Sometimes Co-Parenting Means Letting Go
“There is the drawing you are trying to make and the drawing that is actually being made, and you can’t see it until you forget what you were actually trying to do” – Lynda Barry
I love this quote because it is all about how letting go of expectations frees up creativity to let something just grow. I think parenting involves many moments of letting go and being there to nurture and support what unfolds. In those moments when parents realize that things are not going as planned and dreamed, we have the choice to either clamp down tight and redirect back to the original path, or to be there to offer love, support, and safety on the new adventure.
And it’s more complicated with two houses …
The letting go is even harder and also more necessary when you are parenting after separation, in different houses, with a co-parent with whom you don’t get along. One of the hardest things for lots of parents I work with is the realization that some of their parenting ideas and values may not always be actualized. This could be because of:
A new reality with two homes that makes the original hopes and dreams logistically or economically impossible;
Long-standing parenting differences that may have existed in the relationship (and may even have been part of its breakdown), that are highlighted upon separation;
Extended family or new partners intervening with their own perspectives and ways of doing things;
Continuing conflict between co-parents that undermines their ability to focus on the needs of the children, or their plans for their upbringing.
The sad reality of shared parenting is that your kids are with you for only part of the time. The rest of the time, they are in the care of someone you may not like or trust to make good decisions, and who likely doesn’t maintain the same routine and parenting priorities as you. This lack of input can be devastating, especially for people who were deeply invested in parenting during the relationship. Learning to accept this new situation is a grieving process that can be as big, or even bigger, than the grieving of the relationship.
As a coach, I spend a lot of time with people as they draft emails or review the arguments they want to make in mediation to try to convince the other person to change their parenting style: to maintain a regular bedtime, keep a consistent rule about screen time, or follow a particular parenting model or theory. In some situations, it’s possible to convince the other parent to do things a particular way, but if it doesn’t fit their values, personality, or strengths as a parent, it may not actually be maintained once the new arrangement is under way. In other situations, these kinds of differences might be part of the breakdown of the relationship, and one more email or fight is unlikely to convince the other person to change a perspective that years of arguments didn’t change. In this way, parenting after divorce or separation forces us to figure out how and when to let go of our expectations.
How do we figure out when to let go?
In the day to day, it is sometimes necessary to let go of specific expectations. At the same time, we all have values, principles, and expectations that are so important to us that it’s worth pushing for them. The following questions might help you assess whether or not it is “worth it” in any situation to keep fighting for what you think is best:
How important to you, on a scale of 1-10, is this particular issue?
What’s driving you to feel it’s so important?
When you look back on this in 10 years, will it still feel necessary?
Are you sure? How do you know?
Is there any information or objective criteria about child development, parenting after divorce, or your particular child that might help you assess your perspective?
Is there anything that would make you feel you could let go of this particular issue, while still maintaining your parenting values and goals?
If it is still important to you, how likely is it that you can make it happen?
What would be the impact on you, your child, or the level of conflict if you keep fighting about it?
Letting go often involves mourning
Almost all letting go, no matter how big or small, comes with a process of mourning. When we realize we have to let go of something we care about, or when the changes in our parenting expectations are enmeshed with the mourning of the relationship, that grief can sometimes feel all-consuming. It is helpful to remember in those times that mourning is a process. Therapists often refer to the stages of grief, originally conceptualized by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross as a five-stage process, which has been expanded to seven stages. One way of describing the seven stages is: 1) shock and denial, 2) pain and guilt, 3) anger and bargaining, 4) depression, reflection, and loneliness, 5) the upward turn, 6) reconstruction and working through, and 7) acceptance and hope (insert link).
Keep in mind that the grief process is not the same for everyone, and is also not linear. It is possible to move back and forth between the different stages, or to spend a long time in one of the stages, and then find that other stages move more quickly. Think of this as a loose framework that might be helpful, rather than as a prescription. If at any point, you feel stuck at one point in the grieving process, it may be helpful to reach out and get some support.
At the other end can come freedom
As hard as change can be, when we are able to let go and allow things to unfold as they will, it can bring a sense of freedom that may not have seemed possible before. Letting go can make everything feel lighter and easier, and can free up mental and emotional energy for the things that really matter. In addition, when one person in a conflict can let go of even one small thing that is important to the other person, it can sometimes encourage the other person to do the same. When this happens in entrenched mediations, the sense of relief and surprise can be palpable. Often, this is the first step toward a workable agreement. But even if this is not the case, the person who is able to let go can benefit from one less thing to fight about. And as Lynda Barry says in the quote at the beginning, sometimes forgetting what we think we want or need opens up new possibilities we couldn’t imagine before.