When my marriage had an undeniable crisis, I discovered I was pregnant with my second child. I was terrified that I was about to give birth to another kid to whom I would eventually become a Single Mom.
I didn’t believe I had the personal resources to go it alone. I don’t have family support, I don’t have a lot of money, I was exhausted and low on energy, and my time was full with a 1-year-old. What I didn’t understand was the distinction between being a Single Mom and a Solo Mom. I hadn’t let myself imagine what would happen with their father; how and if he would stick around; or how I could get enough help.
The Father of My Children was relieved to get a second chance and wanted me to have the baby. We stayed together two more years—about the time it takes to get a baby into toddlerhood. At that point, the kids were safe, and we had time to take a good look at our marriage.
I was able to take an assessment of our finances, check in with my single-parent friends and my therapist, and calm my fears. I felt that I had to be able to look my children in the eyes the rest of their lives and know that I made the right choice in getting a divorce. As a parent, you take the risks and hits to make sure your children have the best opportunity to thrive.
I am the primary parent. The Father of My Children (whom I recently wrote about) and I have agreed to agree. But instead of me solo parenting, we decided in our divorce to take the complex, high-negotiation route of co-parenting. For the last few years, post-divorce, we have been transitioning to a shared co-parenting model.
Despite what most think, co-parenting is not just a definition about how the time gets divided. I have both single-parent and solo-parent friends who are not co-parenting. Co-parenting means communicating well, operating in trust, sharing resources and important days. It’s a constant negotiation, as is every parenting relationship. You don’t do it because you just love spending time with the Father of Your Children and his new partner—even if they are delightful people. You do it because it is the best thing for the children.
For us, in addition to schedules, the major points of negotiation are finances and power. Here’s where we’ve landed:
Because of the financial differential between me and my kids’ dad, he pays me child support, on time and decently. I try to be graceful about paying for more than I can afford of activities and afterschool programs, because it’s good for the kids and for my communication with their dad. I ask for help when necessary, like summer camp fees. I also contribute by being frugal and doing my homework to make what I have go farther—the same way I did when we were married. Now, again, he trusts me to do that.
As for the power dynamic, I’ve learned that to be a successful co-parent, I as a single mom have to let go and give my children’s time to their father—even when we are in disagreement, or when I might be distrusting him. As a result of not over-relying on me, I can hope that my co-parent gets better at parenting (because I’ve always been a good, and over-controlling, mom). But that conscious compromise about power and time is still, for me, better than being a solo mom, and for my kids, better than a life without their dad.
And then, as most people assume about co-parenting, there are the aforementioned time and scheduling logistics. I could sink into a fair amount of detail and nuance about schedules, because they’re complex, and a major site for negotiation. (Skip ahead if this is too tedious.)
In this co-parenting dynamic, I’m the planner. I create the Google calendar. I take his interests into account for him when I plan the schedule, because he is a lousy planner (except for that birthday party he did, which was great! Good job, Dad!). I ask repeatedly for his input on decisions and don’t take it too personally when he doesn’t respond. If his input is needed to do what’s right for the kids, I will simply ask again in a different way.
Our weird schedule, for right now, is that I get the kids roughly Tuesday through Saturday, while he takes them Sunday through Monday, and we trade every other Saturday night. This is based on the single factor that he works on Saturdays, so there is no such thing as a full weekend off or on for either parent. That is, remarkably, a drag. No weekend trips that are more than a two-hour drive, either with or without the kids. Not enough sleep-in snuggly mornings for anybody to feel full of love, either with or without the kids. Six days a week, each parent is waking up to a hustle. Their dad is on an academic schedule, which aligns with the public school schedule. I’m self-employed, and decided to continue to be self-employed, despite the lower earnings, so that my time can be the one to take the hit when either kid gets sick.
He gets them a month in August, or whatever works, to take them to his family’s cabin far away. I get Thanksgiving and Spring Break. He gets Christmas. Every year. That helps us plan. From my perspective, I’m getting the holiday of gratitude, while he gets the distract-us-from-the-darkest-time-of-the-year-with-toys holiday.
We keep a fairly rigid schedule, and only change it with a decent amount of notice. I’ve conceded more time away from the kids than I would like—not just due to co-parenting, but because the school year is overscheduled. Like any parent, I change my schedule to create more flexible time with my kids in the summers and holidays. Both their dad and I feel shorted on unscheduled time. I’d like every other weekend, but because of his work schedule, that isn’t possible at this time. Flexibility and compromise in co-parenting are paramount.
When it comes down to it, there is no ideal situation for co-parenting. We don’t raise children in tribes. There are the immediate considerations of the members of the family, and there are some precedents. Everything else is negotiated or created based on the needs of the children first, the needs of the primary parent next, and the needs of the secondary parent after that. Even in 50/50 co-parenting, power differentials are still in play.
When we have power struggles, the rule of thumb is that if it is best for the children, it’s best for everyone else. I test every power struggle by this rule. I catch myself being in the wrong more quickly than I might have otherwise, and can amend my behavior accordingly. At its worst, if an issue is really a matter of major medical or legal import, there are precedents that will quickly help negotiate the argument about which course of action is best for the child.
The great thing is this: We are known entities to each other at this point. When things go bad, he does this stupid thing, and I do that stupid thing. Humor is helpful. So is space and time. Sometimes he can grow into being a better person when expectations are released. Sometimes I can laugh off criticism, because I don’t hear it so often as I used to when we were married. As co-parents, we’re still in the relationship, even though the divorce is long over. I see my ex-husband more often than some of my closest friends.
Call me crazy, but as our transition to co-parenting has progressed, I’ve started to form a plan to schedule some group vacations. Co-parenting vacations to places we’d all enjoy, like the beach or skiing. I’d plan it so that the kids and I can have a part of a trip, and their dad and his girlfriend can stay sort-of nearby, and we can trade off some days. We can share some of the costs, and we’ll all get to share the fun. I’m realizing that if we can agree to agree, and share, there will be plenty for everyone.
Jennifer Chenoweth is an artist, entrepreneur, friend, and parent. At home in Austin, Texas, she loves creativity, process, connection and growth—whether in making art, parenting her two sons, or launching her latest project, GenerousArt.org. You can find her online at Fisterra Studio.