When the decision is made to attempt to co-parent with the other parent, it is important to remember that it is in the best interest of the child(ren). Co-parenting with an ex-spouse has its challenges, no matter how amicable. For co-parenting to be successful, these challenges need to be overcome with your ex-spouse, which is often easier said than done. We hope the co-parenting tips below can help.
For family law attorneys and former spouses Vanessa Hammer and Brendan Hammer, they make co-parenting appear almost effortless. Family pictures from holidays, vacations, and even family dinners flood social media with them and their son. As an outsider, you would never even know that Vanessa and Brendan are divorced.
Before moving to Chicago so her son could be closer to his father, Vanessa Hammer was an associate for Houston family law firm Myres & Associates. Vanessa now works for a family law firm Hammer Serna & Quinn in Chicago, IL. We talked with Vanessa about her and her ex-spouse’s co-parenting experiences, how they make it work, and any co-parenting tips she can offer.
How would you describe or define co-parenting?
Co-parenting, in my opinion, is a parenting relationship with your former partner where you each make parenting decisions focused on the well-being of your child(ren) and which takes into consideration the child’s needs and wishes as well.
How is co-parenting different from traditional primary conservatorship or joint custody?
Co-parenting is vastly different from traditional notions of “custody” or conservatorship. Under the traditional model, custody is seen more as an exclusive “right” to the child under very strict parameters on designated days and times, and any deviation from the custody schedule is seen as the other parent infringing on that time as if it were sacrosanct. In co-parenting, the mindset is completely different. We start from a position that neither of us has an exclusive right to our son. He belongs to each of us as equally as we belong to him. He has access to us at any time as much as we have access to him and any decisions we make for our son are made together with full disclosure on both sides.
Can you describe your current parenting arrangement?
Our parenting arrangement is quite flexible. There is no “counting of days” for a perfect 50/50 split. My co-parent and I are very busy trial lawyers so we do our best to create stability for our son in light of trial and work schedules that can get pretty hectic at times. We let the other know of any upcoming trials or hearings which would require late nights or early mornings and we adjust our parenting schedule accordingly.
Do you have an additional support system in place that helps you with parenting other than the other parent? (Babysitter, grandparent, daycare, etc.)
Yes, we are very lucky to have extended family on both sides who are there to help us at any time. Best of all, they understand our co-parenting goals and encourage us as we partake in this co-parenting journey. My parents and Brendan’s parents even vacation together and remain friends even after our divorce. We are very blessed to have them as part of our co-parenting team.
With both you and your ex being family attorneys, do you think that had a major impact on deciding to co-parent?
I think that our work as divorce attorneys had a primary impact on our decision to co-parent our son in a healthy way. Unfortunately, the adversarial legal system (of which Family Law is a part) automatically sets up an “she vs. he” mentality where the only goal is to “win”. In family law, there are no winners or losers. There are separation and division, there is a changed character of a family forever. So, you can either decide to create a huge chasm between you, your ex, and your children by taking a scorched earth approach to life post-divorce, or you can try to fashion a new type of family model that works for you.
Are there any additional experiences or deciding factors that contributed to the decision?
Additionally, my own experience as a child of divorced parents had a significant impact on our decision to co-parent. I recalled my own childhood experiences and did not want that for our son.
What dispute resolution methods do you and your ex use to resolve disagreements?
We mainly just talk things out. Interestingly, we communicate much better now than when we were married! We have learned that there isn’t anything that can’t be worked out. There is always a solution to every issue so long as both parties are willing to give a little…and sometimes get creative with problem-solving. Keeping an open mind is the best remedy.
During times of disagreement, are there any techniques that you have learned to get past the frustration and still be able to effectively co-parent?
Again, the best technique is to keep an open mind. If you take the position that it’s “my way or the highway”, you are setting yourself up to fail.
What do you do when you think the other parent is making a terrible decision or if you strongly disagree?
