Single Parent or Co-Parent? Right Words Matter
My father died near my second birthday. My mother raised me on her single income, without the presence or influence of a father figure. She was a single parent.
When my marriage ended, I became single-again, but my children continued to have two parents. Their father supported them financially, held his door open to them and accepted their invitations to school and community functions. On occasions, both he and I still show up at the same time in response to their request. We have always been co-parents, never single parents.
In a case where a parent is alive but completely non-functional, the active parent can truly be a single parent; but if both parents contribute to the welfare of the child, the co-parent who insists on having the status of a single parent may fail to benefit from positive co-parenting experiences. True, not all co-parents work happily and effectively together, but even that might improve when the adults face the truth that each is an important one in a team of two. The following strengths which may develop can only help, not hurt.
Recognition for Both Parents
Mothers and fathers may refer to themselves as single parents, in an effort to disregard the exes. Some go as far as refusing to let the other parent see the child. Intentionally or not, they give the impression that the ex-spouse becomes the child’s ex-parent. Unless there is good reason, like abuse or fear of kidnapping or other forms of endangerment, it is not fair to deny recognition for the other parent or to prevent interaction between parent and child. Rather, it is healthy to encourage the parent-child relationship, and to teach respect for the other parent.
*According to Amy Morin, LCSW, young children are often concerned that if their parents can stop loving one another, their parents may stop loving them; grade school children mostly worry that they caused the separation because of some misdeed; teenagers may resent one or both parents for upsetting the family nucleus. It is better for them to hear from both parents, rather than hear one parent assume how the other feels.
Assurances from both parents will lessen the child’s fears of not being loved, relieve them of guilt for imaginary transgressions which they think caused family friction, prevent them from siding with one parent against the other.
When there are two parents, the single-parent mentality may lend itself to bad-talking or downplaying the significance of the other parent. When both parents understand and perform their co-parenting roles, they will teach and the children will learn family love and commitment despite physical separation. Both parents and children will learn forgiveness and the truth that family is forever.
Agreement on Discipline
Where there are co-parents, the single-parent mentality also lends itself to conflicting methods of discipline. It is common for the child to take advantage of this parent individuality and feed the hostility between parents. The child will make complaints about one to the other, hoping for sympathy from the listener who may compensate the child with gifts or privileges, in an effort to show the child who is the better or more loving parent.
It is good for the children to understand the co-parenting concept. It lets them know that their parents are civil enough toward each other, to agree on acceptable and non-acceptable behaviors, as well as appropriate disciplinary action when behaviors do not measure up. It makes it easier for them to conclude that both parents love them enough to steer them straight into responsible, productive adulthood; that there is no way out of discipline.
Clarification for New Mates
It is alright for a man and woman to introduce themselves as singles, if they really are; but when it comes to introducing the children, it is wise to mention that they co-parent. That gives recognition to the other parent, along with notice to the prospective mate that he or she is expected to share parental authority should a new union take place.
When this matter is addressed early, the new couple has time to address the challenges that result from blending a family. It will not be a sudden surprise when:
- a spouse has to communicate with an ex who is a co-parent;
- the ex who is a co-parent shows up to celebrate the child’s achievement;
- the child prefers to spend a holiday with his or her biological father;
- the child desires to share an event with both dads or both moms.
With recognition and respect for co-parents, there is likely to be happier support from exes for blended families. The children are more likely to be satisfied with the new family setting, than they would-be if they are forced to ignore one of their biological parents. This experience of making the most out of less-than-ideal circumstances can impact their attitudes and intentions throughout their lives.
The first time one of my children declined my phone call, I panicked. Was my child in the middle of some horrible experience too traumatic to talk about? Was my child, for whatever reason, unable to speak? The tiny letters scrolling at the top of the WhatsApp screen gave notice of inactivity for two days. I called my co-parent immediately, and while he was trying to reason with me, our child called.
I apologized to him. “Sorry. It must be just old-age jitters.”
“Not at all,” he responded. “You’re just being the caring mom you always were.”
Coming from my co-parent, that comment was authentic commendation on my parenting. I felt justified in ensuring that my children respected him as their father. It might be another year or two before I call to speak to him again, but I keep his phone number. I am a single woman, but I have never been a single parent.
* Morin, Amy: The Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children, VeryWellFamily, (September 14, 2019)
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2019 Dora Weithers