I loved chatting with Deesha Philyaw from Co-Parenting 101! I must admit that when I initially decided to do this interview I thought that we would be on opposite sides of the spectrum regarding co-parenting. After all, she is the one that vacations with her ex-spouse and I have some strong opinions abou that. However, this interview was insightful not because of the information persay, as I already know how beneficial cooperative parenting is for the child; but because I learned that our views aren’t really that different at all. I learned that vacationing with her ex-spouse is the “most extreme” thing that they do for their kids and it works for them. As I’ve always stated, there certainly isn’t a one size fits all approach to co-parenting. Additionally, I learned an important lesson from Ms. Deesha, and that is that it’s most important for divorced parents to talk about a co-parenting plan prior to divorce, if possible, in order to implement a plan that works for them and their children. As Deesha stated during our chatting session; “your experience [she was referring to me and my ex and the fact that we decided to be highly cooperative parents after our breakup] also illustrates Reason #8,487 why people need to really give 100% effort to making these decisions themselves instead of ending up in court: A judge does not know–and likely doesn’t really care about–your child’s personality, needs, quirks, etc. Court is really where you get the one-size-fits-all in effect.”
At any rate, thanks for the chat, Deesha! TMF readers, check it out below.
Kela: Was your co-parenting plan something that you and your ex-spouse agreed about prior to the divorce or did it just sort of happen that way over time?
Deesha: Our plan was heavily discussed and agreed upon before we even physically separated or called any attorneys. Mike and I were on the same page about how we would aim for consistency for our 2 daughters, what our parenting time schedule would be, how we would handle holidays and vacations, joint activities, and how, in the future, we would handle the introduction of significant others. We never explicitly said, “We’re not going to bad-mouth each other in front of the kids”; that was just a given. We were completely committed to keeping the peace where the kids were considered. Bad-mouthing the other parent to a child is just bad parenting, period, whether you’re divorcing or not; it’s not something either of us would ever do. So we didn’t have to articulate that. And we didn’t articulate anything beyond keeping the peace for the kids’ sake, with regard to how we would interact with each other. For a long time, we didn’t interact with each other outside of dropping off/picking up kids, and phone calls and emails that were tense and business-like at best, and hostile and ugly at worst.
Time passed, probably two years or so after our separation, and little over a year after our divorce was finalized, and we turned a corner. I suspect we needed time and space and all the things we did personally and individually to heal. For me, that included counseling. Eventually, we both seemed to relax in each other’s presences, and the communication wasn’t tense; we could talk about difficult things and even disagree without it getting ugly. And from there, in the nearly 6 years since we separated, a friendship has emerged.
Kela: Vacationing with your ex-spouse is something that I have some very strong opinions about; not because I disagree but because the fact that it’s glamorized sends the wrong message to stepfamilies. I think the goal of divorced parents should be to co-parent in way that benefits the child and not necessarily aim for vacationing together. The fact of the matter is that each child is different and some children respond negatively to these types of things; i.e., they feel even more torn when mom actually witnesses that he actually likes his stepmom. Having all of their parents sharing in Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner or vacations actually prohibits them from fully engaging in the moment because they are too conscious of who’s looking when he hugs stepmom or stepdad or laughs at their jokes, etc. Do you and your ex-spouse participate in such activities because you think it’s what the kids want or because you actually are friends who just happen to be divorced?
Deesha: From the outset of our separation, when were definitely not friends, we agreed to a joint summer vacation, a combined Christmas, and occasions where we would both take the kids to dinner or some other outing. Since it’s been a few years now, we’ve checked in with our kids to see if this is something they’re still interested in us doing, and their reaction thus far has been, “Of course!” and they can’t imagine why we wouldn’t. I suspect, based on other conversations we’ve had with them about the divorce, that they want to continue the joint activities because one of the many things they hate about divorce is being with one of us OR the other. Joint activities are the rare occasions when they can be with both of us at the same time and we’re not in transition.
Kela: Do you believe your kids would have adjusted well to the divorce had you not decided to vacation together?
Yes. There’s so much more than vacationing together that has gone into our post-divorce parenting that has served our children well. Vacationing together was one of many ideas and efforts we put in place upon our separation. The vacation stands out because it’s so unusual, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for the cornerstone of our co-parenting.
Kela: I read in one of your Faster Times articles that you are now remarried – CONGRATULATIONS! You also said that you and your husband live apart because you didn’t want to move the kids away from their father.
Deesha: And also because my husband is also divorced with two daughters and a shared parenting agreement, and he too chooses to be in close physical proximity to his children.
Kela: I don’t think anyone will disagree that marriage takes a whole lot of work! What are some of the things that you and your spouse do to make your marriage work despite the distance between you?
