Managing the Stress of Co-Parenting After Divorce
Come up with a game plan for taking care of yourself and moving forward
When my ex-husband and I divorced a decade ago, friends and colleagues called us the poster children for a healthy divorce. (We chafed at the nickname because it belied the pain and stress that comes with divorce, even an amicable one.) They admired our lack of public contentiousness and how well our children seemed to be adjusting to living in two households. "You should write a book!" they said.
Seven years later, after we created a blog and hosted an online radio show, we did write a book, Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce. Our focus was on helping children adjust to their new reality. But we know that too often parents neglect their own emotional well-being as they rush to do everything possible for their child's mental health.
Saying goodbye to your partner, negotiating settlements and shared parenting agreements, relocating, re-entering the workforce, and living on a reduced budget can all be part of the stress stew that is divorce. And no matter who initiated the separation, you may be feeling anger, sadness, bitterness, grief, vengefulness, betrayal, raw vulnerability, guilt, abandonment, and fear. That list alone is reason enough for you to give your mental health the same priority as your child's. Here's a plan to start doing it.
Feel your feelings
Remember when you dropped off your crying, flailing child on the first (or fifth) day of daycare or preschool, and the teacher told you that your child would be just fine if you put on a brave face and reassured her that everything would be ok? The same goes after divorce. Kids look to their parents for reassurance that this new normal – living in two households, seeing one or both parents less often, and perhaps attending a new school – will be ok.
Of course, many of our brave faces collapsed in tears as soon as we dropped off our child at daycare, and going through a divorce can also leave you ready to cry at any moment. Allow yourself to experience the full range of feelings that come with your divorce, and give your child permission to do the same. Even if her anger is directed at you. Even if her sadness makes you feel guilty. Feel what you are feeling, and let your child do the same. Trying to bottle up your (or your child's) emotions will only cause them to leak out in less productive ways.
Get support from other adults
Both you and your child are entitled to your feelings, but only one of you is responsible for the other. It's ok to let your child know that you're upset about the divorce too, but be very clear that it's your job to take care of them, not the other way around.
Get the support you need by opening up to trusted friends, loved ones, a divorce support group, or a qualified mental health professional. You need an outlet to release and process your feelings. Divorce leaves some parents feeling undesirable, hopeless, and shattered. But over time, working through the struggles that come with a break-up and co-parenting can help you feel whole again. One divorcing co-parent told me that going to psychotherapy was "putting the pieces of myself back together." Investing in your own healing equips you to guide your child along her path of healing as well.
Come up with a co-parenting communications strategy
When communication with a co-parent is painful or difficult, it’s easy to fall into the trap of using your child as a messenger to relay information about pick-up times, spring break, and the orthodontist bill. Instead of burdening your child with this role—and likely worsening communication all round—make sure your shared parenting plan is as detailed as possible so that you don't have to interact frequently. You may need to enlist the help of an adult middle-person to keep direct conflict to a minimum. Some co-parents choose a neutral place (neither house) for drop-offs and pick-ups to avoid drama. Or they ask another adult to be present in their stead at these times.
Learn and practice communication skills that enable you to defuse or head off conflict with your co-parent. Use "I" statements and be willing to say things like, "I'm happy to talk with you about this later when you're not yelling" and then end the conversation if need be.
And remember, not everything your co-parent says warrants a response. It may be tempting to defend yourself against personal attacks on your parenting or character, but disengaging is an important part of your self-care. Have a trusted third party filter your email if your co-parent sends upsetting messages. Some parents even set up a separate email account just for exchanging emails. Only a third party knows the account password and notifies you whenever your co-parent sends something that warrants attention, like a request for a schedule change.
Separate your emotions from your child's
Anger, disappointment, and feelings of betrayal or abandonment drive many co-parents to cast their ex-spouse the bad guy. This might feel good temporarily because it relieves you of the guilt you may feel about the divorce. You feel less lonely when you bond with your child as victims. Friends and relatives may take your side and attempt to connect with you by demonizing your ex.
But when you force your child to choose sides and shoulder your emotional burden, the hurt inside you festers like disease, keeping you emotionally stuck. Instead of relying on your child to lighten your load, recognize and separate your feelings from your child's, work through the guilt, and learn to communicate effectively with your co-parent, even though it may be very hard.
Also remember that your child has a right to an unhindered relationship with the other parent. If your co-parent is a fit and willing parent, don't stand in the way of that relationship. Honor your shared parenting arrangement, and show your child's relationship with the other parent the same respect you want shown to yours. It doesn't always happen, but mutual respect goes a long way in helping both parents heal.
If guilt takes the driver's seat in your post-divorce parenting, you risk becoming a Disney Parent – meaning you focus on all the fun and none of the hard work of parenting, like assigning chores, checking homework, or keeping a regular bedtime. This will be a disaster for your kids (and you), and your co-parent may end up resenting having to do all the heavy lifting. Dealing with the guilt and staying on top of your parenting responsibilities will get you to a healthier emotional place in the long run.
Similarly, resist the urge to buy a pet just because you feel guilty about the divorce. "Divorce dogs" (or cats or ferrets…) are just one more living creature you have to take care of, and when the short-term excitement wanes, you'll still have to deal with the emotions around the divorce – and walk the dog.
Look beyond the co-parenting relationship
Maybe your spouse cheated, left you for someone else, played dirty in the divorce, or otherwise betrayed you. You're entitled to all the feelings that come with that. But co-parents who attempt to punish the other parent or alienate their child from the other parent have less emotional resources available for healing.
It takes a lot of energy to stay engaged in battle – energy that could be channeled into a meaningful post-divorce life for yourself. Where do you see yourself a year from now, or five years from now? Some days, getting out of bed might be all you can muster, but looking ahead, what do you want your life to look like? When you feel ready, make a list or a vision board, and share your goals with a friend who can help you stay on track. Then, focus your attention and emotional resources on pursuing those goals.
Remember you still have a family
You've all lost your family as you've always known it, but your child still has a family. That family just now exists across two households. And you still have a family and a new life to make of what you will. It helps to refer to your ex-spouse as "my co-parent" or "Jordan's mother" to help keep your focus on the present.
Ask yourself what you want now
You may miss your child terribly when she is with the other parent, but try to keep in mind that you're getting something many parents only dream of: a break. What interests or new projects can you pursue during this time? Maybe now you'll finally have the time to read a thick novel. Or write one.
Whether large or small, acts of self-care may not always feel possible or worthwhile, especially in the early days of separation or divorce. But however you choose to care for yourself and work through your feelings, know that you are worth the time and resources it takes to put the pieces back together. And your kids will benefit too.