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Co-parenting for Change

Conversation 1:

Me: EX*, if you and your wife, keep talking badly about me, you’re just going to put Daughter* in a position of having to defend me. Please don’t do that to her or to your relationship with her!

EX: You just think you know everything! *Click*

Conversation 2:

My brother: Marcus* and his mother do not live too far from us so they will go around to the house to help out.

His fiancé: And Vince* is staying with his father while we’re here.

Me: I really enjoy how you all are working together.

My brother: Yeah. We get along pretty well.

The first conversation happened between me and my ex-husband many years ago, after our daughter had come to me on the heels of yet another argument she had with her father and stepmother about me. Interestingly, although he sought the divorce and remarried a month after it was final, he was the one who would not let go of anger. Not even for the sake of our daughter. In the end, his behavior escalated until he became physically abusive and lost his relationship with her. They would begin taking steps towards reconciliation a mere few weeks before he tragically died. Rather than work with me to help our daughter through a difficult time in her life, he chose belligerence, resistance, and anger. No one knew he only had 2 ½ years to live after our divorce. What a waste of time!

The second conversation occurred recently in the hospital room of my 2-year-old nephew who was recovering from heart surgery. My brother and his fiancé each have at least one child from a previous relationship. As they focus on the health challenges facing their youngest son, it is the mom of my brother’s oldest son and the father of his fiancé’s children, who are supporting them. They are not merely shouldering the rightful responsibility of taking care of their own children. They are running errands, checking on my brother and his fiancé’s home, helping in whatever way they can, caring not only for their own children, but for the significant people in the lives of their children.

Adults have a hard time adjusting to the changes that come with being a member of a stepfamily. Bio moms and dads combat fears of being replaced. Stepmoms and dads fear not being accepted. It is not easy to incorporate competing traditions into family life without disrupting comfort for someone. Not to mention supporting bio parent child relationships while building bridges between stepparents and children. For the most part, experience, reason, and emotional maturity can enable adults to navigate these and other complicated stepfamily dynamics. Not so for children.

It does not matter how smart, empathetic, or mature children may be, the emotional bandwidth of a child does not extend much further than “me”. They are the star of their lives therefore everything that

happens around them is about them. When parents fight, no matter the reason, children either blame themselves for the fight or feel responsible to keep the peace. When a parent speaks badly about their child’s other parent, that child is not able to separate the parent from themselves. Their thought process goes something like this: “If mom is saying something is wrong with dad that must mean something is wrong with me too because dad is part of me.” Even older children get trapped into this kind of thinking, especially when one parent works to alienate them from the other parent. To say children are impacted by warring parental factions is putting it mildly. It is more like they are scarred. It is hard for children to be torn between the parent they live with and the one they visit.

I recently spoke with a friend who has been a stepmom for over 20 years. When her stepdaughter was younger, she naturally would share about the fun time she had with her father, and sometimes even her father and stepmother. Her mother would often reply with, “So, you like your father more than me now?” or “You have more fun with them than you do me.” Mom immediately put her daughter in a position to protect mom’s emotions. A burden which a child, in her formative years especially, should never have to bear.

Today, that stepdaughter, now in her 30’s, keep both dad and stepmom at an emotional distance. She’s cordial but not close, not like a daughter, with either of them. Imagine 20 years of birthday only phone calls, missing out on the everyday stuff, inside jokes, impromptu dance-offs, secret ingredients, and all the moments which form a family’s unique story. Bio mom’s unwillingness to work with bio dad and his wife cost her daughter more than it did her daughter’s father. How much better it would have been had everyone set aside personal issues, gotten professional help, and worked to foster a healthy relationship between all parents?

Certainly, developing good stepfamily relationships takes work and time. It requires all adults to work through difficult feelings, have difficult conversations, and make difficult concessions. But, if we want our children to thrive, we have to be willing to do the difficult stuff. It’s not enough to co-parent with threadbare civility, although that’s a good place to start. Parents who intentionally co-parent for change creates an environment for their children to have healthy connected relationships with the parental figures in their lives. Which, in turn, creates the best environment to have healthy children.

Simply put, co-parenting for change means to honor the child’s need to bond with significant adults, and doing what you can to support healthy bonding. It means working out adult issues with adults only. It may involve getting trained in conflict resolution, taking a class in listening well, or seeing a therapist. All adults will definitely need to come to the understanding that the child’s emotional well-being takes precedent over the adult’s emotional pain. Mostly, all adults will have to stop playing the blame game and become responsible for their own actions, reactions, and responses.

Since I am a stepmom talking to other stepmoms let’s chat about a few things we can do to help our children become well-adjusted family members:

Protect your child’s nuclear family by never, ever bashing her mom, and/or stepdad, if there is a stepdad. This should go without saying but bashing bio-mom is the fastest way to crush any possibility for a good relationship with your stepchild, even if you are telling the truth. I know a stepmom who became a safe haven for her teenage stepdaughter when she and her bio mom began butting heads. Stepmom listened to stepdaughter, sometimes even hearing painful things mom said or felt about her. Yet, stepmom honored mom, talked to her stepdaughter about respecting mom, and encouraged the daughter to keep fighting for a good relationship with her mom. It has paid off in a wonderful relationship between stepmom and stepdaughter.

If your husband is the non-custodial parent make sure he has alone time with the kids during visitation. Let’s be honest here. The kids did not come to see you. They may like you. They may love you even but they are excited to spend time with their father whom they may not have seen for two weeks. That’s a lifetime for both him and them. Give them time to bask in that excitement. Ease into their moment.

It’s great if you and bio mom become genuine friends but it’s not likely. However, you can at least remember that you are on the same team: Team Kids. And, it would help if you realize she and dad are co-head coaches. You are an assistant coach. You may be called upon, you may not but you are not the one the children are primarily looking to for direction. Get okay with that.

Remember, bio mom sees you as competition just not in the way you may think. In all likelihood she does not want your man, but she does want her children. She wants their loyalty to her, affection, and the premiere place in their hearts. She wants to be the one they talk to every day, the one they turn to for comfort. It might be okay with her if you offer some of that but it’s not okay if her children come to you for any of that. You are not responsible for her reactions and I'm not saying you should change your actions. Be wonderful you. Give the love. Give the hugs and affirmation. Just be aware this may be an issue for her.

As much as you can, include her in your warmth. Try to remember it’s going to be a while before she sees you as a wonderful addition to her children’s lives versus competition for their love, however, including her as a recipient of your kindness can mitigate some of that resistance. Disclaimer: it may start all over when grandchildren begin arriving.

Be consistent. Don’t run hot and cold with your stepchildren. They have experienced enough instability in their lives. They need the security of your authenticity and perseverance. Bio mom needs to see your consistency in order to trust you.

Listen. Listen. Then listen again. Listen to your husband, his children, their mom. If you listen closely enough you will hear where they are and what they need. Meet the need to the extent of HEALTHY capability on your part.

Realize, we judge ourselves based on our intentions. And you’re the only one who knows your intentions. When communicating with your family, speak in a way which allows your intention to be clearly understood. With a family dynamic ripe for misunderstandings, it’s important in stepfamilies to speak language which inspires trust, recognizes shared goals, and invites connection.

There are other ways in which you can co-parent for change but these are enough to get you started. It’s hard work but it’s worth it.

To your step-mothering success!

SOUND OFF: What tips do you have for creating a working co-parenting relationship?

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