In the book I have just written – How to Fall Apart – about putting your life back together after it falls apart (specifically in my case, your marriage), there is a chapter called An A-Z of How to Co-Parent. When I was originally writing this part, I got to I think F (“friends, you will need them now more than ever”), before I realised the absolute fallacy of attempting to write any sort of guide to co-parenting.
n general, I have found books on parenting (I have a six-year-old daughter) to largely be nothing but a source of stress. A mirror held up to reveal all the things I am failing at as a parent, according to a map set out by, on occasion, someone who doesn’t actually have a child.
Two weeks into my daughter’s life, I cast aside the Gina Ford book someone had given me in disgust, and have since relied upon the advice of friends. Parenting is, fundamentally, not territory that can be plotted out by a guidebook. It is full of so many variables, trying to follow some sort of prescribed plan is simply to sign oneself up for disappointment and frustration.
In fact, like any kind of parenting, the key to co-parenting, over anything else, is that you do what suits your family, whatever its particular state of togetherness or otherwise is. You do what works for your child. While the outside world may judge your efforts, everyone who has actually co-parented knows that most of us are doing our best, within the constraints of an at times very stressful, imperfect situation.
So I rowed back and changed that chapter. Never got beyond F. I have no guide to push. Nothing definitive to offer. But for what it’s worth, here are some things I have learnt, and found helpful.
1. Keep your expectations low
See where they are now? Lower them. I don’t mean this to sound pessimistic, or that you should lose hope. Rather that things are unlikely to work out as you currently imagine them to, and the more open-minded you can be going into co-parenting as to what will work, rather than having some fixed vision of how things should look, the more quickly, and less stressfully, you will get to a place of acceptance with the situation. You may never get to go on family holidays together. That might hurt now, but you will get to a place where you are okay with it.
2. Choose your battles
Some things are basics, fundamentals about how you want to parent your child, and are worth discussing, no matter how stressful that might be. Others you need to just let slide. Figure out which is which, and as quickly as you can learn to let go of stressing over much of the stuff you cannot affect. You will save yourself energy you can little afford to lose.
3. Decide when it’s over
If you’ve been struggling to make a relationship work for quite some time, then decided finally it is over, don’t expect that all of a sudden there is no grist to your mutual mill. You’re still the same people, you will still quite possibly butt heads over things. Things may remain heated for quite some time. This doesn’t mean they will always be this way. Both of you are raw and reactive right now, that will quite possibly pass. Try to find some other parents who are further down the line, who can offer advice on how they navigated this tricky phase, and help convince you that things will always not be so fractious between you.
4. Find other people who take the place of your spouse
Even if you are fully co-parenting, it can be nice to have other people in your life with whom you discuss the minutiae of your child. Who cares how they are getting on in school, what developmental phase they are currently in, what food they are refusing to eat. The boring stuff that typically only the other parent needs to worry about.
Co-parenting is a finely tuned balance of learning to do half the things on your own that you had imagined you would always have a partner for, and then finding other people to take the place of your partner with whom to do the other half of the things. Finding people with whom to hang out with on a Sunday afternoon is one of the best moves you can make. And not having to argue over who last did what domestic task, but simply shouldering the burden yourself, while at times exhausting, can also be on occasion satisfying. You just get on with things.
6. Have some big ideas ready
There can be a whiplash aspect to co-parenting; the back and forth extremes between it’s all you doing everything, to then it’s just you, all on your own. Right in the moment, after your child leaves to spend time with the other parent, the upset can be overwhelming, and you are unlikely to come up with a good plan. Have some ideas ready, whether that is something as basic as a bath, or a book already lined up, or more involved, like a friend who will know from regular contact when you are at a loose end and insist you meet, even when you want to crawl into your cave.
7. Figure out a schedule, as quickly as you can
In the tetchy, sometimes resentful, emotionally strained early days of a relationship falling apart, keeping things as clear as possible benefits everyone. This isn’t a situation for last-minute changes, or assumptions of flexibility. Knowing how the week looks will also help you and your child acclimatise to this new normal.
8. Road test
Co-parenting is like everything with children; what works now may change entirely in six months. Be open to the fact that you may need to road test some stuff, and change other things. If you can acknowledge this between you from the start, that it is better not to get too fixated on things being a certain way, it makes it far easier to broach the subject when change is required.
9. Make it about the kids
Try and make it all about the kids. The more you focus on the welfare of the children, the less room there is for other squabbles.
10. Learn Boundaries
Most of the time, when a relationship ends, two people go their separate ways. They tend to their wounds separately; once the business ends of separating out the stuff is done, they don’t need to deal with each other on a daily basis. A child changes everything. You knew your former partner better than anyone else. Then things went wrong. Chances are you might not even really like each other much right now. You’d happily never see the other person again. But you have a child together. You need to figure out a new way of being towards each other. You need to entirely unlearn the intimacy, and lack of boundaries, you had in your previous relationship, and learn an entirely new set of boundaries with each other. You need to come to know each other anew, as co-parents.
How to Fall Apart, a memoir about putting life back together after your marriage ends, published by Hachette, is available from all good bookstores now.
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