We talk a lot about single-parent families. Some experts suggest that a majority of children will, at one time or another in their lives, live in a single-parent household.
As I pondered this idea, it came to me that there is another perspective that is often overlooked. The reality is a good many "single-parent families" are not single-parent families at all. They are, perhaps, families in which the parents are no longer married. They remain, however, families in which there are still two parents involved in the lives of the children.
And that's a problem. Or, at least most of the time it is.
Even in the best of marriages, working together as a parenting team is not always easy. We are just not always going to see eye to eye on how to raise our kids. We're going to have differing opinions on how and when to show affection, how and why to discipline, how responsible our children should be at any given age, how much to get involved in directing their lives, etc.
You can imagine how much harder it is to negotiate such differences when a marriage has failed. As one of my old professors used to say, "If a divorced couple had the maturity and skills it takes to work together as parents, they probably wouldn't have gotten divorced."
Now, though this is not always true -- some mature, skillful people still have no business being married to each other -- it does point to a real problem in divorced, two-parent families. Usually the same problems that led to the ending of the marriage crop up in parenting.
If Husband and Wife couldn't talk to each other, chances are Dad and Mom can't either. If they couldn't negotiate a disagreement as marital partners, they probably won't be able to as parenting partners. If Husband was a workaholic who ignored his wife, he probably ignores his parenting responsibilities as well. If Wife "just couldn't live" without her husband, she is probably just as over dependent on her kids. You get the idea.
I sometimes wonder whether children of divorce suffer more from the ending of a dysfunctional marriage or from dysfunctional parenting. In fact, some research suggests that when divorced parents find a way to be positive parenting partners, their children are actually better off than children who live with married parents who never got their parenting act together.
Let me complicate things further. Not only do divorced parents usually carry over their marital problems into their parenting, they often add to these problems.
All too often children wind up being tools used by one ex or the other to take out hurt and anger. Trying to turn children against the other parent, limiting visitation, sabotaging discipline, withholding child support -- all can be ways one parent can use children or parenting issues to hurt the other parent.
Such tools do work. We can really stick it to our former spouse if we use the kids to do the job. Sadly, though, it is the children who are most wounded in such battling. Our short-term vengeance wreaks long-term havoc on their emotional growth and development.
We don't have much space here, so we won't even try to talk about what happens when we add in stepparents. Let's just say it doesn't make matters any easier for anybody.
If you're waiting for four quick pointers on how to avoid all the pitfalls of being divorced co-parents, I'm afraid I haven't come up with them. I do have a few suggestions.
First, we need to take seriously the challenge in such parenting. And though we may literally hate our ex-spouse, we owe it to our children to work toward becoming positive parenting partners.
Second, we will probably need help. A good family therapist can do a lot to help us differentiate our marriage problems from our parenting problems, and find ways to work together in our children's best interest.
Finally, even when our ex is not willing to work with us in parenting (or even abandons our children altogether), there are things we can do to mitigate the damage this does to our children. Again, a good therapist can be of help in figuring all this out.
Marriages end. Being parents doesn't. We owe it to our children to remember that.