Co-parenting has nothing to do with kids and everything to do with parents. Kids can adapt, and given proper support, love, and patience, they can, and will, thrive in the aftermath of a divorce. In those unfortunate but all too common instances where they don’t, and they suffer, it isn’t because of that child, their parents’ divorce, or co-parenting itself.
Kids struggle because their parents fail, and specifically fail to do what’s right over what’s easy, starting with putting aside differences, hurts, and jealousies. I once knew of an ex-wife so upset by her former husband’s new relationship, that she childishly keyed the woman’s car. I’ve known of fathers who will not pay child support, or intentionally pay late, in hopes of soothing their bitterness. I’ve heard first-hand stories of the diabolical lengths moms and dads go, out of pure revenge, to turn a child against the other parent.
If co-parenting has any chance of success, each parent must move beyond their fear, pain, and insecurity, which is petty by most standards, and do what is ultimately best for their children – even if that costs us something. But there’s the problem and where parents routinely fall short. We’re completely on board with ‘putting the kids first,’ so long as the other parent is paying. But when to do so costs us, suddenly things aren’t so simple.
The Queen and I knew that blending families wouldn’t be easy. We’d read and seen enough to understand some of the obstacles to overcome making our new family, and our new marriage, work. These headwinds were perhaps the biggest reason we waited so long, nearly seven years, before marrying. It’s also why we never lived together. We hoped the extra runway would be enough room for our kids to get settled with the idea of blending. We were committed to doing everything possible, even when it meant putting our wants on hold, to give that new life the best chance of thriving.
We were encouraged moving day. The first week of unpacking and getting settled fueled those hopes. Everyone got along, acted respectful, even loving at times. We started feeling like geniuses as if we had this stepfamily thing mastered. But it wasn’t to last, as the excitement wore off and life started again, we realized the novelty was masking problems. As our kids resumed their day to days, we began seeing cracks in the façade we had so carefully tried to paint.
We knew before getting married which of our kids would have the greatest struggle in a blended family – it was each of our youngest. A headstrong hard-working teenage girl and an audacious, attention grabbing, eleven-year-old boy. Both had their growing pains adapting to new people in the home, new routines, new rules, but the boy turned out to be the one we severely underestimated. Though he had known the Queen for nearly his whole life, within weeks of our marriage is was as if she had become a stranger. When he and the Queen were in the same room, the tension stuck to your clothes. He never made eye contact and rarely acknowledged her existence.
It affected the Queen deeply and caused tension between her and me. She would rightfully voice frustration about his behavior. Even worse, I felt entirely helpless. Two of the people I love most in the world can’t get along, and there was little I could do to make it better.
He and I had several conversations in hopes of understanding why things had changed. I learned little. He probably didn’t fully understand himself. The problems persisted. It was as if opposing magnetic forces were keeping him from moving a step closer. As the months wore on and the Queen tried moving more in his direction, he pushed further away.
One of our son’s more endearing qualities is loyalty. He will defend those he loves tooth and nail sometimes to a fault. Add to that he is a people pleaser. We started to wonder if he felt he was betraying his mother by having a relationship with the Queen. I asked him this; he always said ’no.’ But as time went on, I grew more and more convinced this was the issue.
One night last year the whole thing reached a tipping point and out of frustration I called his mother in a desperate attempt to see what she might know. Little was gained, but through that conversation, a belief was planted that has since grown into a conviction. One that perfectly reflects the idea of co-parenting and doing what is right for our kids instead of what is easy for ourselves.
Divorce tests every child’s loyalties and step-parents only intensify this, representing for most children a mix of confusion and frustration. What box should this new person go? A friend? Fun aunt or uncle? Enemy? Or something else? What does it mean for me to love my new step parent? Will my biological mom or dad be upset? As an outside parent in the other home, we must help our children navigate this and not assume our children know how we feel. Remarriage changes things for a kid, no matter how long that new step parent has been in their life. And considering nearly 50% of children today live in stepfamilies, this is something we need to get right.
But it may be one of the hardest things we ever have to do.
My son needed assurance that having a relationship with the Queen, now his stepmother, would not upset his biological mom. That there was no competition between the two of them. He needed to know, directly and clearly, that not only was it alright that our son loves his stepmother, but that she encourages him to do so. But she is the only one who can open that door. I can’t do it for her. Furthermore, she must work to keep it open by nurturing their relationship, supporting it with questions about how they are doing, reinforcing her approval through pointing out the Queen’s best qualities, and where appropriate defending her when he complains about something. We must never, we can never, undermine a stepparent to relieve our own insecurities.
For many, this seems an impossible task. We mistakenly fear the loss of influence or worse the stepparent moving up in priority. It’s asking far too much to support someone we may have hesitancy towards or even dislike. It goes against our every intuition and worse our pride. But here’s the reality, it’s what our children desperately need from us! They need to know that we want them to experience as much love as they can get, even if that love comes from someone we might consider a threat. Because if we are truly committed to ‘putting the kids first,’ we have an obligation, in fact, a duty to set aside what we want for what our children need. To do anything less is to lie to ourselves and them.
Our son finally, and not without effort, received that needed approval. Nothing has had a more profound influence on his relationship with the Queen. While certainly not perfect, he at least knows he has his mom’s permission to love.
Not because it’s easy for her, but because it’s best for him.