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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Tips on co-parenting through divorce

I got a call last week from an acquaintance, another mom who is thinking about divorce. She wanted to ask me about co-parenting. Her biggest concern? Spending the night away from her daughter, who, like Annika, is 2.

I could relate because ever since Annika was a tiny newborn, this was also my biggest concern.

When she was an infant I worried that spending the night away from me would tear us apart and destroy our tender and still-forming attachment. I worried that she wouldn't understand what was going on. I worried that she would have attachment issues if she spent the night away from me too soon. 

Ironically, this phone call came only a couple of days after Annika had her first real sleepover at Toyin's.

A few months ago we attempted a sleepover, but only out of desperation because I had an ear infection and I was in severe pain. (Yes, I know I need to migrate my old posts over to the new site, I'll get to it. :)

I felt torn about having her spend the night at Toyin's. I have been co-sleeping with Annika all of her life. She still wakes up a lot.

On the one hand, I felt like she wasn't ready because she still nurses at night. I also think she can do it, and she could easily be ready. There's a mental leap she needs to make and I think sleeping at Toyin's is just the impetus she needs.

We've gone through some rough patches surrounding nighttime nursing and made attempts at night weaning. I've given up. This kid likes to nurse.

Now that she can form proper sentences she has recently been very verbal about how much she likes my milk. I used to think that she wanted to nurse because she wanted the closeness. But she has told me lately that she wants milk.

Once I asked her if she'd like some rice milk and she leaned over to me, pointed at my breast and said, "No, I want that milk!"

How could I say no?

So, in reality, she doesn't need to nurse anymore. She can fall asleep without nursing. The attachment between us is solid. She and Toyin are attached, but they don't have quite the same bond that she and I do. I think this is partly due to the sleeping arrangements. Other than nursing, it's the one thing that has kept them from being as close as we would like, ideally.

Additionally, Toyin and I are both ready for her to start spending the night with him, for different reasons.

Sooo, back to the co-parenting conversation.

My friend wanted to know, basically, how does co-parenting work? We had a brief conversation. What I told her was this.

1. You must always, always put your child first in decision-making and when interacting with your partner.
2. Both of you must be committed to ensuring that your choices and how you interact with each other put your child's needs first.
3.You must (try to) avoid doing things out of spite or pettiness.

Coming from me, the world's most immature 38-year-old, it's kind of funny. I mean, I've done things... I could totally go off on a tangent here, but I need to stick to my point.

The truth is, motherhood has forced me to grow up. I'm not going to lie and say that Toyin and I have a perfect relationship or that we are always friendly with each other. But I do believe deep in my heart that we have done a good job of putting Annika first.

I really do.

That's not to say that we have always put Annika first, or that we haven't had spite-filled and angry interactions. But really, what couple can say that they have always behaved perfectly around their children? It doesn't happen.

But at the core of our connection, lies the desire to ensure that Annika's well-being is what drives our decisions.

People who choose to co-parent with an ex must function like a marriage in many respects.

You must be able to discuss things like eating habits, potty training, sleep habits. You should find a way to make decisions about these together. You also must trust your partner to make decisions about these things when you aren't around. You have to relinquish control, much the same as if you were married or cohabiting.

Living nearby helps.

It makes it easier to visit your child if you are not the custodial parent. Visitation times should be made considering what is best for your child, not what is convenient for the adults. They should be regular and consistent. But they should also be flexible if that fits your lifestyle.

You should be willing to spend time together as a family. Going out to dinner with each other or meeting at a park to hang out and play with your child together will make a world of difference.

One of Annika's newest phrases is, "We're doing it together!"

She got this from our walks around the neighborhood when we had to stay together and watch for cars. Instead of telling her to stay with me, or not to run away, I pointed out that we should walk together. She loved that and has made the connection in many other things that we do.

And lately she's been pointing out that we (all three of us) should go for walks "together." We do. We always have. She likes it and I can see that it makes her feel happy.

Since she began sleeping over at Toyin's, she's hit her second wave of separation anxiety. It's been really hard. She's been telling me that she wants to stay with me, that she doesn't want to go with Daddy.

But Toyin and I have agreed that we must be consistent. So we are sticking with our regular routines and doing things together.

It seems to me like many people think that if they get divorced the only option is to have court-regulated visitation with one custodial parent and another part-time parent.

I think this attitude toward parenting is a tragedy for the child. It is the general consensus among mainstream thought that children suffer because of divorce and in the long run they grow up more securely if parents are married.

I think that's because most divorced parents don't put their children's best interests at the core of their decision-making. I think that when people split up, they start putting their needs first. That, right there, is why the children suffer. Not because of the divorce. But because the parents stop putting their children first.

I'm here to tell you that co-parenting can work. It's tough work, just like a marriage, which is probably why most people don't do it. But it is possible.

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