Lessons Learned From Co-Parenting
Married couples could learn a few lessons from successfully co-parenting single parents.
"Um, what?" the happily married might say incredulously in response to that statement. "Easy on the advice train, lady. One of us is still in a relationship and one of us is not."
"Au contraire," I would counter. After nearly a year of hell rewiring my brain to be a woman and a mother independently of my daughter's father, while supporting his right to be a man and a father independently of me, I now consider my Ex and I to be in a successful relationship once again.
We have shared one primary goal since the day we separated: to find calm, peace and a common ground where our daughter feels loved and supported without tension, and each of us can thrive as happy, fulfilled individuals. We even hoped to be best friends when the dust settled, and I dare say that as autumn passes through New Hampshire, we have achieved that goal.
Well, by "we hoped," I mean he wanted to morph into best friends right away and I aggressively resisted, asserting that I was not a Chinese menu he could choose from. Accountable life partner, no. Best friend, yes. "I want to be your everything, not just your best pal," I told him. I even said that I already had a best friend (meaning my friend Dave) and didn't need another. However, the summer brought understanding and space-without-space that has allowed me to mature, moving through and beyond my pain to see the value of everything we do share. Abundance, not scarcity: therein lies the secret.
I know it seems illogical to even suggest that two people in a happy marriage could learn anything from two people who have failed at the traditional institution*; and to be clear, I'm not advocating single co-parenting as a solution to life's woes.
But I watch friends in relationships and marriages that I would consider happy and functional repeatedly bump up against the same issues that my Ex and I struggled with before our break-up: division of responsibility, independence and personal time, self-worth and value. Each time I hear an anecdote that puts the needle back down on a broken record, I wonder, 'Why, oh why do couples put up with issues that can and should be addressed and fixed?'
Breaking up is not the solution (in fact, I believe we should attempt literally everything in our power before accepting a breakup), but for my Ex and I, every other possible option and solution was explored, and breaking up revealed our break-down's and gave us the space to learn and practice new habits of behavior and communication.
We have spent nearly a year learning what it means to successfully co-parent, with all of the up's and down's that come with that tumultuous (and never-ending) journey. I've emerged on the other side of my grief feeling truly happy and whole, optimistic and balanced, and most importantly, back in touch with who I am and what I need. In so doing, I've gained enough clarity to reflect upon these lessons and now, to share what I've learned.
This isn't a "how to save your relationship" post and I would never claim to possess such know-how (clearly, seeing as I did not save my own!). But perhaps these realizations will be a helpful reminder for couples who share values and trust, but lack the balance and fulfillment needed to be whole individuals in a cohesive partnership.
Some of these lessons might seem obvious, but not implementing the obvious = the danger zone.
Create Space for Alone Time... and Enjoy It
Alone time is a tricky endeavor with children, especially very young children, and certain chapters of our lives require that we just "grin and bear it." I constantly lamented a lack of alone time in my relationship because it's hard to work or parent full-time, make time to connect and bond with your partner and your child(ren), and still create time for yourself.
I believe that the crux of our frustration, however, is that we expect each day to offer time for all of the above and then we get lost in the spin of inadequacy. But what if we took it one week at a time instead of day-by-day? Carving a distinctly separate space for each of our needs over the course of a week — for example, one night completely alone for each partner, one date night and the remaining four nights as a family — leaves wiggle room for adjustments with enough time to do it all and feel fulfilled.
Single parents have alone time every night; either once the kid(s) are in bed or on the nights the kid(s) are with the other parent. So this is, of course, another lesson learned with hindsight's 20/20 lens and not in the heat of the daily battle. But having that time alone has only reinforced for me how important and restorative it is.
A married couple can certainly help create space for each other with some planning, and it's imperative to do so. Enable each other to take a weekly class, enjoy a night out with friends, or simply escape for a quiet walk in nature or to read a book without interruption.
And when you get it, enjoy your alone time. Earning a night out only to spend it missing your children or partner, and wondering what they are doing and if they miss you too, is a waste.