Deesha: We do practical as well as creative things to make it work. Practically, our parenting time schedules are aligned. Even though his schedule is an every-other-week schedule and mine is not, we have our kids the same weekends, so this allows us grown-up time on our “off” weekends (and full weeks during summer, spring, and winter vacations). We can bring the kids together on the other weekends, though not much at all during the school year, except for long weekends and holidays. All six of us are together for weeks at a time in the summer and spring. So logistically speaking, my husband and I are able to see each other a minimum of twice a month, and lots more during summer, spring, and winter vacations. We both have our girls the same Thanksgivings (alternating years), so we’re always all together for Thanksgiving.
As you can probably guess, we have a shared calendar. Let me just plug Google Calendar real quick: I have a calendar that my husband, my ex, and his wife all access which contains my schedule and my daughters’ schedules. There’s also a second calendar that overlaps, same interface, that only my husband and I can see, that includes his schedule and his daughters’ schedules.
Another plug for technology: It helps to keep us connected throughout the day. We talk, text, and email a lot, about what’s going on with us, with all the kids, in the news, and amongst our friends and family.
Also, we “claim” both households, from a practical standpoint. My husband might be the only man who has a honey-do list in two states. Our division of labor tends to be pretty stereotypically gendered, not because we conform to that, but rather because of our skill sets. For example, I’m perfectly capable of doing manual labor and heavy lifting, but that’s his thing, definitely not mine. He’s capable of making all doctors and dentist appointments for all six of us and organizing summer camp schedules, but I’m better at those kinds of details, so I do it.
Creatively, there’s a lot that we do. We focus on our shared interests. We play Internet Scrabble together, and we read the same books, so that we can talk about them. We both love to cook, so we share a lot of recipes and plan menus when we’re apart, and cook for each other and with each when we’re together. We both love to dance, so we try to fit that in when we’re together. We both try to stay active and healthy, so we encourage each other in our workouts and good eating. In general, we try to be purposeful about our time together. Sometimes we’re working or doing housework, but we are very intentional about being close, even when we socialize with friends, in either city. We also try to keep up with a regular “date” night, even when we’re apart-time where we can just focus on each other.
It’s not always in the budget, but traveling together is another way we connect. My husband’s job requires him to travel, and he has a fair amount of flexibility as to when he travels, so we try to make the trips align with my schedule, and I can join him, even if just on the tail end of the trip.
We intentionally work on our marriage, too. We read books and share articles with each other about marriage, relationships, gender issues, stepfamilies, and parenting. We try to deal with conflict head on, as the habitual avoidance of conflict has been found to be the #1 predictor of divorce. Earlier this year, we attended a couples’ retreat that was really transformative for us.
I asked my husband your question, and he said: “Patience, understanding, and appreciating the compromises and sacrifices we make to fulfill our commitment to each other and to all of our girls.”
And finally: We laugh. A LOT. Humor and playfulness keep us close and help sustain us when we can’t be physically together.
[I realize I wrote "my husband" a lot. I don't use his real name because of the nature of his job. "JB" is a pseudonym I use for him when I write, so feel free to substitute that if you'd like.]
Kela: I am also an advocate to showing our children what a healthy marriage looks like instead of solely focusing on what a healthy divorce is. My ex and I and his wife and my husband get along great! However, we don’t want to only show our children how great we can co-parent. We also want to show them what life after divorce is and how to be committed and a partner to your spouse, not just your ex-spouse. Kids live what they learn and our hope is that they will grow up, get married and stay married. So it’s important to show them what that looks like. What are some of the things that you and your spouse do to show them what a healthy marriage is?
Deesha: They see us communicating and being respectful and loving towards each other. They see us delight in and being accountable to each other in ways that are exclusive to each other. They see us committing and prioritizing our time and other resources to each other and to our family as a whole. They see us being responsible, thoughtful parents-well, this they may not grasp until they are parents themselves, but in our parenting we hope to convey to them their worth and our commitment to them, because our marriage vows included our commitments to them.
They see us being partners, whether we’re cleaning the house, planning a birthday party, or playing a board game with them. We talk about being friends, and this surprises them, but we believe that it shows them what is at the core of a healthy marriage.
Kela: What if your spouse ever said that he was uncomfortable with your co-parenting arrangement? He loves the fact that you guys get along and thinks it’s healthy for the kids but Christmas dinner and vacations with the ex is a bit much for him. What if he preferred that you not participate in such activity with your ex-spouse? Would that be a deal breaker for you?
Deesha: To clarify, we spend Christmas Eve all together (not my husband and stepkids though, because we’re in different states) and at least part of Christmas Day. Some years, we’ve gone different places in the afternoon/evening. Last year, I stayed at Mike and Sherry’s house until after dinner time.
It’s so hard to conjecture, but I would have to say that I might have given up the vacation and Christmas Eve, but probably not Christmas Day, opening gifts together. It really would depend on what his reasoning was for being uncomfortable, and I’d have to balance that against what I perceived my kids’ needs (which are ever-changing) to be at that time. This issue would have come up long before we got to the point of talking marriage, so in essence, we both would have had a decision to make, even to continue the dating relationship: If he decided this was a deal-breaker for him, I’d have to look at what my kids’ needs were at that time; we could be at a very different place when they are older (they are now almost-7 and almost-12). And he would have to decide as well if the situation was so uncomfortable to him that, in the face of it, he didn’t want to marry me. If that was the case, if it was that big to him, then probably this issue would likely be masking other reasons why we probably shouldn’t have married, at least not at that time. Is it a trust issue? A confidence issue? Is it just the principle of the thing? Regardless of the specific reason, I don’t think he’d be wrong, and I’d be right. Or vice versa. In general, in relationships people have to make choices that work for them.
