Healthy Co-Parenting: Are You a Single Parent or a Co-Parent?

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Some people adopt the title of “single parent” when the relationship breaks down, or the divorce becomes final. Healthy co-parenting isn’t possible for every family, but it’s the best outcome for your kids. Before you call yourself a single parent, consider the negative impact of that.  

Apples and Oranges: A Case Study

I know two Edmonton-area couples who got married around the same time, had kids around the same time, and make about the same amount of money. Both decided to get a divorce the same year. In both cases, the dad moved out of the family home and got a place nearby. Both families split parenting time between Mom and Dad.   

One of these families I’ll call the Apple family leads a pretty harmonious life. Mom and Dad get annoyed and have conflicts from time to time, of course. Most of the time, they are united in putting their kids, Fuji and Gala, first. They all go trick-or-treating together, and Mom and Dad attend parent-teacher interviews together.  

The other family, I’ll call them the Orange family, has spent more than 80 thousand dollars on legal fees to sort out co-parenting arrangements, even though they settled their divorce very inexpensively. They went back to court when dad wanted their daughter Clementine to move schools. They went back again when Mom didn’t want Clementine going out of town for Christmas. They went back again when they couldn’t agree about whether Clementine should get braces.   

The reasons one family has conflict and the other does not are complex and not easy to explain. However, there is one difference between the two. Clementine’s mom called herself a single mom from the very beginning. Fuji and Gala’s parents have never used this term. They are co-parents, and whether they like it or not, they aren’t alone in raising their kids.  

This terminology can have an interesting and serious effect on your children that you might not be aware of.

Co-Parent vs. Single Parent

It can be challenging to go from a home with two parents mitigating the ups and downs of parenthood to each parent providing for their children’s needs separately. However, those two parents are not always single parents.     

A single parent is one who is performing the majority of the parenting responsibilities alone. They are the only ones ensuring the kids are appropriately fed, attending their activities, and doing their homework. They are the only ones looking after the children’s mental, emotional, and social wellbeing.   

The other parent is there sporadically, if at all. They don’t see the kids on a routine basis. They usually take on a “vacation parent” role when they are around. They do fun activities with the kids instead of worrying about their physical and emotional needs.   

Healthy Co-Parenting  

On the other hand, co-parenting is where you and the other parent live in two separate homes, but you are sharing the responsibility of raising your children. That could look very different from family to family.  

For some, splitting all responsibilities 50/50 makes sense. For others, one person becomes the homework parent while the other becomes the sports or activities parent. The critical factor in a co-parenting setup is both parents are invested and engaged in the kids’ lives.   

Another common trait in healthy co-parenting relationships is a fair amount of open communication and making plans and decisions for the children together.   

That’s not to say the two parents enjoy communicating with each other or find it easy to do so.  

Quite the opposite, former spouses sometimes find this difficult, but they both believe their children benefit from having both of them involved in their lives.   

Kids and Healthy Co-Parenting  

Speaking of the kids, they thrive when their parents can co-parent. A 2021 report entitled, The State of Families is one of many scientific papers to show that outcomes are much better for children who have consistent relationships with both parents than those raised by a single parent.   

Sometimes when one person begins to call themselves a “single parent” and just assumes this role despite the willing involvement of the other parent, the single parent label becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.   

The self-declared “single parent” unintentionally distances the other parent and adds more work to their own plate. They will begin referring to themselves as single parents in their community and in front of the children. That is the case for Ms. Orange. Once she began to build an identity as a single mom, she became less tolerant of the contributions of Mr. Orange.  

It’s important to consider what it does to the children when you make all parenting decisions against their other parent’s will. In many families, children are oblivious to the faults of their parents and so adore both of their parents.   

A single act of calling oneself a single parent can create collateral damage, creating feelings of insecurity and instability in the child. It sends them the message that both parents aren’t there for them, whether that is the case or not.  

Children who hear the phrase “raised by a single parent” often feel left out by the other parent, and the divide created may cause them to lose the time and support of the second most important person in their life.  

Think of Co-Parenting as a Job  

Think of co-parenting as a job. Your boss asks you to do a group project with a person you don’t like, and you’d rather not spend any time with. It can seem easier to do the team project alone than to do the hard work necessary to collaborate with someone you hate. You might wonder why your co-worker has a job at all or what your boss sees in that person.   

The thing is, you know if you refuse to work with the other person, there will be consequences. Your boss will be unhappy, and you will create conflict. You’ll also burn yourself out by doing a project designed for two people alone. Even if you think your results will be better and your life will be easier if you do the work alone, that doesn’t change that you will end up burned out, with an unhappy boss.  

In post-divorce parenting, your kids are the boss. They’re asking you to put aside your differences and raise them with your ex. Your kids don’t need you to be friends with your ex; they just need you to get through the project of raising your children together.  

Don’t Choose Single Parent Life  

In so many cases, single-parent life is not a choice. Whether because of safety issues or because one parent chooses to be uninvolved, circumstances for some parents to raise their kids alone.  

Don’t choose this life if you don’t have to. When you choose co-parenting over single parenting, it mirrors a focus on the kids, collaboration, and even forgiveness for the sake of making parenting work.   

I had a client who never referred to himself as a single parent, nor did he call his ex-wife “my kids’ mom.” He always referred to his ex as “my co-parent.” What a respectful and constructive way to accurately reflect their new relationship.   

Calling yourselves co-parents could even be part of the conversation with your ex as you are making separation and parenting decisions. Here are some talking points to guide you:  

  • How will you refer to each other?  
  • How will you honour your co-parenting agreement?   
  • What will you do in challenging situations?   
  • How will you communicate?  

Many people don’t realize that you can still access mediation even if you’re long divorced but have conflict about parenting. If you want to get your parenting relationship back on track with your ex, we are always here to help.   

We also have a checklist for creating a parenting plan that will help you get started.  

Happy Co-Parenting!