When children are involved, divorce can be as much about ending one relationship, as it is about forging a new one – with the same person. Entering a successful, functional co-parenting relationship may require more compromise and selflessness than marriage does.
“I always thought when you get divorced that you would happily fall into this coparenting relationship, as if it was just a natural bifactor of divorce,” said Daniella English, a single mother of four who authors the blog, The Not So Single Life.
“But after getting divorced, I realized it just doesn’t happen and it is not an automatic assumption ever. You have to actively and consciously work on it every single day.”
Torontonian Heather Cohen, who has been separated for about three years and shares a four-year-old son with her ex-husband, said that learning how to co-parent effectively was a challenge for her, too.
“It took us awhile to work out a schedule, but we’ve been on this schedule for two years now and it’s worked,” she said.
“I think it was my ex who said, ‘This isn’t about us, it’s about him and we can’t let our egos get in the way.’ It has made us able to get to the point we’re at now, where we have a healthy co-parenting relationship, because at the beginning, there was a lot of power struggling and resentment.”
Cohen recalled being taken aback when her ex asked for a 50-50 custody split “because he wasn’t very involved in the beginning, when we were together. It was a hard decision to not fight it, but I realized the importance of having both parents in (a child’s) life,” she said.
Journalist Erin Silver wrote in the Globe and Mail in 2015 that when she split from her husband three years earlier, “our hatred for each other was palpable. For weeks, we avoided eye contact at pickups and drop-offs – we literally couldn’t stand the sight of one another.”
But Silver knew that they would have to learn to get along, for the sake of their two boys.
“It’s hard to compromise and listen when I resented watching Netflix alone, night after night, once I’d put the kids to bed. I didn’t want to agree to change the kids’ play dates at the last minute to accommodate Shawn’s work schedule, after I’d taken the boys skiing and struggled to put on their ski boots and skis and hats and gloves all by myself,” she wrote.
After turning to mediation, they were encouraged to “let go of the past and build a new relationship with one another on a whole other level. Thinking about things in that way – respecting and trusting one another as co-parents, rather than distrusting each other as former spouses,” is what enabled them to move forward.
“Yosef,” a single father of two who separated from his wife about 5 years ago, said they turned to a mediator “to work out everything that is black and white, but between black and white there are many shades of grey,” he said.
Yosef added that when it comes to keeping the peace, you need to evolve and compromise.
“I’m willing to compromise my position in order to have quality time with my daughters and to make my daughters happy. It’s better to put your ego and what is fair aside in order to … make the kids happy,” Yosef said.
“You have to love your kids more than you hate each other,” English said. “That’s what it boils down to.”
When one thinks of obstacles to a healthy co-parenting relationship, factors such as custody arrangements and child support usually come to mind, but Jewish couples are often ill-prepared for having to compromise on how religiously observant their children will be raised in each parent’s home. For Cohen, one of the biggest hurdles she faced as a co-parent was the issue of Jewish observance.
“When I met my ex, he was much more observant than I was and I became more observant,” she said, adding that her ex has since decided not to practice at the same level.
“I’m kosher and also plant-based and he’s not, so I kind of have let go of a lot of those things.”
‘I always thought when you get divorced that you would happily fall into this co-parenting relationship.’
But she says regardless of how her ex chooses to spend the holidays, she doesn’t insist that their son spend the holidays exclusively with her.
“I feel like if I try to control too much, it doesn’t make it healthy. If it’s his time, he can do what he wants during his time, as long as one of those nights he’s with me,” said Cohen.
Yosef, who is Orthodox, is in a similar situation with his ex-wife who no longer practices Orthodox Judaism.
“Our religion is based on freedom of choice, so the girls have the freedom to do whatever they need to do and they know that they have two different homes… I can’t compel my ex-wife to keep kosher and my girls can’t compel their mother to keep kosher,” he said, adding that his daughters will make the effort to eat kosher-style at their mother’s house.
English said that when it comes to observing the holidays, she and her ex have learned to share them evenly.
“But there are certain holidays like Yom Kippur.… In order for me to fast, I’m at home in bed and (my son) doesn’t need to be with me. He should be with his father,” English explained.
“There are certain Jewish holidays that are more male-oriented and it just makes sense.”
Devorah Jonas, a family mediator and divorce coach who specializes in the Orthodox community, said that differences based on religious observance are fairly common.
“You come to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Sukkot, and they’re trying to figure out who has the kids when,” she explained.
“If the transfer day is in the middle of yontif, how do they work through that? Who are they having the meals with? If family is in from out of town and they want their kids to get together with their cousins, how do you work through those circumstances?”
She said that when parents choose to be spiteful, it’s nearly impossible to come to a compromise.
“I’ve heard stories where one parent is taking their children to McDonald’s just to throw it in the other parent’s face, and cutting off their tzitzit. There is not a lot you can do with that,” said Jonas.
‘The most important baseline is that the children are safe and healthy.’
But, she added, it’s important to remember that regardless of whether the parents differ on religious issues, there will likely be lots of discrepancies in how they run their respective households.
“I tell parents that the most important baseline is that the children are safe and healthy and cared for in a loving environment,” Jonas said.
English said that seeing a therapist has helped her focus on the well-being of herself and her children, and helped to keep her on a positive co-parenting track.
“Therapy has helped me by putting things into a bigger picture,” English said.
“When he asks for the kids, and your instinct is to say, ‘No! That’s my day,’ that’s an emotional response. That is a trigger. As opposed to thinking, he’s asking for them because it’s his grandmother’s 90th birthday and it’s my day, but these are family building experiences.… Divorce has really made me more of a big picture thinker. Is this going to matter five years from now? Is this really what we’re going to be arguing about?”
English said she makes a point of agreeing to his requests for time with their four children, unless there is a conflict.
“Kids need both their parents. I divorced my husband, my children did not divorce their father. I can’t take that away from them,” she said.
“My mantra is that I got divorced to make my kids’ lives better. And my kids not having a relationship with their father does not make their life better at all.”
She said that while she would never personally use her children as leverage to punish her ex, she can understand why women might be tempted to use their kids as bargaining chips, if that’s all they have.
“If your ex has all the power and all the money and has everything that can be used against you, and the only thing you have is the kids, it takes a lot of strength and resolve of character to say, ‘no, I won’t take that route,’ ” said English. “We have an active parenting relationship for the next 15 years, until my youngest is 18. We can either make this miserable for each other, or positive.”
Cohen agreed that community support and self-care can go a long way toward making a co-parenting relationship successful.
“I used my community, other women and other divorced dads to get their opinion on things and I did use a bit of legal counsel, but we didn’t go to mediation or anything like that,” Cohen said.
“I did do some therapy after I left the marriage, so that also definitely helped me feel more confident and comfortable in myself and being on my own. But I think it was a combination of us both being in a better place and being happier people.”
Cohen said she also has more time to take better care of herself, given that her son spends half the time with his father.
“If you’re feeling like crap, you’re not going to be a good mom. Self-care and making it about the children have, for me, been the most helpful,” Cohen said.
Jonas’ advice as a mediator is that parents should focus on what’s in the best interest of the children: “You can never control what the other parent is doing behind closed doors. You can have all the details and separation agreements in the world, but ultimately, you have to do your best with the time you have and let go.”