Thursday, December 1, 2011

Unforced Errors in Co-Parenting


I resisted the urge to look up and scan the audience, but the temptation was just too great.  At least it didn’t take long to find her.  She was sitting alone and motionless in the stands about 30 rows above the high school gymnasium court.  For someone who I was accustomed to only seeing and hearing in action, usually barking orders at my kids or their father, this moment was surreal.  As I walked my daughter across the floor on “Senior Night” of her final home volleyball game, I couldn’t believe the emotion I was feeling for the woman – their stepmother – who over the course of the past eight years had done a formidable job of keeping as much distance between my children and me as possible.  That emotion?  Pity.

Only a few days earlier, Claire had called me in tears.

“Dad said he won’t walk me out onto the court for my last home volleyball game since I told him I didn’t want her out there with me.  Mom, I want you to do it.  Not her.”

To put it in volleyball terms, this was more than a side-out.

“Co-parenting” is just a slick new word for an old idea.  Cooperation (a word that even looks like a thinly veiled word scramble of “co-parenting”) is a concept most kids are introduced to at an early age.  From warming a sibling-to-be up to the idea that soon there will be a newborn in the house blindly expecting a share of limited resources, to songs on Sesame Street singing the praises of working together and getting along, cooperation and sharing are highly esteemed virtues in our society.

But in my situation (and from what I can tell, in far too many other divorced families), co-parenting has not really meant cooperation or a willingness to freely share the children.  As a non-custodial parent, my ex and his wife treat me as if I’m lucky to be involved at all in the lives of my children.  They’re constantly looking to spike the ball in my face.  In a word, they are bullies.  But instead of fighting with them, I tread lightly and try to complicate things as little as possible so as to avoid conflict for the benefit of my children.  My strength is in keeping the ball in the air, and when it comes to the situation with my children and my ex, it means I co-parent alone.

My daughter recently went on a little rant about this exact thing to my husband and me.

“It doesn’t have to be this way!  It doesn’t have to be this difficult!”

She was referring to the barriers that her father and stepmother are constantly building that gum up the machinery of a cooperative co-parenting relationship.

“I have a lot of other friends whose parents are now divorced and none of their situations are like this!”

She had a full head of steam that had been building, and she wasn’t going to stop until she got it all out.  In the early years, I told myself that this day would come if I was patient.  I wouldn’t fight, but I wouldn’t give up, either.  I’d just keep digging out spiked balls and lofting them back over the net.

My daughter was right about one thing – it didn’t have to be that difficult.  Yes, the dynamics of divorced and re-blended families are complex to say the least, and rarely perfect.  But common sense and calm heads must prevail in order for the game of parenting to not become playground chaos.  I urge divorced parents to observe just a few basic guidelines:

1. Don’t speak badly about your child/stepchild’s other parent, step parents or extended family.
2. Communicate with the other parent about important information on a regular basis without hostility.
3. Respect your child’s need to have equal contact with the other parent.

At my daughter’s volleyball game last week, as I sat on the bleachers waiting for her to signal me to join her, I saw her stepmother walk into the gym with her father.  I didn’t feel victorious watching stepmom start up the steps into the stands.  I didn’t feel like I’d “won” anything, even though for years she had acted like our relationship with each other was some kind of parenting contest.  I’ve never treated my relationship with my daughter like a contest, and in fact I tried for years to have a cooperative and sharing relationship with this woman.  As the evening unfolded, though, I only felt sorry for her.  She’d spent the last nine years of her life paying for my daughter’s volleyball uniforms, camps, weekend tournaments, and club team memberships.  She drove my daughter to her practices and watched almost every game.  I hadn’t.  In order to keep my job so that I could pay child support, I was only able to make the occasional game.  One could certainly make the argument that she deserved to stand on that court with my daughter that night, but she had undermined herself in the end.  When I had asked my 17-year-old daughter why she didn’t want her stepmother on the court with her that night, she responded,  “Because she’s been such an ass**** all these years.  I am not going to reward her.”  17-year-old girls can be mean and reactive, but this reaction was a long time coming.

I would openly discourage divorced parents from treating their children as pawns in an ongoing battle.  That will only do harm to the children.  But if there are divorced parents out there who just can’t see their situation in any other light, then maybe the story of the tortoise and the hare will help.   In the end of that story, the tortoise ends up winning the race because of his persistence, unwavering dedication, and most importantly, his patience.  The much speedier hare’s arrogance caused him to lose, even though he had all the qualities needed to win.  I missed out on a lot of memories with my children.  There’s no sugar-coating that fact.  But I am more confident than ever that the foundation for my relationships with my children, now 17, 13, and 11 years of age, will prove strong and enduring.  I can’t help but wonder if their father and stepmother feel very confident about the future of their relationships with the kids.

Kill shots can be effective in volleyball, but they don’t always land in the court, and if you’re not very good, unforced errors can prove your own undoing.

~This piece first appeared on Fathers and Families