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5 Ways Divorced Parents Can Cope with Custody

The Bear and I meandered the grocery aisles the other day discussing the important matters of the day: sharks have no hair, but give live birth (so not a mammal). A platypus lays eggs, has hair, and is a mammal. Somewhere near between the frozen hams and bacon the Bear asked me a bigger question. “Why does my dad not respect you?”

Wow. I think I preferred the mammal conversation. I reframed the question back to him: Why do you think?

Bear: “I think he doesn’t listen to and respect you because you don’t practice anything together.”

“Hmm. Tell me more.” (Let's explore his thinking).

“When parents have a kid together and live together they have to practice being parents together. You guys never lived together with me so you don’t know how to.”

Damn. I just got schooled by an almost 6 year old. He is right. We don’t practice parenting together. We team on an as need basis but mostly engage by disengaging. We use a tactic called parallel parenting. This means we limit contact with one another, we use a court approved communication tool, and follow a fairly strict protocol.

As much as I love the idea of co-parenting cooperatively we just can’t seem to maintain open communication that isn’t tense. We play nice at drop offs, but sometimes I look back at communication and feel sad that 6 years later the power struggles and disparagement exists. It should be easier at this point.

Parallel parenting means my child silos each home experience. Rules are different. Expectations change. And the level of involvement looks different. I feel immense pride in how well he manages these big changes twice a month, on breaks and during the summer. The truth is we contract our children to be troopers—a court order forces them to. An order I fought for. And I ache when he just wishes his home life looked more like his friend Henry’s.

The Bear’s perspective on parallel parenting comes up during car rides or when we get ready for soccer games or choir. He knows he will miss important events while visiting his father. He wishes he didn’t have to. He knows our home will most likely always be small and I’ll never feel comfortable buying a trampoline. He accepts Santa follows the parenting plan closely to know the Bear’s whereabouts during the holidays. He doesn’t mind two birthdays but wishes I threw more elaborate celebrations with his whole class at the recreation center or a party place. He values date days with mama when he comes home from longer visits away from home. He recognizes he can only wear certain outfits to his dad’s. He gets extra snuggly before transition weekends and returns more irritable. He ebbs and flows with a schedule he never chose. (Round of applause for him please. The kid deserves it).

Before I secured the current parenting plan I lost hours of sleep with pending court dates, mediations, and piling up attorney fees. I paid tens of thousands of dollars for this routine. Money I didn’t have.

Sad to think. But true. The anxiety took me over and often my ability to parallel parent fractured. I hated feeling constantly emotionally tortured and beat up by a person I had once trusted and valued.

Over the last six years I learned some strategies to change my thinking. To assist myself in helping my son see I am also trooper. I committed myself to trying these tactics to better heal, cope, and prepare for the highly emotional trips to the mediation table, court room, and exchanges. I discerned victimizing the situation fixed nothing. I needed to change my narrative.

Here’s how I cope:

1. I allow my child space to reflect and ask questions regarding his father and I’s relationship. I answer his questions. I include stories of good stuff like our favorite pet, daddy’s excellent cooking skills, and things we enjoyed together. I don’t stuff those memories down. Our marriage failed, but there were some really nice times before the crash. Doing this has helped me remove the negative and helps his son know more about his parents pre-divorce. He needs to know love existed once.

2. Make lists. I listed out my top three goals post-divorce and as a parent.

*Raise a happy, healthy, thriving son

*Acquire financial, emotional and relational stability

*Prioritize wellness

I used these as my guide post. I allowed my attorney to know my goals. She reminded me if I focused on anything other than these I thwarted my opportunities to achieve them. (Thanks Natalie!)

As we mediated in my mind I asked:

Does this offer/suggestion help me meet my intended goal?

Yes: keep going

No: Not worth negotiating

I also listed a simple reflection: What can I live with and what can I live without...

These questions and lists helped me then set up my reflection for my intent. Sometimes mediation just serves as a giant “pissing match” wherein both people want to win and punish the other person. I didn’t want sucked into that trap after my first botched mediation.

3.Question your purpose

A. Do I want to win? If winning is the only goal I knew I lacked the presence of mind to make decisions best for my child. These would all be self-serving under the guise of advocacy.

B. Am I here to achieve a solution? Yes. Then I can look at this from a business negotiation framework. In a negotiation each party comes away with something positive and is partnership focused.

C. Can I compromise? What am I willing to give up? I accessed my previous lists to help me maintain focus.

Share these with your attorney or a trusted adviser. Why? They need to know where they can help guide you and advocate best. Reality checks help tremendously in breaking negative patterned thinking. (You can read about this in my blog here)

4. When all else fails draw a Panic Person. A Panic Person helps you practice skills in identifying the emotions causing the anxiety and allows you to work on reframing how you perceive things.

A favorite of mine “This is not forever. This is for now.” Staying away from catastrophizing the situations allows you to keep your wits about you.The better you become with this skill the easier you manage disappointments and hurt across the board. Coach yourself to handle these times better.

5. And lastly, honor your feelings. I feel sad when I think about how every important day in my son’s life is essentially divvied up. This sadness comes from a place of grief. I failed at “practicing parenting” with his father. And it’s ok. I prefer the parallel parenting situation in comparison to other alternatives. While your child spends time away allow yourself to binge watch a show with curse words on Netflix, take a long bath in Epsom salts and essential oils, read books, craft, go for walks, or spend time with a friend. Make the phone calls your child always interrupts. It doesn’t have to be miserable.

You are not less of a parent because you take time to work on you while your child’s away. It’s ok. I promise.

Lastly, I challenge you to try something: Let it go. Life feels so much better when the bitter angst lifts. Start looking forward to the positive changes. Build traditions together. Fashion a life richly blessed in love, gratitude, and courage to refuse to stay stuck. Liberate yourself not only from guilt but from the expectation life has to look a certain way to be fulfilling. Stop fighting for what you should have had and start living peacefully with what you do have. Heather sent me an article this morning from Tiny Buddha that captures the essence of letting go for a more peaceful existence:

“Whatever ideal outcome you’re clinging to, could you be open to the possibility of releasing it so that you can breathe, yield, and expand into something bigger?”

I think you can. Sending you comfort during the holidays my friends.

Love, Jessica

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