Fortunately, I have never felt that Brendan was/has made a terrible decision. I start from the position that he always has our son’s best interest at heart and that he would never do anything to put our son in harm’s way. For example, our son is interested in playing rugby. I think it is dangerous, but I don’t really know much other than what I see on television. Brendan supports the idea but wants to know more before he commits to saying yes. I have confidence that Brendan is not just going to go out and sign up our son for rugby without discussing it with me and certainly not if I have an objection. I guess the bottom line is that we respect each other enough to discuss and come to a consensus before a decision like this is made. Respect and consideration for the other person are key!
How do you determine what is the small stuff and what is too important not to address pointedly?
Outside of medical decisions and decisions to move far away from the other parent, there really aren’t other big decisions to be made (add in religious decisions if the parents are of different faiths) so it's all small stuff. So often people sweat the small stuff and it's what drives this culture of conflict in post-divorce families.
What would you say has been the most difficult challenge or decision you have faced co-parenting?
The most difficult challenge/decision occurred when there was a time when my co-parent and I lived in different states. As much as we tried to make the best of the situation so that our son could have access to and involvement with his Dad, the distance really took a toll on the little guy. We had to make a decision as a family as to what was best for our son and his well-being.
What advantages have you experienced to co-parenting? Are there any advantages as a professional woman you have experienced to co-parenting?
When co-parenting works well, there are many advantages. As a busy professional, it is nice to have the flexibility with regard to scheduling and even more satisfying to have a co-parent that supports each other’s career goals. Additionally, the flexibility for each parent to take time to him/herself is extremely important and appreciated.
Why do you find it important to still do things as a “family?”
I believe that it is important to continue to do things together as a family because, first and foremost, we still consider ourselves a family…just a different kind of family. Also, I believe that maintaining certain family traditions post-divorce is important for our son so that he understands that he doesn’t have to choose with whom he experiences certain traditions, milestones, and holidays. More importantly, those important experiences aren’t fractured, and he can just focus on enjoying the experience with his parents (and extended family) as any child in a non-divorced family would.
What is your holiday arrangement?
We do not adhere to the formal holiday arrangement that is in our divorce judgment. Because travel is a big part of our lives due to the fact that my family lives out of state, we usually talk about what we want to do for any particular holiday well in advance so that we can plan for travel arrangements, etc. We make the decision together and it just depends on the holiday. For example, in 2017, my family was going to get together for Christmas in Texas, so we planned for that travel and decided to travel out of state for Thanksgiving. In 2018, my family planned to get together in Texas for Thanksgiving, so we made those plans and then decided to travel out of the country as a family for Christmas.
What family traditions do you still have and why do you keep these traditions alive?
We have a few family traditions that we continue even after our divorce mainly because our son wants to do them, and they are important to him since he has such good memories attached. We decided that we would continue to do those things for as long as he wants. For example, we go apple picking every year in the fall, and berry picking in the summer. We also decorate the Christmas tree together as a family and, when we can, visit a local Christmas market for some spiced cider. It is nice to have something to look forward to and most especially continue to build positive and happy memories for our son.
Do you have any advice for parents trying to co-parent with a difficult parent?
Good co-parenting necessarily requires two parties who are willing to engage in a cooperative process and mindset. If a parent is resistant, I suggest trying to identify the source of the difficulty. Is it a communication style? Is it that the parent feels like boundaries aren’t being respected? Maybe they want more boundaries? Maybe their new significant other is not comfortable with a co-parenting arrangement. Whatever the issue may be, it is important to speak directly regarding these issues and, if necessary, consider seeing a therapist or counselor together to help you identify issues and work through them in an amicable way.
Are there any additional co-parenting tips or experiences you could share with a parent or parents trying to co-parent?
My #1 piece of advice is to always keep an open mind when it comes to parenting. Your family is unique so don’t feel like you have to do what everyone else does when it comes to their ex-spouse. You will hear criticism from others about co-parenting or some will make comments like “you get along so well, you might as well get back together”. As any family law practitioner knows, there is so much more to marriage and/or a family relationship than the ability to raise children together. If you can’t get the romantic relationship part right, there is no reason why you can’t get the parenting part right.