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Co-Parenting For Grown-Ups: Making the Most of Family Time After the Divorce

Yeah, you and your husband got divorced – for good reason. But you’ve still got to be civil, for the kids. Here’s our go-to guide on keeping it together – even though you’re apart – post-split.

I’ve never been a great planner. I didn’t spend much time planning either my wedding or my divorce. (Though on the bright side, both got done quickly.) When my husband and I decided to split last year, I didn’t have any idea what to tell my six-year-old daughter, so I just sort of blurted out it out: “Daddy’s not going to be living here anymore, but you’ll get to see him a lot.”

A few days later, I talked to my daughter’s school counselor about the divorce. “Did you tell her together?” she asked.

Wow, what a great approach! One that would have said, “We’re still a team in loving you and parenting you, even though we’re living apart.” Wish I had thought of it.

Since then, I’ve had a chance to reflect on some of the things I’ve done and how I’d do them differently. The good news? It’s only been seven months. My ex and I still have many years of shared parenting ahead of us, so we still have plenty of time to fix things -- or mess them up!

But in the meantime, here’s what you can learn from my mistakes.

Expect to change things up.
At first, I though it was best to keep some of my daughter’s old routines after her dad moved out. Historically, because of our work schedules, Dad was the one who tucked her into bed at night and read to her. So during the initial weeks of the breakup, I was okay with him coming over almost every evening to say good night. But that’s just not practical, and at some point, kids need to know that things aren’t the same.

“Parenting after divorce is more like a cordial business relationship – one in which both parties have a shared interest in the well-being of the child,” says Steven Meyers, a Roosevelt University professor of psychology who specializes in children and family relationships. “The new relationship isn’t governed by love, commitment, or even respect for one another in some instances.”

So keeping negotiations civil is key – for you and for the kid. These days, my ex is with our daughter two nights during the week until bedtime. And he makes sure to remind her when he’ll be seeing her next, so she’s not left wondering when he’ll be around.

Hash out the details behind the scenes.
My ex’s work hours change from week to week, so we have to work out the parenting schedule on the fly. Rather than discuss this privately, we’ve been pretty casual about chatting about it in front of our daughter. I figured it was good for her to see Mommy and Daddy have a friendly conversation. Right? Wrong!

Meyers points out that kids pick up on any tension parents might have working out the scheduling details. And that tension rubs off on the kid. “Parents may not want to spend time with children for a variety of reasons,” says Meyers. “Some of these may be understandable, but others may be more confusing. Kids have a greater likelihood of feeling rejected when they overhear potentially difficult scheduling talks between their parents.”

These days, we’re saving our chats (read: arguments!) for when our daughter’s at school or after her bedtime. Why waste precious time with your kid working out schedules anyway?

Always drop off your kid at the ex’s, and never pick up.
This brilliant bit of advice came from a mom friend who’s been divorced since her son was two. With this setup, each parent is giving the child to the other parent, rather than taking the child away. It’s a gesture of warmth and affection rather than possession. A small but important difference!

Be flexible with each other – and your kid.
Kids need structure, so it’s best for the child to have a visiting routine that’s the same every week. That said, things are going to come up.

I really appreciate my ex’s willingness to babysit on an off night when he’s free, if something unexpected arises for me with work or even socially. Likewise, I’ve tried to be flexible with his ever-changing work schedule. It doesn’t do our daughter any good if we are so rigid that she doesn’t get to see the other parent enough. Plus, being ready with a “yes, I can help out” teaches the kid that grownups can compromise.

Focus on quality, not quantity.
Post-split, you’re all feeling a bit unmoored – so kids need stability more than ever. “All children – including those who’ve experienced divorce – need limits,” says Meyers. But they also need fun family time. “Be planful, playful, and active during your time with your children after the split.”

Easier said than done? For sure. You may have to work at it at first because you may not be feeling particularly joyful. In fact, you may wake up every morning feeling like you’ve been sucker-punched in the gut.

“It may seem easier at times to allow your child to spend time on the computer or playing video games rather than do something together that requires effort,” says Meyers. “But children will often fare better when both parents remain active and involved in their lives in supportive and loving ways. This requires planning and maybe even exploring new ground for some parents, but it is very worthwhile.”

Don’t force “family” togetherness.
My daughter wanted to know if we were going to still take vacations as a family after the divorce. I entertained the idea for a while, wanting to keep things as stable as possible for her. But a “family trip” to an amusement park about a month after we split changed my perspective. I felt sad that things weren’t the same, and I’m sure some of that rubbed off on our daughter. We had this forced intimacy, strolling around the park and riding on the rides, that was excruciating.

“Many divorced parents argue and feel considerable resentment when they are around each other, even though they have minimal contact,” says Meyers. “Spending time together during a holiday becomes a high-risk proposition for tension or spoiling the celebration.”

It may also give your child false hope that mom and dad will get back together. Younger children especially don’t get the meaning of separation and divorce, so there’s lots of room for misinterpretation. “Frequent time together -- especially at notable occasions (like holidays) -- sends mixed messages which may be counterproductive to acclimating to the transition.”

Instead, for a special treat, plan a fun outing with friends or family who have kids near in age to yours. Or, on holidays, rather than trying to glue the family back together, try out a new tradition while still keeping some of the old ones. For Christmas, I’m thinking of making chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast (new) and later in the day, bowling with grandma and grandpa (tried-and-true). I’m not sure what Dad has planned yet, but whatever back-and-forth we discuss, we’re going to save it for when the kid’s well out of hearing distance.

Plus, More from The Bump:

How to Tell Children About Divorce

How to Get Divorced and Not Mess Up Your Kids

The Truth About Being a Single Mother

-- Laura Putre

See More: Mommy Life