Co-parenting is a relationship built off of another relationship. Better defined in the dictionary as sharing the responsibilities of a child. Therefore, what do those responsibilities detail, and what makes co-parenting such a taboo-related partnership? In my situation, my responsibility is to make sure that my child grows up feeling as normal and as loved as possible. This also means setting aside my anguishes to make sure my daughter never has anguish herself. Unfortunately in the beginning it is better often said than done.
Rarely do we have the opportunity to see our divorced or separated parents in the same room, nor do we have the benefit of having them speak kindly to or about each other for that matter. Why? – Well, a couple of reasons. For one, in most cases, you have two couples that have decided that they no longer want to spend another day together anymore and wish to go their separate ways. Therefore when reality kicks in and they realize that they have to spend the next eighteen years together, that can be quite a surreal experience. Think about it, for those of you who are in a relationship without a child, if you were to break up with your partner right now, you have so many options to remove that person from your life. You can delete their number, their photos from your phone, you can block them, remove them from social media, you can even move away. However when a child is involved, whereas you can still delete their photos, you kiss the rest of those options goodbye. You are both here to stay.
So how do you deal with this hyperbole shogun wedding? Being forced into a partnership can mess with your mental health and sense of freedom. Research suggests that parenting a young child can be especially demanding and challenging, which is associated with parental stress and depression (Matthey, Barnett, Ungerer, & Waters, 2000; Perren, Von Wyl, Bürgin, Simoni, & Von Klitzing, 2005). Roughly 15 million children (about one in five) in the United States live in households with parents who have major or severe depression, and about 5% of parents in the United States who live in two-parent families with their children report two or more symptoms related to depression (Child Trends, 2014). Being a parent is challenging enough, and doing it alone raises that challenge to a whole new level. The challenge goes back to those factors, mental health, and freedom.
Mental Health: Imagine dreaming of having a kid with your partner, and imagine that dream turns into reality. Suddenly your mind races off to the future, and you plan all of these events and moments in your head that you can’t wait to do together as a family. But then further imagine that dream is suddenly halted by the ending of a relationship. A mutual breakup is getting off easy, but often it can be one person over the other that believes things should come to an end. A breakup already can be mentally draining, and at least for right now, those dreams that you imagined doing together, you are now doing alone. The budget that you had for having a child is now cut in half, and the relief that you relied on when you were in need oftentimes is no longer there. Now your mind races with different thoughts. Thoughts like making more money, what do I do about daycare, will my child like the other more than me, I feel like I need to do more, am I doing enough, fear of rejection, fear of spoiling, fear of punishing, fear of abandonment, fear of judgment, fear of being alone, and the feeling of regret. It all starts to weigh on you. Bit by bit you can push yourself into anxiety, depression, and anger. Especially, when a step-parent comes in to play.
Freedom: When you found out you were having a child you came up with all these ideas in your head about you wanting to raise your kid. In most cases, the principles, morals, and beliefs that you had, you always planned on figuring it out with your partner as time went on. However co-parenting is not that simple. Some parents like myself have ideally, 50-50 custody where decisions, (legal and physical) are demanded to be figured out together. In other cases, one has more authority over the child than the other. But in all cases, you will rarely have a unanimous consensus on how your child should be raised. Vaccines, hair, school, beliefs, etc. are all decisions you must get approval about from the other parent. Depending on how your relationship ended or started, there may be cordial agreement or perhaps a petty array of ignorance and dismissive responses. However, for those who have watched the movie, Mrs. Doubtfire, we know the most troublesome feeling of them all, is the loss of freedom to see your child every single day as you have once had or imagined. Sharing responsibilities of your child also means sharing custody of your child. Speaking from experience there is nothing more painful in my life than not waking up every single day to my little girl and only having her 50% of the time. Going to court, standing side by side with a woman that I once loved, fighting for my freedom to have a life with a child that I always imagined having together; it is a pain that no amount of words I type up could summarize the feeling in my heart.
Those are some of the challenges that arise from being a single parent. But the challenge doesn’t always need to be lost, it can almost always be overcome. How? – Well, call it cliché, but it is acceptance. You must first accept the things you can not change, change the things that you can, and discover the wisdom to know the difference. As Robin Williams once said in Mrs. Doubtfire, “You know, some parents, when they’re angry, they get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time, and they can become better people, and much better mummies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t.” No matter what the outcome, how you choose to move forward will not only affect your future but your kid’s future as well. Children, know an actor when they see one. They can love a performance or hate one. As much as your kid may not listen to you, they have a good sense of them. They know when you are sad, angry, fake, real, kind, vengeful, spiteful, and even hateful. Just as they mimic your words, they can mimic your actions. It is not enough to just co-parent, you must co-exist as well.