Kela: Do/Did you choose someone because he was the perfect guy for you or because he is/was comfortable with your arrangement?
Deesha: When I was first dating again, Mike and I were not friends, but we did one vacation together with the girls once before I met my now-husband, and we spent one Christmas with the girls, in that same time frame (I met him in early December of the following year). It never occurred to me to disclose these details up front to anyone I was dating because I was taking things slowly and dating casually; I would, however, mention that my ex and I were cooperative for our kids’ sake, and guys would be relieved because that meant “no drama.” However, if it did come up in conversation about my kids that their dad lived right around the corner (which, at the time, he did), that was a problem for a couple of guys. They assumed this meant that one or both of us still had “a thing” for each other, or was secretly driving past each other’s house spying-I’ve talked to Mike about this, and neither was the case, lol. I can understand how, in our divorce-equals-all-hell-breaks-loose culture, it would be hard to imagine that Mike’s decision to live around the corner had nothing to do with me and everything to do with his wanting to be close to the girls and to help in terms of transitions and their coping with our divorce.
Ultimately, none of those guys made it to the lightning round of dating me, but the reason never had anything to do with Mike living around the corner. So I can’t say if that would ever have been a dealbreaker in my new relationship. When I met my now-husband, he responded very positively to how I described my relationship with Mike, in large part because he had once envisioned a peaceful divorce and co-parenting situation for himself and his daughters, but it was not to be. He thought it was great that we got along. We had only known each other for a brief time before Christmas rolled around, and he didn’t blink. The following spring, when Mike and I took the girls away during Spring Break, he still didn’t blink. But these were not the traits that made me say, “This is the guy for me.” Of course, I liked that he wasn’t suspicious of my interactions with Mike, but I never viewed my co-parenting arrangement as a litmus test or dealbreaker. Honestly, it didn’t occur to me that my co-parenting arrangement would be an issue for a future partner, or something to be managed or negotiated. I know that it is for a lot of co-parents, and understandably so, but that wasn’t my experience. As for whether a parent “should” negotiate or change their arrangement to suit a new partner/spouse, I believe that’s a personal decision that depends on the circumstances. I don’t believe there’s one right answer.
Kela: The mission of co-parenting 101 is to teach divorced parents how to have healthy co-parenting relationships. What does that mean to you?
Deesha: It means striving to keep parental conflict to a minimum and interacting with your child’s other parent in ways that are civil and respectful and that recognize the other parent’s worth in the child’s eyes.
Kela: The fact of the matter is that there are tons of ex-wives who are antagonistic, bitter and intrusive. By that same token, there are tons of ex-husbands who are deadbeats. There are tons of stepfamilies of which the personalities of the parents/step-parents just clash. As such, these types of divorced parents and step-parents probably won’t be vacationing, or having Christmas dinner together. What is your advice for them?
Deesha: Keep parental conflict to a minimum, interact with your child’s other parent in ways that are civil and respectful and that recognize the other parent’s worth in the child’s eyes. The reality is, of course, bitter and/or deadbeats usually ignore such advice. So our advice is for the parents struggling to deal with them: Do what you can to keep the peace anyway. Don’t bad-mouth your ex; you really can affirm your child’s feelings (hurts, disappointments, etc.) without bad-mouthing the other parent.
Be encouraged: Your love, positivity, and stability really does matter to your child, even though this may not be apparent in the short run.
Keep your focus on your child, not the other parent. Attack the problems that come up, not the other parent. If your co-parent sends you an angry email blaming you for your child’s poor hygiene, for example, deal with the hygiene problem directly with your child. You might not even respond to the email. Respond, don’t react to your ex’s vitriol-there’s a huge difference.
You can’t control or force this other person to change; all you can do is change your responses and control yourself. Conduct yourself in such a way that you model civility, respect, and peace for your child (which, by the way, is not the same thing as being a doormat).
Finally, look ahead: In 10, 20, 30 years from now, when your child is an adult, what would you like him/her to say about how you co-parented? “My parents hated each other, and I felt trapped in the middle”? or “My parents didn’t get along, but my mom/dad worked really hard to keep me out of the middle”?
Same advice for parents/stepparents: You don’t have to be friends. If need be, steer clear of each other. Just don’t say or do things that would make a child feel conflicted about the other person, or feel that she has to choose sides, declare loyalty. Be the bigger person in the face of negativity; be who the child needs you to be…again, not a doormat, but a peacekeeper. If that means not engaging the other person, disengage to the extent that you can.
None of this is easy, and some parents/stepparents stay spoiling for a fight, but kids are worth the effort at least.