The word co-parenting is a lie, really.
Co-parenting is generally defined as a parenting situation where two or more adults work together to raise a child even though they are not necessarily the biological parents, living together or in a romantic relationship. This implies a kind of rosy glow over the group and kindly includes stepparents and others as well.
But, in my experience, co-parenting doesn’t always mean two people working together.
In our house, for a long time, co-parenting meant one person working alone.
Co-Parenting seemed easy
I naively thought when my children’s father and I divorced, we’d both come to the table ready to parent in the way we had before we separated. I’m not sure what prompted that thought; probably overly romantic Hallmark movies and a hefty dose of viral photos of parents teaming to get childhood right for their little ones.
You can imagine my surprise when my ex stopped speaking to me shortly after our divorce was final. At first, I sternly lectured him on the benefits of co-parenting. Then, I began to plead with him, painting weepy pictures of our children’s future as the unfortunate offspring of warring parents. All of this transpired via email and text, of course, given he was dropping the children off in the driveway. None of it worked. Some of it prompted responses I can’t print here.
I began to get angry
I decided if he wasn’t going to respond to my texts and emails, I wasn’t going to share pictures of my time with the kids. I began to think about time as mine and his. If he wasn’t going to be flexible to cover my work travel, then I was going to make sure he had a clear idea of just how the child support I paid tied to days the children slept in my home.
No reason to put myself out there. No reason to make extra effort when he was making none.
I somehow forgot the three reasons spilling cereal in my kitchen.
I began to operate independently
I didn’t share the information I got from the school. If he wanted it, he could ask for it. I didn’t plan after-school sports enrollment because he wouldn’t answer me. I planned my time with the kids, and I presume, he planned his.
The children began to fill the space between us
Caden wrote himself notes about what was happening at school to be sure to tell both of us. Simon began asking for pictures of the special fun we’d had together, and I would often see those texts forwarded to his father. Lottie began to worry about what nights she spent where, and whether we were being fair and honest with each other.
The tension and anger weighed heavily on their narrow shoulders. It’s hard to carry adult burdens.
I told myself my ex was the reason we weren’t co-parenting
I saw what was happening to our children. I knew their behavior was a result of our friction. I blamed their father for not speaking to me, for starting it all, and got angrier. I withdrew further, until Caden started having trouble sleeping and Simon’s stomach was perpetually upset.
I told myself this story: I was ready to co-parent. My ex screwed that all up when his anger and resentment stopped our communication. When he got better, so would I.
That story was a comfortable one, because it absolved me of any responsibility. This wasn’t my fault. I was ready to change as soon as he did. I was the hero, and the victim, and he was the villain.
Except…I was wrong
My children were the victims. And their father and I were equally villains and heroes.
It took me a long time, and lots and lots of sitting by nervous kids with stomach aches late at night to see our situation a different way.
I’d been thinking of co-parenting as an arrangement between their father and me, one where each of us had responsibilities. In my mind, he wasn’t shouldering his responsibility to me, and thus I had no accountability to him.
But it wasn’t about him and me. I wasn’t accountable to him.
Co-parenting is an arrangement that exists for the children.
It didn’t really matter what their dad did. Not speaking to me was his choice, made in his new house. I couldn’t control it. I controlled only what happened in my house. And in my house, I was a resentful, angry mama hidden behind a mask of “It’s just fine, Sweetheart. Mommy’s just fine.”
No one was fine in my house.
I needed a different way to support my children.
I got help
I began to talk to my counselor about my grief, both the divorce grief and the grief that we were failing our children. I learned how to manage my emotions so that I didn’t spiral into Negative-town every time dad didn’t come to the door. I began to redefine my ex as my future parenting partner rather than my past romantic partner.
It wasn’t easy
I worked to change my language and to visualize a different future.
I failed often. Once, after two drop offs that didn’t trigger anger, I completely regressed and found myself nearly chasing his car down the street. It wasn’t my finest hour.
I kept practicing. I worked to see him as the man he was today, not the man I’d shared a life and bed with. I worked to see him as my children saw him. I remembered people change, and that just as I was changing, he could too. I worked to allow him grace.
I remembered what I showed my children was up to me.
Little by little, things got better
Better able to control my triggers, I was no longer held hostage by every text or email exchange. My neck and jaw didn’t tense when he didn’t come to the door, I accepted that what he did or didn’t do was about him, not about me.
I started to send him pictures and invite him to dinner, even if I got no response. I began to be able to share our children’s view of their daddy because I no longer held onto my own outdated perceptions.
I began to be the mother I wanted to be, the happy co-parenting partner, even if their father had not arrived in the same place. That mother was the best version of myself I had to offer my children, and they deserved her even if she wasn’t part of a matching set.
Our story could end here
As my best self, I was comfortable in my house and in my skin. I’d rid myself of the tension and anger about my ex’s behavior. I’d reframed him as my children’s father. We owed each other nothing. What he chose to do was up to him.
Our arrangement wasn’t entirely comfortable. I’d smile and sit next to him and be greeted with stony silence. I’d send pictures and texts and get nothing or worse in return. It was awkward, but still vastly better than where we’d been before. One parent hating the other is better than two.
Our story doesn’t end here. My children’s beloved daddy was on his own, one-man co-parenting journey. Today, we coparent together. but many years ago, we each began alone.
Co-parenting can work with just one person.
This post originally appeared on This Life In Progress.