During the early year of me and my daughters mother separating, all the toxic and spiteful behaviors of young early 20 adults were in full swing. Depression was creeping up behind me as it left scratches on my back from trying to catch and paralyze me. As rent and lawyer bills surrounded me; I felt out of control, hurt, heartbroken, confused, and a profound uncomfortable sense of feeling lost. I remember dropping my daughter off to her mother, no words spoken, and coming home to an empty apartment and an empty crib in the other room beside me. That was when the depression finally caught me. I sat on my couch paralyzed with no visible emotion, and yet feeling a swirl of emotion inside me. When I stood in that courtroom beside her mother, I was flashbacked in time to a moment where I stood in another courtroom, this time watching my parents standing side by side vulgarly fighting for their definitions of what it means to be co-parents. I didn’t know it then, but that moment would affect my future relationships moving forward. It was at that moment I decided to do something that I haven’t thought about doing from the moment we broke up, something that my parents never thought about doing with each other… apologize.
Your emotions can sometimes blind you from doing the right thing. I called my daughters mother and I explained (whether I meant it or not) that I was wrong. I called for peace and asked to go to dinner. We met and spoke at length on how we should move forward. And since that day, she and I have never once crossed a line with each other even in our most emotional disagreements. To this day, we argue but don’t fight. We disagree, but never too often. We have cordial hello’s and goodbyes and at times share events that have happened when the other parent is not there. We recently hit a once thought never to occur milestone of us spending our daughter’s 3rd birthday together at a kid’s indoor playground. I am confident in saying that neither myself nor her mother has or will say a bad word or sentence about the other parent in front of our child. There are good days and bad days but our situation is typically met with respect and a sense of understanding. Our once previous dinner conversation consisted of putting our daughter first and our emotions second. Putting our happiness first, and leaving our relationship behind. I wouldn’t consider us friends, I only see her once a week, and our conversations do not consist of much of anything other than relating to our daughter. She has a new boyfriend and a baby on the way. An uncomfortable fact, yes, but a fact that I cannot change. Nor do I think I’d want to.
As far as the other struggles on being a single parent, I feel like I’ve handled them quite well. The depression ended and has since been replaced with joy as I get to watch this little girl grow up. There are obvious disparities when it comes to being a single father as opposed to a single mother. For one, it is almost commonly thought that single fathers do not exist. Still, there are times people come up to me with saying such as “good on you for staying in her life.” An offensive comment based on what I believe to be a growing discontinued stereotype. Mostly because the thought is appalling to me, of course, I am in her life. I am not a weekend dad, I am a full-time dad, and I’m proud of it. Those disparities though are what I most seek to change. I struggled to find resources for single fathers in the beginning, as mostly everything is advertised for women. WIC which is a Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, allows single fathers to apply for their program even though their name does not advertise it. Almost nowhere on their website does it advertise, promote, or encourage fathers to seek their services in any way. I often wondered how many services are out there that fathers could apply to that they are not aware of which is why I founded The Single Father Organization. TSFO is an organization dedicated to helping single fathers with resources to help with parenting and growing families.
Furthermore, I love being a dad. I found a routine for myself. I joined a support group and pretty much have a go-bag for every scenario I can think of when it comes to leaving my house with my rambunctious little munchkin. The good part about co-parenting is… I have a co-parent. I have our daughter one week on and one week off and the weeks I do not have her I get that relief to go out and be a regular 27-year-old. Trust me if your week consists of costume parties, tea parties, cleaning up PB&J’s, and stepping on every Barbie accessory you can imagine, you’d need a little break too. I no longer have racing thoughts about the future, I just focus on what is in front of me. Dating is at times a challenge, and my house is a little pinker than I would like, but it is all worth it when I hear my daughter call me “dada.” I can’t predict the next fifteen years to come, but I do know that when I look back at how parents handled their situation, the one thing I can predict is things will be different. What hurts about co-parenting is change, and the relief we get is when we grow along with the change. So for those of you who are co-parenting, that is a bit of the good, the bad, the summary.