Don't be afraid that creating space for yourself will create space between you and your partner. It's quite the opposite. It is in that space that the mystique, intrigue and attraction are created and by taking time to fill your own tank (more on that lesson next), you will return to your partner and family refreshed and equipped to contribute wholly to your tribe.
Fill Your Own Tank
Or, to use the overused airline safety phrase: put your oxygen mask on first. Early on, my Ex and I realized that we were two halves of a whole in many ways. But in celebrating the depth of our similarities, we each lost our sense of individuality. We didn't communicate and cultivate our differences, out of fear that it would somehow take away from what we shared.
I truly lost myself and who I was when I was with my Ex, and not because he took it from me. I made the mistake of letting go of anything we didn't share — from taste in music to hobbies — and often compromised my opinion in favor of his. In the process we became one person; I thought that's what soulmates do. But one person isn't interesting, it's redundant.
Two people appreciating each other's divergent interests is interesting. If I could go back, I would change that. Breaking up and being forced to once again become my own person has reminded me that my tank must be full first and foremost (or sufficient deposits must be made, at least), before I can contribute effectively to any partnership.
Only you can make you happy. So, it is your personal responsibility each and every day of your life to cultivate the sources of independent inspiration that fulfill you. Take that class, visit that friend, and go on that overnight or weekend trip; stand up and claim space for whatever you need to feel completely and uniquely you (and ensure that space is made for your partner to do the same).
The moments where we celebrate and own who we truly are contribute positively toward our sense of self-worth. In remembering our own value, we diffuse any insecurities that might creep up and empowering ourselves to feel fulfilled and secure facilitates the next lesson I learned.
Stop Asking So Many Questions
Did this suggestion raise the hairs on the back of your neck? I bet it did. Because we are programmed to think that we must know every little thing about our partners, day-in and day-out. No secrets, right?
Well, in a sense that is correct. There should be no secrets that would undermine the trust, values or commitment at the core of your relationship. But here's the thing: it takes space and time (see previous realizations) to process our everyday thoughts, feelings, urges and questions about the world and our place in it.
Probing into our partners' brains 24/7 — as I obsessively did out of insecurity at the end of my relationship — does not allow for that independent processing of thought, and it can actually push each other away.
Instead of questioning and probing, I've learned to make space for my Ex to share what he's ready to share, when he's ready to share it. Yes, there is a different communication framework for co-parents who are no longer in a romantic relationship, but should I have the opportunity someday, I would employ a similar philosophy in marriage.
Again, with the understanding that we are not talking about trust or value-based secrets, let your partner bring what they're ready to bring to you, when they're ready to bring it. Be clear that you hold space for this at any time, but be less probing. Holding space means date night alone. It means taking time throughout the week — even just ten minutes using a framework like these practices (which I love) — to turn off the TV and the screens and face each other to ask, "What's present for you these days?" instead of, "What did you do today, with whom and where?"
The what, with whom, and where details fill the space of silence, and they have their time and place. But they do not create a meaningful and long-term connection with the person you have agreed to spend the rest of your life with, and it can be too easy to just leave a conversation at that. "For life" is a long time, so invest in the long-haul work and don't undermine the foundation with meaningless questions to fill the silence.
Running a Household is Everyone's Responsibility
This is crucial for the balance needed to manifest alone time to fill your own tank, and it's just as important if one partner works full-time and the other stays home full-time, as it is if both parents work outside the home.
I have worked full-time and parented full-time, and I've concluded that parenting full-time is decidedly harder than a full-time job (and I was at a Director-level at the top of my field, not part-time employment). But I'm not here to debate who in your home has a harder job (nor who is bearing more weight of the additionally required emotional labor). At least, not today. So, let's just agree that from 9-5 (or 6-8), both parents are fully engaged in full-time work.
It is imperative that the rest of the responsibilities of running a household — the cooking, dishes, vacuuming, bed-making, garbage removal, laundry, ironing, dry-cleaning, tub scrubbing, bathing the kids, packing their lunches and getting them dressed, fed and ready for school annnnnnnd also the tasks like scheduling appointments, sending birthday cards and remembering important dates — are evenly shared.
