Monday, December 30, 2013
I return to a familiar theme today, coparenting for better or worse. I believe there is no such thing as neutral coparenting. If I am a co-parent, I have feelings about and towards my coparent, usually very strong feelings. If I try to make the claim that I am neutral...well...I am reminded of an old George Carlin bit where he addressed the topic of people who try to kid themselves: Old George would say that my claim to neutrality in a role that defies such a claim, means that I am either full of S**T or I am F****N Nuts!! I can say that about myself because there once was a time when I prided myself on being neutral in my role as coparent!
The rude awakening about this personal falsehood I tried so hard to believe came about when my 4 year old son essentially told me to knock it off. He said "STOP IT!!" and then told me that I "go away" every time he starts talking about his "Daddy!" I was shocked and very quickly realized that he was right. Who was I trying to kid, anyway? I thought that being mature meant that I needed to act as if I didn't have negative feelings and thoughts about my ex. My son got my attention that day and I changed my mindset. I worked very hard to become a good coparent, which I accomplished, and my life's work for many years has been supporting, teaching and encouraging other coparents to become the best coparent possible.
Coparenting is a critical aspect of all of our lives. All children are conceived by at least two parents. In the case of adoption, surrogacy, and other family constellations some start out with more than two. Research over the last 30 years has pushed and pulled family professionals toward the understanding that virtually all children will be coparented and virtually all families coparent. One of the most comprehensive texts on the topic is a book by James P. McHale and Kristin M. Lindahl called Coparenting: A Conceptual and Clinical Examination of Family Systems. For those of you interested in the research, I recommend it.
Children need a protective family structure and coparenting is especially important in providing the safety, security and continuity so critical to the child's healthy development. Coparents who compete with each other by trying to have the child become an ally with one parent against the other provide an unsafe family structure for the child. The child is left with few options except: (1) to become a go-between, (2) to choose one parent over the other, or (3) withdraw from both parents at least in any genuine sense of connection. A coparent who tries to eliminate the competition by alienating or estranging the children from the other coparent risks alienating or estranging the child from parts of him or herself as the child struggles for a sense of identity in an unsafe and unbalanced family system.
If you can't respect and cooperate with your coparent, then shift your perspective and try respecting and cooperating with the part of your child that needs his or her own experience of that other parent in order to develop a strong, clear and autonomous sense of self in the world. When you find yourself thinking negative thoughts or saying negative things about the other coparent, try inserting your child's name and face instead. Cooperative coparenting is about valuing the needs of the child and respecting all of who your child is, not just the part that you contributed.
Navigating the aftermath of the break up of a family is difficult for everyone. At least the grown ups have tools and resources to find their way. The children do not. They are relying on us, the grown ups, to support them in finding their way.