What Divorced Couples Can Teach Us About Parenting
When James Sexton, a Manhattan divorce lawyer and author of “If You're In My Office, It's Already Too Late,” visited a friend who had recently gone through an ugly divorce, his friend was living in a small, spare, bachelor-like space — sans the lava lamp.
It was nothing much to speak of, but there was a dedicated room for his daughter, who the man saw every other weekend. And there were the books the man loved to read. He had space to be a dad — and space to be himself. Sexton, himself a father of two in an unhappy marriage, thought to himself, this guy’s onto something.
It’s not an uncommon scenario. Especially with the advent of the so-called happy divorce and civil co-parenting, the divorced life can be, oddly, the envy of beleaguered parents everywhere. And without minimizing the real emotional heartaches and difficulties of divorce, for all involved, there are things every parent can learn from those who have called it quits.
There Is Such a Thing as a Happy Divorce
“You hear a lot about ugly divorces because they’re way more interesting,” says Sexton. “My divorce is the least interesting thing about me.” And he’s not alone.
Whether you call it conscious uncoupling, conscious co-parenting or a “parenting marriage,” there are now plenty of new models for people who may no longer want to be romantically involved, but who are connected, for life, by their children — and who want to make the best of this new arrangement. The romance might die, but the family can continue.
Sexton estimates that 80 percent, if not more, of the divorces he’s been involved with are relatively friendly — especially when kids are involved.
Everybody Gets "Me Time"
The patron saint of the divorced dad, comedian Louis C.K., sums it up best: “I’m a great father because I only get my kids for half the week. It’s every parent’s fantasy. I say goodbye to them on Wednesdays and know that I’ll be lying in a pile of my own filth until it’s time to see them again.”
Filth or no, the nature of shared custody means each parent gets what they often went without during the marriage — dedicated alone time. In the best marriages, says Sexton, there’s the “you,” the “me” and the “we” — and you feed all three. But all too often, one or both parents gets subsumed into the “we,” and the “me” starves, to everyone’s detriment.
You Get to Be an Individual Again
In that post-divorce me time, something magical happens if you let it — you can find yourself again.
For a lot of parents — and mothers, in particular — taking time or spending money to be or feel like an individual again feels selfish.
“It’s actually selfish not to,” says Sexton. “You have to connect to who you are. Your children deserve to know who you are — who their father fell in love with, not some exhausted, overstretched, subsumed-into-the-family-unit version of that person.”
Communication Is Key
In divorce, as in marriage — and as in any relationship worth having — communication is the engine. It is the glue.
Things that go unsaid in a marriage, whether because of resentments, unspoken gender roles or other expectations, often get verbalized after divorce. And if there’s a shift in focus from the failing marriage to successful co-parenting, it’s often easier to be clear, dispassionate and up front about wants, needs, boundaries and expectations.
And Here’s How You Can Do It
When it comes to communication, some suggested co-parenting dos, like these listed below from Divorce Magazine, are almost just as applicable during a marriage as after a divorce.
• Have clear, consistent schedules and rules.
• Keep each other abreast of any parenting-related developments or important issues.
• Schedule appointments to speak with your ex about any problems, then be polite but firm while trying to solve them.
• Develop a trust level between each other — this means being 100 percent trustworthy yourself.
• Be civil and reasonable at all times.
And How Not to Do It
Just as important, Divorce Magazine lists some rather nice tips of what not to do as well.
• Let any conflict with your ex overtake your parenting responsibilities.
• Assume your ex will go along with everything you plan or suggest.
• Jump to conclusions or overreact if you think there’s a problem.
• Begin sentences with phrases such as “You always…” or “You never…”
Everyone Plays the Lead
Being the lead parent, or default parent, is one of those under-recognized tensions in a marriage with children — even those that strive to be closer to 50-50 than any generation before. The lead parent is the one who knows the pediatrician's phone number and who has everyone’s preferred snack on hand. It’s the invisible heavy lifting of parenting — and it’s a common source of simmering resentment when the imbalance is not acknowledged or addressed.
Often, the lead parent is the mother — but that’s not always the case. Andrew Moravcsik, the lead parent married to Anne Marie Slaughter, who famously penned the article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” in The Atlantic, explains his own role. "Lead parenting is being on the front lines of everyday life. In my years as lead parent, I have gotten the kids out of the house in the morning; enforced bedtimes at night; monitored TV and computer use; attempted to ensure that homework got done right; encouraged involvement in sports and music; attended the baseball games, piano lessons, plays and concerts that resulted; and kept tabs on social lives.”
Post-divorce, the lead parent role can often linger. But typically each parent steps up and assumes all of the primary parenting responsibilities when the children are with them. Both assume the lead, just at different times.
How to Be Totally Present
The flip side of the dedicated alone time that comes from sharing custody is the focus it lends when you only have certain days with your child.
As Sexton explains, after his own divorce, there was a marked shift that everyone around him recognized. “I would have a weekend where I had the right to say to people, ‘Hey, hold the phone and don’t send me emails because I’ve got my kids this weekend and I wanna give them 100 percent of my attention and 100 percent of my focus.’ And people would say, ‘Oh, he’s got his kids this weekend. Let him focus on that.'”
If distracted parenting is the scourge of the internet age, not having your kids on occasion or simply recognizing the time you have together, is a welcome excuse to be more fully present.
How to Truly Pass the Baton
One of the key dos of co-parenting is to trust the other parent — not always an easy task, for some. But for successful co-parenting to occur, when a child is handed off from one parent to the other, the hand off needs to be clean and complete. That means no friendly reminders, no “Just checking in’s,” no “Hey, did you do that thing?”
Each parent typically has a different parenting style within a marriage as well as after divorce. The goal is to accept that the other parent might do things differently — and not to micromanage, unless someone’s safety (physical, psychological or otherwise) is at risk.
As one father put it, speaking to his wife, who struggled with micromanaging, “I’m not an employee. I’m a co-owner.” Let the other parent parent.
Playing the Long Game
And by the long game, it’s 20, 40, 60 years down the road. After divorce, the marriage may have ended; the family has not. That’s more or less a life-long commitment. It helps everyone to think about the long game — i.e., your growing children — especially when mired in an irritating or intolerable present.
“In a 20-year career, I can count on one hand how many people I’ve met who hate their ex more than they love their children,” says Sexton.
How to Move Forward
For most divorced couples, animosity and anger eventually go away — or at least dissipate. Even people who swear they will never get along with their ex change, Sexton explains. “If you jump ahead five years, they’ve both moved forward. The ex-wife and new wife talk; the new husband and ex-husband are having a beer at the kid’s graduation,” he says.
Why? “You have an incentive,” says Sexton. “You’re going to be grandparents together.”
There Are Still Drawbacks
Divorce can be the very best thing for a couple or family — and it can still be incredibly hard. In the best scenarios, with amicable co-parenting, there are still moments that sting.
“The biggest pain point is that your children are not with you as often,” says Sexton. “In fairness, each parent deserves a Thanksgiving — and that means I have to have one without my children. Fairness will create absence.”