s at his place). She was only 1 year old when our separation went down, but when we were together I called him every morning at work so he could talk to her, and it was important to me that there was consistency and that even though my life was upended, there was some stuff that stayed the same for her.
One of the best pieces of advice I received from a dear friend who went through very similar situations before I did was “your opinion of your ex is none of your daughters’ business”. And this could not be more true, and is advice that I have passed on an innumerable amount of times.
Imma gonna say that again, for the people in the balcony so you can hear me loud and clear:
Your opinion of your ex is none of your child's business.
No matter what happened, what’s happening, what your ex did or continues to do, how terrible you think (or know) they are, there are few things more damaging to a child than to have one of their parents say awful things about the other. In essence, what you’re communicating to your child is “you’re stupid to love one of the people that you love unconditionally”, and “half of who you are is worthless”.
Children are smart, they’re perceptive, and they can (and will) figure things out on their own and in their own time. Your job as their parent is to love them through things and answer their questions as they arise and in a manner that fits their current developmental understanding level. They don’t need you filling their heads with your biases and opinions that children can’t properly process. You wouldn't tell them about how you feel about your annoying coworker or impose on them how you are working through a terrible friendship, would you? That's not their role, and they're not built to process your emotions, hurt, or issues.
Your split with their other parent has nothing to do with them, so don’t drag them into it. When you bring down their other parent, you force them to negotiate emotions and issues that they shouldn’t ever have to deal with, and as their parent, it’s your job to help them become the most amazing humans they can be. Just like teaching a child that some races are better than others, teaching your child that you’re a better parent or that their other parent isn’t worthy of love or respect causes serious damage to their developing and impressionable psyches.
Let’s back-track a little.
I didn’t say that I’m a perfect co-parent. I didn’t say that it’s easy or that I don’t struggle with being put into a position that I never thought I’d be in. I didn’t say that I have zero resentments and that my ex and I never fight and I never slip up. In fact, one of the hardest things about splitting up with my ex is that because of our daughter, he will be in my life forever. There is no clean break, and no “end” to mourn, because we need to work together to raise our daughter well. I expect he feels the same way, because it’s difficult to navigate our relationship right now when our daughter has so many parenting needs as a toddler. It will get easier and we won’t always need to be in such constant contact, but right now it’s tough, and she will need a lot of parenting for a long time.
I’m saying that I work, really hard, to put my daughter first when it comes to my relationship with my ex.
That’s actually one of the other things I struggle with: that my life is so little about me, that so much of it is focused on her. Yes, this sounds (and probably is) a bit selfish, but as someone who inherently focuses on others, I find the inability to take time out for me to be extremely exhausting and overwhelming.
Focus on the Family Canada has an article called “6 things a child of divorce wanted her parents to know”, where someone whose parents separated when they were 18 recounts what they really needed through the process. She says:
I wanted honesty - even if it hurt: Children don’t want to find out the truth from overheard conversations or to have others tell them what you should have said.
I wasn’t “fine” emotionally: Children will put up walls to protect themselves or to not feel like a bother, but they need their parents to work to break through to them. They need permission to ask questions and to know they will receive honest answers. They need therapy just as much as you do.
I often felt caught between my parents: When parents make negative comments about the other, ask their child to relay information, or get upset because time is spent with the other parent, it contributes to feelings of resentment and frustration.
I couldn’t handle my parents’ emotional problems: Attempting to lay emotional wounds at the feet of children is too much of a burden for them to handle. Talking honestly about hurt can help with a child's healing and processing, but asking them to fill the role of counselor or friend makes them confused about their role and how they should feel about the other parent.
I didn’t enjoy the extra Christmas gifts: Material items don’t compensate for a divorce; children just want (and need) unconditional love and support, not competition for the best gift or more stuff in their lives.
I didn’t expect my parents to be perfect, but to show character: Children can see your faults, but they need you to admit mistakes and strive for character. They need you to use the tough times to grow and show your children how to grow as well.
Some experts say that as many as 90 percent of children from divorced homes experience some form of “mental poisoning” against the other parent. There’s a passage in the Bible where two women, both mothers, approach a King asking for a solution for a child they are fighting over. He offers to settle the dispute by cutting the child in half and giving each her equal share. Similarly, when we fight over our children and their love to the point of negatively affecting their feelings toward their other parent, we cut their hearts in half and ask them to heal their wounds.
Psychologist Douglas Darnall believes that prevention, rather than damage control, is crucial - because reversing negative effects on children (even as they become adults) is difficult. Even if we need to go so far as to protect our children from ourselves, we need to do everything we can to shield them from poisonous behaviour. Even allowing others to speak negatively of your ex around your children is poisonous- don't allow it.
Perhaps you’re thinking “But I don’t say bad things about my ex, Chiara. They say all sorts of awful things about me, and I don’t know how to manage it”. I hear you. It's not fair. You may think that silence is the best way to deal with it, and refuse to say anything at all about your ex, but that’s not an honest response and it’s not honoring your child's intelligence and feelings. According to psychologist Richard Warshak, if you’re the target of unfair, malignant criticism, it’s time to voice very careful insight into the other parent’s behaviour to your children. He advises that “before criticizing, you must be convinced that it is primarily for your children’s welfare, and not for your own satisfaction, and that the disclosure helps your children rather than hurts them”.
While avoiding saying negative things specifically about your ex, you could say things like “People say hurtful things when they are hurt” or “Your mom/dad is going through a tough time right now, and I know that it’s hard for you to hear these awful things. If you have any questions or worries, please know you can talk to me. I love you, they love you, and you are not part of the issues that are happening. I’m sorry that you have to hear negative things about me.”
Because this isn’t allowed:
If you are in the situation of having to deal with this level of negativity in your life that you’ve got no control over, I empathize with you. I have so much compassion for you. But please realize and don’t ever forget the POSITIVE impact that your actions are having on your children. They will figure things out, in their own time. They will see and they will learn.
Stay the course, be true to who you are… you are kind, you love your children, and you only want the best for them. Show them the way to go and how you hope they treat others, show them that just because someone is unkind to you doesn’t mean that you need to be unkind in return. Show them that they can do hard things, and that doing hard things takes work and persistence. Of course, they need to stand up for themselves, but the world has enough small-minded people who respond out of insecurity and fear. Be the example of someone who responds out of love and kindness, out of strength and security. Be someone your children will be proud of, even through your flaws, your issues, and your baggage.
Show them that you have baggage, that it’s ok to have baggage, but yours is all manageable because you've done the work and continue to do the work… it’s all carry on.
And show them some joy. Show them that even though you're hurting, you refuse to feel sorry for yourself, and that joy can be found in the toughest times.
If you need me, I'm here for you.