Finding the secret to respectful, civil and constructive co-parenting is important for your kids.
The reality of how my kids’ mother and I were, and are, as parents really surprised me. Our personality types and general approach to life ended up being the opposite to our parenting styles.
Before our first came along, I assumed we’d continue in a similar vein: me as the quieter, more relaxed and sensitive one, and my then-wife as the more driven, firmer and more ‘in charge’ person.
Those personalities and roles worked well for us as a couple. In fact, they were a large part of what had attracted us to each other in the first place. My overall calmness and unflappability balanced her more overt and outward tendency to take control.
As we created our family and brought children into the world, I assumed we’d be those same people in our parenting roles, too. But that could not have been further from the truth.
Mum and dad do it differently
As parents, we almost swapped completely. My kids’ mother was ‘less rigid’ as a parent than she was as a person. She gave more leeway to our children than I expected, and was more accommodating.
Things like re-entering a baby or toddler’s room if they won’t go to sleep placed our views in stark contrast.
I felt an infant and toddler should be tucked into bed, bade a good night, and left to go off to sleep, even if they grizzled. I’m a subscriber of self-soothing for general sleep resistance.
My then-wife, however, felt differently.
Her approach was to re-enter our child’s room, often turning the light on and talking with them, and try to soothe them herself.
I’m not saying either approach is right or wrong — everyone will have their own view — but that sort of thing placed us into roles quite the opposite of each other, and my expectations before kids.
Over time, I found myself taking on the role of the firmer parent. That wasn’t because we felt we’d work better as a ‘good cop/bad cop’ duo, but if I’m respectfully honest, I felt a slightly sterner hand was needed in some areas.
Like manners, for example. I was raised to be exceptionally polite — to use please and thank you like confetti; to offer to clear the table when having a meal at someone else’s home; to hold the door open for others; to always show gratitude when someone had been considerate or given you something, no matter whether you liked it or not.
I found myself, right from the time my kids could mumble, encouraging them to say please and thank you EVERY TIME they should. And to be helpful if they could be.
That’s not to say their mother was the opposite, as she also wanted our children to be polite and respectful — it was just less of a focus for her, and the reinforcement of this kind of thing was less frequent from her.
But in me being firmer with those things, it permeated across into other aspects as well, like setting clear boundaries about what was acceptable behaviour, and what was not.
Everything’s so much harder as co-parents
As part of a united parental front, my kids’ mum and I made it work without too many issues.
We had differing views in some areas of child-raising, sure, but we both generally supported each other and reinforced similar things.
When we decided to separate, that changed. We could have expected that, or been more prepared for it. But that’s hindsight.
Living in separate homes, we were effectively parenting in our own styles when we each had our children with us — the other person wasn’t there either as a sounding board, or counsel, or counterpoint.
I felt like I needed to repeat the general rules every time the kids arrived, as though they were given too much rope at their mum’s place. I say that’s how it felt, not necessarily how it was.
And it made is difficult for both of us as individuals, and for our kids.
Our solution: the communication book
Early on after our separation, I was talking with a friend who has worked with separated families as they transition.
This friend suggested my former wife and I think about whether we might find it useful to have a ‘communication book’.
This was explained as an exercise book that goes wherever the kids go, and any notes or information relating to the kids is written in it for the other parent to see and note for themselves.
Things like if one child has a cough and what medicine they’ve been given, or if any of them have been difficult and had privileges withdrawn for a time, and so on.
I jumped on board that tool as a means to better share things as co-parents.
In time, my kids’ mother similarly embraced it and we’re now mostly very good at communicating the things we need to so we can raise our children with a level of cooperative support and a combined approach.
Separation can be toxic to good parenting
For any couple that separates, there are all sorts of emotions racing around inside, but you need to compartmentalise that and keep it away from the children.
Overall, we have been pretty good at this. But on the odd occasion, we have both allowed our feelings of sadness, anger, loss and hurt to get the better of us and taken it out on our co-parent, in front of the kids.
With help from my psychologist and GP (both parents), I worked a lot on managing that.
I learned how to move through and on from those negative feelings, and successfully address them so they don’t impact on our role as co-parents. My former wife seems to have as well, and we’re respectful, civil and more recently, very constructive co-parents to our children.
What about mediation?
We’ve not reached this point, thankfully, though if we ever do have wildly different views on anything to do with raising our children — such as choice of daycare, kinder, or school; the balance of extra-curricular activities vs schoolwork; whether religion is part of a child’s upbringing (that can of worms); good disciplinary actions, etc — mediation is an option.
Relationships Australia (RA) is a community-based not-for-profit organisation that offers all types of families support through counselling, mediation and education programs.
I know people who have drawn on their mediation services and had some positive outcomes from that, and while I’m optimistic my former wife and I will be able to work through any co-parenting challenges we have, if we’re unable to, there is support such as RA out there.
Co-parenting doesn’t have to be impossible
The wounds of a relationship breaking down can linger for a long time, and as human beings, we are all emotional creatures. Yes, all of us!
But all parents owe it to their children to raise them in the very best way we can. If that means using an exercise book because conversations are difficult or because there’s too much information to remember all at once, or getting some help through mediation, then so be it.
There’s no book on being the perfect parent and raising the perfect child, because both things are a myth. At the end of the day, we’re all winging it to some degree.
READ MORE FROM JC CLAPHAM:
- I had to walk away from my marriage and job to be a better dad
- How I created a new home for my kids after my separation
- How I coped when my kids’ step-dad came to stay