CO-PARENTING AND THE DISPOSABILITY OF THE MODERN FATHER

Fact: Only about half of American children live in households with both parents.

With almost 40 million children living without daily access to both parents, one might assume that co-parenting is a familiar term in the parenting lexicon. The truth, though, is that many parents have never heard the term, and even fewer truly understand what co-parenting really means. Some believe that co-parenting is simply the default for all parents who share custody of their children after separation or divorce, while others believe it’s an idealized relationship that cannot possibly exist in the real world.

Both are wrong.

Co-parenting is a specific type of parenting in which both parents find a way to communicate often, to share equal responsibility in parenting their children. It requires diligence, compromise, and enormous patience. Still, child psychologists argue, it’s worth the effort because it comes closest to maximizing the role of both parents, as well as communicating to children that they are allowed to love their parents equally. In fact, co-parenting may be the only parenting plan which reinforces a child’s relationship with both parents.

Is it idealized? Perhaps. It’s certainly the most perfect way to parent children who do not live with both parents. But does that mean that it’s impossible, or even unlikely? No, not really. Co-parenting isn’t impossible. It requires only one thing: two parents deeply committed to the best interests of their children.

Any engaged parent believes that every decision they make is in the best interest of their children. So what makes co-parenting so difficult? While most parents believe that what they’re doing is best for their kids, very few believe the same about their counterparts. Part of separation and divorce is the elimination of trust between two people, and co-parenting cannot exist without trust.

So, most parents default not to co-parenting, but to parallel parenting. Unlike co-parenting, parallel parenting requires virtually no communication between parents, and what communication does exist generally happens by way of shared calendars and text exchanges. The interactions are business-like and task-oriented. While this approach may help parents avoid conflict, it invariably removes the humanity from parenting. That’s precisely what it’s designed to do.

There are several downsides to parallel parenting: discipline and routine are inconsistent between households, children almost never see their parents interact, and children are more likely to feel like they must choose sides. Ultimately, parallel parenting works best to navigate high-conflict separations since it eliminates the day-to-day communication between parents. Though this may be best in the short-term, child psychologists almost universally agree that the goal should be to reach a place of co-parenting as quickly as possible.

What does this have to do with the modern father? Simply put, we have cultivated a mentality that fathers are disposable. This would seem at odds with the more recent push for fathers to break from stereotype and actively engage in parenting responsibilities, but we’re combating preconceptions rooted in the very fabric of our country.

This mentality puts immense pressure on fathers to concede and cater to mothers following a separation or divorce because they (fathers) are fully aware that access to their children may be stripped at any moment, despite an overwhelming increase in the number of fathers who both cherish their role as a parent and engage more often than previous generations.

Even now, as fathers spend record time with their children and lament only that they cannot be still more present for their children, many fathers are haunted by the reality that they at the mercy of century-old stereotypes about what fathers provide inside the home. Fathers have long been viewed as providers and disciplinarians, but envisioning fathers as nurturing and domestic requires a drastic shift in modern perceptions of masculinity.

On one hand, non-traditional families are proving that women can both provide and nurture, which is a vital step forward in respecting non-traditional family dynamics. By proxy, though, such dynamics further reinforce the misconception that fathers are disposable. This is not a case against non-traditoinal families, but a reflection of society’s unwillingness to accept a version of masculinity that nurtures, that washes dishes and cooks meals, that thrives in domestic settings.

Karen Woodall, a therapist who works in family separation, notes that “dads are useful to [mothers] after separation because they can babysit and be included on the rota for the school run. Dads as helpers, are acceptable so long as they are doing as they are told. Dads as hands on active parents, sharing the care, the chores, the long nights of tummy aches and sickness are not routinely acceptable.”

Speaking from experience, these words resonate as an accurate window into what it’s like for modern fathers following separation and divorce.

When my ex-wife and I divorced, my lawyer encouraged me to petition for full custody. She told me that I had a strong case, and that full custody would be the best way to preserve my relationship with our twins. I rejected the idea out-right, arguing that the girls would benefit most from regular access to both of their parents. The outcome: the decree ordered joint custody with a truly even split in terms of time spent with each of us.

For the first few months, we came very close to co-parenting. She reached out to me when she had difficulties putting our girls to bed or getting them to eat. We co-existed at recitals without any problem at all.

At some point, though, my ex-wife and I stopped seeing eye-to-eye. Instead of working toward shared discipline plans or common routines, we settled for superficial exchanges and false amicability. Eventually, she asserted that our responsibility as parents is simply to care for our daughters as best we see fit while they are with us. Anything else, she said, was a bonus.

This is how easy it is to lapse into parallel parenting.

While I pushed for agreement and communication, she routinely disengaged. The disparity between our approaches to parenting our daughters continued to grow. The end result was a vast, increasingly insurmountable chasm. We stopped trusting each other, not just as human beings, but as as parents. And then she had me served.

I was hurt, of course, but more than that I was (and remain) bewildered. How had we come to this? What had happened that so convinced her of our inability to parent together that she would petition for full custody of our daughters?

It didn’t take long for me to understand that we no longer agreed on one vital and foundational principle: both parents are valuable and irreplaceable.

What has taken me longer to internalize is the underlying belief that dads are disposable, that we can simply be removed from the equation if we become too difficult to work with. Because what is a father but a provider? And can’t a father provide without also parenting?

While judges may no longer succumb to such bias, we can neither expect nor work toward truly shared parenting responsibilities so long as we fall back on out-dated tropes about fatherhood, just as we cannot expect change so long as we excuse fathers for not sharing in the daily work of parenting.

Hold dads accountable when they refuse to change diapers or wipe down the high chair after spaghetti night. Demand that fathers tenderly examine skinned knees and read bedtime stories. Set the laundry in front of them to fold. But also challenge the notion that fathers are disposable, that they are not primary caregivers. Make yours a home which excises the very notion of primary and secondary, until even your children cannot answer when you ask:

So, who does most of the work around here?

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