Five Ground Rules for Civil and Effective Co-Parenting
The Stepmother Stigma
I rarely refer to myself as the stepmother, nor to RB (my son by association) as my stepson, although both terms are accurate. And I think it has to do with the generally negative stereotype associated with this figure. For example, what’s the first image that comes to your mind when you think of the word “stepmother”? If you also pictured Lady Tremaine, the vicious stepmother character from Disney’s Cinderella—yay! And thank you for proving my point.
The other pop culture reference that comes up for me is Isabel Kelly, Julia Roberts’s character in the 1998 film, Stepmom. I’m closer to Isabel than to Lady Tremaine. Not only because I’m not a villain (I promise), but also because I haven’t birthed a child. And for a long time, I didn’t consider becoming a mother, either. Until I started co-parenting.
According to this National Library of Medicine article co-parenting refers to the ways that parents, parental figures, or both, relate to each other in their role as primary caretakers. It’s a relationship based on the shared or overlapping responsibilities of raising a child, and it’s independent from a past marriage, or other romantic relationship. The article highlights that the co-parenting relationship consists of support and coordination. And I agree. But for it to become a healthy, long-term partnership, it should also consist of respect, empathy, compassion and trust. Over the years, and through a lot of trial and error (until trial and success), we’ve managed to develop these into our partnership.
How it Started
It's always easy and tempting to criticize another person; be it the other parent, or the ex-spouse’s new partner. What’s hard is to be accepting. And, I’m grateful for RB’s mother’s acceptance. For allowing her son to spend time with me, and stay with us. Because it indirectly allowed my husband to fully show up as the amazing dad that he is.
I would describe our first co-parenting years as awkward. I’d say they were the adaptation period, with limited communication, mainly between the boy’s parents. A time I spent waving from the sidelines (or, the car window when we picked him up or dropped him off), supporting my partner as best I could and creating my own connection with the kid.
How it Changed
My husband was on a business trip and my nephew's birthday was coming up. RB was invited to the party and with his father out of town, all logistics coordination happened between the boy’s mom and me. Talk about relationship milestones. From that moment forward, our WhatsApp messaging started. At first, our convos were all kid-related. Then, they naturally evolved into the type of content you’d see in a women’s lifestyle magazine.
I consider we experienced our roughest patch as a family, when adjusting to elementary school. Understanding and establishing the roles and responsibilities in each household, the expectations management, and so on. Without disclosing all the skeletons in our closet (which would offer you some quality entertainment) the main learning from those years is that parenting styles will inevitably differ. And each parental figure needs to accept this, trusting that the other will act with common sense and in the child’s best interest.
My unsolicited advice: as long as your kid is being loved, fed, and safe—do yourself a favor and chill.
How it's Going
Not to fall into the silver lining cliche brought forth by a global pandemic, but for the first time in almost six years we’re seeing our kid grow up in real time. He’s spending the same amount of time with us as he spends with his mom.
Raising a child can be a heart-breaking, frustrating, and overwhelming experience—sometimes. And other times, it can be immensely rewarding. To the point of canceling all of the above.
I’ve seen my kid grow from preschool to pre-teen. And witnessing him develop a personality and a sense of humor (geeky and quick-witted like his father) is the greatest gift I never knew I wanted.
Collaboration vs. Competition
Last Mother’s Day RB’s mom dropped him off at my in-laws, where we were spending the evening. We invited her in, chatted for a bit and before she left, we took a picture with RB. A few hours later she shared an Instagram story with our picture, and a caption that read: “RB and his two moms.” Yes, smiley tear emoji. Clearly my heart was warmed and bursting with gratitude. And joy.
I’m hyper aware that my son has one mother, and that I’m not her. But when she acknowledges my role in his life and gifts me this honorary title (which I adore, by the way), we’re breaking a stereotype. We’re proving that in the context of parenting, the mother and the stepmother can get along. Can champion each other. Can support each other.
The Ground Rules
Know that we’re human and imperfect. There are intrinsic factors to every backstory that will drive the tone of the co-parenting relationship, regardless of any ‘ground rules’ you might read here. I encourage you to take my family’s experience as what it is: only one example of how co-parenting can look like. We’re definitely not the rule, nor the exception.
It helps that all of us in this co-parenting relationship are good people, looking out for the collective well-being of our blended families. And after doing this for the past seven years, making tons of mistakes, and course-correcting, we’ve learned a thing or two worth sharing.
So, I discussed it with my fellow co-parents, and here are five essentials that keep us honest and on track:
ESTABLISHING HEALTHY BOUNDARIES. Having clear limits is the type of common sense that can help avoid misunderstandings and unintentional overstepping.
MAINTAINING AN OPEN COMMUNICATION. Trust and transparency are fundamental. In the words of RB’s mom: “This is probably the best one, because even though we disagree sometimes, we respect each other’s opinions and will find that middle ground.”
HAVING THE IMPORTANT CONVERSATIONS. Since we hold a similar set of values we’re typically aligned, and act in our kid’s best interest. When it comes to discussing priority topics with him (e.g. mental health, sex ed., inclusivity) we'd usually drop a message or a voice note in our group chat to share updates, questions, concerns, and so on. Overall, we avoid sweeping sensitive topics, or hard conversations under the metaphoric rug.
LEARNING TO ADAPT. Plans change and life happens. Protect your peace of mind by leaning into flexibility and cooperation. Remember: it really does take a village to raise a child.
CARING FOR YOUR RELATIONSHIP. You have to be well to parent at your best. And your ‘best’ can look different everyday. From my point of view, there are three relationships to nurture. The one each parent has with their child, the one each parent has with their partner (who isn’t a biological parent), and the one you have with yourself.
No one has it all figured out. There’s no magic parenting book nor perfect parents. We’re all doing the best we can with the tools we have. And on this point, Modern Family’s Phil Dunphy said it best:
“We like to think we're so smart and we have all the answers. And we want to pass all that on to our children. But if you scratch beneath the surface, you don't have to dig very deep to find the kid you were. Which is why it's kinda crazy that now we're raising kids of our own. I guess that's the real circle of life. Your parents faked their way through it, you fake your way through it and hopefully you don't raise a serial killer.”
This piece was written and contributed by:
Jit is a PR & marketing person trained in journalism, health coaching and yoga—writing about most things wellness. She helps entrepreneurs PR the ef out of their superpowers, specializing in content strategy, copy makeovers and spotting PR-able angles.
She finds joy in a cup of coffee, in a nourishing read or an inspiring podcast, and in rediscovering paradise in her native Panama—where she lives with her husband, his son and their Shih Tzu, Valentina.