Opinion: Even at its best, co-parenting is the worst

By April 17, 2022 Custody, Family Law

This article was first published in the Washington Post.

Tracy Moore is a writer in Los Angeles.

When my daughter entered sixth grade, my sister gifted them an Apple Watch. I thought it would be perfect for communicating during hectic Los Angeles school pickups or, worse, an earthquake, a fire or something even more unfortunate. But my ex thought the device offered too many potential distractions during the school day, and so he and I argued.

It would be one thing to hash this out if we were together, but we split up years ago and have equal custody. That’s increasingly common. For years, mothers were the default parent in a split, and that was considered best. Today, and not without controversy, courts in some 20 states have increasingly leaned toward shared custody, citing better outcomes for children. Yet the attitude shift, as well as more engaged fathers requesting more time, means shared custody by court order (or just personal preference) is now common.

Which means more people are making more decisions (once again) with an ex with whom decision-making wasn’t ever easy.

In my case, we both wanted a fully equal part in raising our child; and at first, decisions weren’t that difficult with a toddler. Holidays were easy to divide in half. Similar bedtimes or applying sunscreen were common sense. But as our daughter has grown older, their needs and wants are increasingly complex. They are beginning to pull away in the process of becoming their own person, and with that comes an eagerness to make more choices for themselves, and more fraught decisions for us. First came the question of a smartphone. Next, our daughter wanted to change their pronouns and dye their hair a bright, cherry red. Then there was the Apple Watch.

Many family therapists advise that identical rules in both households are crucial to a child’s stability. This means deploying the very skills that were often elusive in the first place. As many divorced people will tell you, if it were so easy to get along, you’d still be together.

It was tempting to do everything my way during my custodial weeks, because none of these choices required mutual consent legally. But that meant risking friction for our daughter during an already confusing period of life.

Co-parenting after a split often feels like a cosmic test of patience. Post-marital relationships among divorced parents in my set in Los Angeles range from semi-functional to irritating to outright nightmarish. It could be a daily spar over every detail of a packed lunch, threats about moving away, passport-hoarding, or a years-long grudge match in court, replete with accusations of every kind of abuse.

In short, co-parenting, even at its best, is still the worst. Toss in new partners, some with new opinions on your co-parenting styles? Boom.

And then came the pandemic, which wrecked many a co-parenting relationship. Parents who’d previously agreed on medical decisions went to war over when or whether to get children vaccinated. Some have withheld custody during a child’s quarantine, or if the other parent’s behavior or job is too high-risk.

In my case, it helped to remember how much we successfully agreed on: vaccines and masking; homework before screen time; bedtimes and chores. Extracurriculars. They/them pronouns are now used in both homes.

But conflicts stem from the values clashes that made us separate, and some fundamentals about how we parent simply don’t budge: I will always be a pro-unstructured-free-time parent; he will always be an organize-your-time parent. I am a fight-the-sexist-school-dress-code person; he is a-follow-the-rules person.

So, there I was, pushing for this watch, a smartphone, dyeing their hair. Not gonna lie: This has all caused stewing, arguing and periods of zero communication between my ex and myself. But ultimately, I had to see that his position on some issues was valid even if diametrically opposed to mine. More than that, I had to pick my battles, not for me but for my daughter’s emerging autonomy during the turbulence of becoming a teenager.

We have, as a result, found some compromise. The smartphone? Yes, since we can both enforce parental controls. Hair dye? Yes, because it’s temporary. The Apple Watch? A trial period. As long as there are no school complaints of distraction, our daughter continues to wear it. On that front, so far, so good.

But expecting lockstep symmetry in all parenting matters is unrealistic, just as it is for people who stick together. We are mere mortals; and we are divorced ones at that. I still plan on fighting that dress code, but I’ll just have to do it during my weeks.

Arlene D. Kock

Author Arlene D. Kock

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