Breakups are tough, but a breakup when kids are involved brings about a whole other set of circumstances to navigate. The idea of co-parenting can be difficult, both logistically and mentally, but it can be done harmoniously, says Dympna McAloon. The Conscious Uncoupling Certified Coach explains: “The well-being of the children is the priority and they become the North Star for parents to stay on course so that children feel safe and loved.”
A divorce or separation can be traumatic for all, especially for children, therefore it’s important that they feel a sense of safety and contentment. It’s important too to note that co-parenting can take many shapes and forms.
While the most common example of co-parenting happens in the wake of a breakup of a romantic partnership, the term can also be used to describe any two individuals jointly raising a child, even if they are not necessarily the biological parents or have not been romantically involved.
Jane* is a separated mother of four, she described her decision as difficult to make, sharing how she almost stayed with her ex for their kids’ sake. “I thought I didn’t want to break my family up. I wasn’t happy,” she explains. “I wanted my children to have a better vision of me. I didn’t want to hurt them but I had to get out. I was being controlled, physically abused and my partner had a drink and addiction problem.”
For Jane, the adjustment period was the hardest part. She hated being away from her children while her ex had access. “I constantly worried about their welfare but I learned to keep up communication while they were away from me.” She added how it took about a year for her children to adjust to their new lifestyle and despite a rather difficult start, seven years later Jane is much happier with the balance she now has.
“We have good shared access although I remain the children’s primary carer. If I miss birthdays, Christmas or special occasions I forget about actual calendar dates and celebrate the day after or before. The kids joke about having two parties for everything. I keep myself busy if I miss them and you get used to it. So long as the kids are happy I am.”
Breakups aren’t always due to difficult or traumatic situations, sometimes, it’s just both parties knowing it’s no longer working. This was the case for Maria, 36. “It wasn’t massive fights or awful behaviour, it was just sort of this feeling that it’s not what I wanted anymore,” the mother of two explains.
“When we finally sat down and talked, he wasn’t even hugely surprised, I think we both knew that we didn’t love each other in the same way anymore, but we did have love for each other if that makes sense.” Despite both knowing that it was time to separate, Maria admitted that logistically it took them a while to find what worked.
“We were living together in our house with a mortgage. So initially we just slept in separate rooms. This actually worked because at least we could share tasks and the full load wasn’t on one of us. But then we did start fighting because of many different things, I was casually seeing someone and it just got difficult. He is now staying in his family home and the kids stay with him on weekends, and he does pick-ups from creche and school.”
While the situation Maria has now does work, she admits it isn’t a long-term solution as they are both still paying a mortgage. However, one aspect that she has found interesting is the definition that comes with tasks now. “I think a lot of women might not realise just how much they do until it’s more clearly delegated. However, some people’s ex-partners don’t even live in the same county or country, which makes things so much harder and the burden then definitely falls on one parent.”
In order to avoid conflict or correctly address it when it does come up, it’s important that you and your former partner have clear structures in place when it comes to co-parenting. “Get clear on your boundaries and respect them, however always remain open to readjusting as circumstances change,” Dympna suggests. “Keep exchanges formal. In more difficult situations seek out professional help, counsellors, mediators, legal advisers.”
The initial transition is the hardest part so try to make it as smooth as possible for not only yourself but your kids too by setting aside whatever feelings you may have towards your former partner. “Accept that your family is transitioning into a new dynamic and be willing and curious about how to create a new future. Listen to your children, give them the space to express how they feel,” Dympna adds.
“Keep schedules of visits as clear and regular as possible. Having visual support in the form of a calendar, marking clearly where the children will be on what day reassures them and lessens confusion and stress for everyone. Also, try to agree on rules and guidelines and if possible, keep some common ground between the two households.”
Dympna also suggests that you leave time for children to settle after coming from the other co-parent’s home and allow them to talk about their time with the other person as it’s important that they feel that there are no torn loyalties. At the end of the day, most parents just want what’s best for their kids so if you can agree on that, the rest of the decisions should hopefully follow naturally.
Maria points out that as hard as the decision may be to split, staying unhappy is not healthy or positive for anyone. “If we stayed in a relationship for the sake of it, we would have fought more, and felt stuck for years. And probably ended up splitting when they got older. I can’t imagine holding off another ten years to do what made sense.”
Sharing her advice, she adds: “It won’t always be easy, you will feel guilt when you don’t have the kids, but you’ll also be so grateful to have time to yourself – that’s okay. It will be an adjustment period, everyone’s situation is so different so I think some people are luckier than others in terms of money and support.
Know what supports are available to you and don’t be afraid to talk about it with family and friends. My overall advice would definitely be that if you’re feeling like it’s not right, don’t stay in a relationship for your kids – it’s not good for any of you.”
This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2024 issue of STELLAR.