Recently, I wrote a piece on developing the state of connection within a medical family. In it, I highlighted the fact that everyone has a role in growing this connection and that everyone’s time, energy and effort is important. I also touched on the importance of parents presenting a unified front as the parental team. This piece focuses more specifically on developing that unified team approach.
It can be difficult for a family in any set of circumstances to present a unified parental unit, let alone a family with circumstances that involve demanding jobs, unpredictable schedules and at times limited parental availability. Effective co-parenting requires a great deal of openness, discussion, and transparency as well as a high level of trust, respect, and compassion.
First, it is important to agree on priorities. This means determining together what matters for your family. What items are necessary in your day and week? What are your logistical goals as well as your overall hopes for the development of your children, your family, and your career? How do you want to incorporate these into your daily living?
Determine together the routine and schedule for the family. Think about your roles within this and your plan for the division of labor. Also think about alternate plans for handling responsibilities if one parent will not be present at times. Establishing roles and the division of labor helps avoid misunderstandings and oversights between partners. Additionally, when both parents know the routines of the family, then both parents have the ability to complete any part at any time, and children know what to expect regardless of who is in the house.
This connects with the idea that both parents need to be able to enforce the household rules and structure. A home can quickly fall into a state of excited chaos when a medical parent returns home during a period of low availability. While this can have the appearance of fun and excitement, it can also disrupt the predictability and expectations in the home. If both parents can maintain the household structure, then the time when the medical parent is home can be both enjoyable and stable. Children can stay on their healthy schedule and actually enjoy their time with their medical parent more since they trust that their home and foundation will remain consistent. When both parents can maintain the routines in the home, it also prevents the burden from falling entirely to one parent, thus limiting resentment and tensions between parents.
Within your schedule and routines, retain some flexibility. While having both parents implement rules and routines certainly helps maintain stability in the home, there are times this structure needs to be altered in order to nurture a stressed relationship. Maybe this involves extending bedtime, having a picnic dinner on the living room floor, skipping baths, playing outside a little longer or doing homework a little later one day. There are ways to alter the routine a small amount and have children feel a large relational improvement. Be prepared as parenting partners to address this together and make decisions as a unit before presenting them to the children.
Family or parenting meetings can help to ensure that both parents are aware of any changes that have occurred within the routine. Children’s preferences and little details can change frequently. Both parents need to know of these changes so that both can continue to maintain the household structure. These conversations can also help partners to stay apprised of one another’s levels of stress, visions for the family, issues or concerns that have come up and general well-being.
Lastly, parents need to model respect, understanding and compassion for one another. Growing a family and a medical career is a difficult endeavor. Everyone in the system works extremely hard, compromises and makes sacrifices. Appreciate the efforts of one another. If a medical partner is feeling stressed from all the medical work, it is likely the non-medical partner is feeling stressed from maintaining the rest of the family.
Sometimes partners get frustrated or resentful toward one another. This is not abnormal or even unexpected. However, it is important to deal with these feelings as adults; these feelings do not have a place in front of children. In front of children, parents need to present as a unified front and as a team. Children will treat their parents similar to the way that they see their parents treat one another. In other words, your children learn how to treat you and your partner by watching the way you and your partner treat one another.
Parents do not need to have the answer to everything, and no one right way exists to handle any aspect of parenting. Not only is it okay, it is healthy to model to your children the act of spontaneous problem solving, on the fly communication and unplanned decision making. When you and your partner need to address an unexpected situation, if appropriate, let your children watch you figure it out together. If it is not appropriate, let them watch you take space together as the parenting team and work together to make a decision for your family.
Children learn from what they see. They do not need to learn how to do it perfectly. They need to learn how to do it realistically. Let them see what co-parenting really means: two partners who value and respect one another and their children, who share a vision for their family, working together in an imperfect world to make the best decisions that they can for their family.
Jordyn Paradis Hagar is a social worker. This article originally appeared in Physician Family.