Tuesday, August 11, 2009

When Your Kids Really Need Both Parents

Whenever I teach a co-parenting course, I usually begin by emphasizing the pay-offs of positive co-parenting. I talk about how the parents need to love their children more than they hate each other. I remind them that -- as much as they might like to make their ex-spouse vanish from the planet -- the fact is, that bringing a child into the world means the two parents of that child will be connected to one another no matter what, for as long as that child lives.

This is unsettling news for many divorced parents who would prefer to move on with their lives and pretend that their children were born via immaculate conception or discovered motherless in a cabbage patch.

So, I often ask the parents to picture a future with their children. The one that includes the big events: graduations, weddings, births of grandchildren. Do they really want to force their precious children to choose which parent attends these events? Wouldn't it be nice to be able to share in the big events of their children's lives, without forcing leftover acrimony onto your child's special day?

This is the sort of standard stuff that I teach the divorcing parents that come into my classroom. This is fairly standard stuff with all parent coordinators out there... an ideal that seems unreachable from the point of view of warring ex-partners. Painting the picture of future highlight events seems to be a pretty typical approach.

Then, there was this past Friday. When two of the most successful co-parents I have ever known, were forced to co-parent through the unthinkable.

Let me introduce Vivian and Dan (names changed to protect privacy). When they divorced six years ago, they decided from the get-go that they were not going to allow their aggravation with each other spill over onto their three young children. Was it easy? Oh heck, no. I've seen Vivian so angry at Dan that she could just spit nails. But her children did not see it. I've seen Dan so bewildered at Vivian that he was nearly consumed with frustration. But his children did not see it. I've watched in admiration as both Vivian and Dan struggled with the exact same emotions and pains and shames and fears as any other divorcing couple. But they were dedicated to protecting their children from the choice they had made to divorce.

Shared parenting time? Sure. Vivian often thought Dan's parenting style was not up to her standard. But she knew it was adequate, and she backed off and allowed the children to have the kind of relationship with their father that they wanted to create. Holidays? Dan could have played the Disney Dad and bought his kids piles of goodies -- presents, vacations, expensive activities -- in a blatant attempt at one-upping Vivian... instead, he and Vivian coordinated the gifts and made sure that the kids knew they had come from BOTH parents, just like before the divorce.

And seeing them together with their children, even after both Dan and Vivian moved on and developed relationships with other romantic partners, I could always see that they had made the effort to put their own differences aside, so that they could support their children through the highlights of their lives: sporting events, school plays, parent night at summer camp.


Because this past Friday, Vivian and Dan had to endure the most excruciatingly harsh, intense pain a parent can imagine. They had to bury their thirteen-year-old child.

This is the image that is now seared onto my heart when I think of Vivian and Dan: the family sitting on the front row at the funeral service, older brother and younger sister of the deceased sitting in the middle; flanked on one side by Mom (Vivian), and on the other by Dad (Dan). The outer bookends of the row occupied by Vivian's significant other on one side, and Dan's girlfriend on the other. And when the pastor sang the final song -- one appropriately titled "Victory" -- Vivian and Dan took each other by the hand, and raised their clasped hands high into the air; a gesture of surrender to the Plan of the Great Creator, a gesture of support to one another, a gesture of strength as they created a protective tent over the heads of their two grieving children.

Naturally, I do not wish such a fate on anyone. And, when I teach co-parenting, I will still go back to the visual imagery of parents sharing the highlights -- the graduations, the weddings.

But the children of divorce HAVE suffered a death. They just didn't get a funeral. They still suffer the death of their family as they knew it. They suffer the death of confidence and trust in their world. They often suffer the premature end of their own childhood.

Wouldn't it be great if all parents would be willing to sacrifice until they found a way to surrender to the things that are larger than they are; give parenting support to one another; and use their strength and power to protect their children from the ravages of divorce.


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