Newly-divorced couples and others who join in a partnership to parent children find that they have to learn how to co-parent. While learning to be a good parent is difficult in and of itself, in situations where co-parenting occurs, the job of being a mom or dad becomes even harder.
Circumstances Leading to Co-Parenting
There are a number of situations that require parents to form co-parenting relationships. Divorce is the most frequent reason for co-parenting. Ex-partners may enter into a co-parenting agreement with one another, and single moms and dads often team with their own parents (grandparents of the children), siblings, or friends to become co-parents. Military families may co-parent with other family members, or with friends, when one or both parents are deployed, meaning that they will be away from their children for an extended period of time. The parents in blended families also find themselves co-parenting their children.
Learning How to Co-Parent
Co-parenting is a learned process, and often starts out as a trial-and-error learning process. No one comes to a co-parenting relationship knowing what to do or how to do it. In fact, it is only recently that much has been written on co-parenting. The Co-Parenting Survival Guide: Letting Go of Conflict After a Difficult Divorce deals with how to co-parent following a divorce, but many of the principles in the book could be applied to other co-parenting arrangements. The Attorney General of the State of Texas provides the Co-Parenting Guide online for anyone who needs it. Various websites also provide information on co-parenting. These resources can help turn the trial-and-error process into a more constructive learning situation.
Planning for Co-Parenting
Successful co-parenting provides considerable work on the part of the entire co-parenting team. All caregivers should sit down and work out the details of family life for which they will share responsibility. Divorce decrees, co-parenting guides, and advice from friends and family can address only the broadest and most common issues that co-parents encounter. Every situation is different, and people's values and expectations for family life depend on their cultural backgrounds, religious beliefs, education, and many other factors. Each parent's schedule will also be a factor in how the team chooses to co-parent. A stay-at-home mom or dad will have a different amount of available time than a parent who works away from home.
Points for Discussion
In determining how to co-parent, there are a number of common issues that should be discussed. Ideally, a co-parenting agreement or contract should be committed to paper at the end of the discussion or discussions. Of course, as with any other learned process, the plan should be a living document that is subject to change as the co-parents determine what works and what does not work. Items that should be discussed include:
- Schedule - determine who will be responsible for the children and when. Work schedules, school schedules and other existing commitments need to be discussed and factored into the plan.
- Food shopping and meal preparation - determine who will be responsible for planning meals, shopping for groceries and doing meal preparation.
- Nutritional requirements - discuss whether the children have any special nutritional requirements that need to be addressed. You both need to be fully cognizant of any allergies or special nutritional requirements.
- Medical and dental issues - determine who will take the children to medical appointments; you both need to be aware of any medical requirements, medication, and physical limitations of the children for whom they are responsible.
- School events, schedules and transportation - decide who is responsible for school transportation and when. You also need to determine who will attend school conferences and school events, as well as how you will share information received from the school about a child's performance or behavior.
- Homework and school projects - agree on how you both will supervise and, if necessary, assist with homework and school projects. You need to define who will be responsible for making sure each child has the necessary school supplies and materials.
- Shopping for clothing and other necessities - determine who is responsible for purchasing clothing for school, sports, and special occasions.
- Recreation, sports, and leisure time - discuss who is responsible for recreational activities, extracurricular activities, and sports. You need to agree on the number of extracurricular activities and determine how much time will be spent watching television and playing video games (if you plan to allow them).
Communication and Cooperation
It is extremely important that you, as co-parents, commit yourselves fully to clear and unambiguous communication about the children for whom you are responsible. In addition, you need to be role models for cooperative and creative problem resolution. Even though co-parenting is not always an ideal arrangement, you and your partner can be role models who teach your children how to peacefully and constructively resolve differences and come up with workable compromises.