What a fair division looks like is unique to every family. In my house growing up, my mom was happy to take out the garbage while my dad was fulfilled by cooking dinner every night. The details don't particularly matter. What's most important is that at the beginning and the end of every day, both partners feel like they are equally contributing to the puzzle.
There is no division of labor for a single parent: both parents are responsible for every facet of their own household, all the time. Yet somehow that feels easier because it removes the expectation that anyone else is going to help you, and therefore there is no let down or disappointment. Since breaking up, I've watched my Ex take on responsibilities in his home that I always managed when we shared a home and realized that we were not at all running our household equally pre-break up.
A lesson learned post-break up. But since I can't go back in time and change it, I can remind couples to be mindful of this shared responsibility while you still have the chance to create a synergistic division of labor.
Flaunt Your Talents Like a Peacock
You know, like single people do.
We don't need to be narcissistic egomaniacs to be proud of our accomplishments, or to put a little flip in our hip on the days that we're just feeling ourselves! After all, if we're running a balanced household (on the spectrum of balanced, anyway) where we have time to fill our tanks, we should be feeling ourselves! That's what brings energy into a marriage.
Since my break-up, my primary focus — and it has been hard — has been to get to know myself again and fall back in love with that woman. What lights me up and excites me? What do I believe in and stand up for? What am I really good at doing and what are my best assets? For the sake of boosting DHEA levels alone (re-read this for a refresher on what I'm talking about), it is important that I think this way.
But I daresay that Stella is also beginning to get her groove back, and the lesson therein reminds me of how important it is for each of us to humbly own our power.
By extension, we must properly acknowledge and celebrate our partner's accomplishments, too. Ironically, my Ex and I do that now more than ever before. When we removed the tension at the core of our union by breaking up and removing the expectation of romantic commitment, we found ourselves authentically excited for one another when things went well. After all, I want my daughter's father to feel whole, proud of himself and worthy of love and acknowledgement because that will make him a better father. Again, without ego.
Appreciate Each Others' Families
Every single married couple I know has a "damn in-law" story or two, but these tensions can rise particularly high after a breakup. Families tend to take the side of their child and become angry and defensive, severing the connection between the two sides of a family.
However, total disconnection is not an option when children are involved (in my opinion and therefore, for my family and my Ex's family). At least, not without putting our children in the incredibly awkward position of managing dissenting adult relationships.
For the first year of our troubles, my Ex and I did not involve our families in what was going on, neither for advice nor support. It was not until I returned to my parents' home indefinitely this year to grieve and heal that I opened up about the details of our situation.
At that point, I asked my Ex and my parents to speak directly about our problems, rather than through me, allowing everyone to air their feelings directly and hear each other out. At the same time, I had private conversations with my Ex's mother. Our parents also spoke with each other to pledge to keep our daughter — their granddaughter — at the forefront of our collective thoughts and actions.
These conversations allowed for all parties, on all sides, to be heard and to avoid the vortex of "behind the back" gossip and the perpetuation of negative feelings.
I also began an iCloud photo album that all grandparents, aunts and uncles have access to, and whether I have our daughter, or my Ex, we add the photos we've taken that day. This allows us to share the latest and greatest without photo-heavy text chains.
I appreciate my own family more than ever before and I appreciate my Ex's family more now than I did while we were together because in a strange way, our breakup has opened up healthier and more open lines of communication. Ironically, I feel I have a better relationship with my Ex's mother now than I did when he and I were together. Her understanding and support throughout this terrible time, and my understanding that she went through similar times in her youth are a shared common ground we had never explored before (I would have been perfectly happy not to have explored it, but here we are, alive and well).
It bears acknowledging in conclusion that my former relationship is not a model to imitate. But I hope that the lessons I've learned since ending it — lessons I will apply to my own future marriage, should I be so fortunate as to find a person whose values match up with mine — are valuable reminders to you badass mamas, as well.
* For ease of general understanding, I used the term "marriage" throughout this post to indicate a lifelong committed partnership. However, not having been married myself and knowing that all sorts of arrangements exist, feel free to mentally substitute whatever partnership-based term applies to you and yours.