Michael Thomas and Deesha Philyaw are one of those rare couples who have made their partnership work – and that’s after a divorce. The couple have founded Co-Parenting101.org to help other parents come together to raise their children in harmony.
Deesha and Michael co-parent their two daughters. They’ve learned how to create that loving family atmosphere even while living apart.
Co-Parenting 101 has a wealth of resources, articles and essays to help you be a better co-parent. The couple offer workshops and presentations for organizations and individuals. We’ll let them tell you about it.
First Wives World had the pleasure of speaking with Deesha and Michael to learn about their journey and how we can get to that same comfortable and comforting place in our lives.
Co-parenting is one of the most difficult challenges that a divorced couple will have to face, especially if it wasn’t an amicable split. We all realize that we have to do it for our children, but it isn’t easy. How did you come together and form such a strong parental partnership after your divorce?
Deesha: Parenting is one area that we have always been on the same page about, despite some differences in parenting style based on our personalities that are really negligible in the grand scheme of things. How we would both continue to be active in our daughters' lives and our desire to not compound the pain of the divorce for them was a primary conversation as we prepared to separate. So our parenting partnership was really foundational. We recognized that we weren't just ending our marriage; we were beginning a new relationship that would allow us to keep striving to parent well, because regardless of what happened between us, that's what our kids deserve. And for us, parenting well meant parenting cooperatively because we both have tremendous respect for each other as parents. Our marriage and divorce issues didn't change that.
Once we separated, we each had to do the work of healing from the wounds of our marriage so that we could be fully present to parent effectively. Time and therapy helped immensely. Also, we continued to maintain a boundary between our legal wrangling and our parenting, and we didn't intrude on each other's personal lives.
Mike: It wasn't easy. We've been asked over and over if we had a friendly divorce, if that was the reason that we could make this co-parenting partnership work. The simple answer is that while we didn't have the bitter, acrimonious, litigious kind of divorce, we were very hurt by and angry with each other. We experienced all of the emotions that many couples experience when separating. The thing that we had that helped us through was a genuine understanding that how we handled our separation would have a profound effect on our children. It hurt me deeply to have inflicted the pain of a divorce on my daughters. I thought about it throughout the day, everyday for a long period of time after I moved out. It seemed to me that to compound that pain by giving the girls a window into our very raw emotions was cruel. Ultimately, I had to put aside my selfish desire to lash out in favor of giving my kids every chance possible to heal and, eventually, to grow past this trauma.
Photo by t.foley
What tips do you have for families who are just starting to go through this transition?
Deesha: As hard as it is, try to take the long view. When your child looks back over his childhood, what do you want him to remember about you as a co-parent? You won't always feel the way you're feeling right now, so the things you do and say that are based purely on hurt, disappointment, revenge-seeking, and anger are often not sustainable, have consequences that you may come to regret, and aren't in the best interest of your kids. Adults whose parents divorced when they were kids have told us that kids generally don't want to know who did what to whom in the marriage. Kids care about what's going to happen to them next, and they want the security and comfort that comes with knowing that they are free to continue loving and being loved by both parents without fear, guilt, or pressure. Kids benefit from having both fit and willing parents play an active role in their lives. Some co-parents say about the other parent, "She doesn't deserve the right to be around our child after what she did!" But it is the child who has a right to a relationship with both parents.
Remember that you can only control yourself, not the other parent. So there may be times when you have to be the bigger co-parent (which is not the same thing as being a doormat) for your child's sake. Instead of having a reactive posture where your ex is concerned, think about who your children need you to be as a co-parent. They need you and your home to be a peaceful, stable, comfortable place. Co-parenting conflict is inevitable, but do you part to minimize your child's exposure to toxic adult interactions.
I would also urge new co-parents to seek family and individual therapy. Divorce is hard on everyone and counseling can offer strategies for coping and an outlet for both adults and children. This outlet is important for the obvious reasons, but it's especially important that parents commit to self-care because we need to be as whole as possible in order to care for our children. And because any emotional baggage we fail to unpack can end up on the backs of our children as unresolved issues play out in co-parenting conflicts.
Finally, if you're not sure what to say when talking with your child about the fallout from the divorce, err on the side of listening and asking gentle questions. Help your child name her feelings, affirm that feelings are never wrong, and offer hope and encouragement that everyone will eventually be okay. Model this resiliency and hope for brighter days for your child, even though it's hard for you too.
Mike: First, take a step back and look at the entire situation through the child's eyes. Really try to put yourself in their place and understand the loss of a sense of self, the loss of a sense of safety, the strong, almost desperate desire to put back together a world that may seem as if it is falling apart. It is sobering. Second, recognize that the adults may be (likely are) going through similar emotions themselves. Even the party that wanted to end the relationship may be reeling in the aftermath of the breakup. The raw emotions that all involved parties are experiencing make the required cooperation that much more difficult. However, keeping this in mind can help to provide some perspective as you take the first tentative steps toward working together in this new formulation of your family. Third, recognizing the emotional trauma that you and your child are experiencing, seek counseling. Get the help that you need to heal and to sort through the complex feelings and emotions that you are experienceing. Finally, try as best you can to search for a touchpoint to begin to rebuild trust. It will be difficult to work together for the betterment of your children if you don't trust your co-parenting partner at all. Deesha and I build our trust on the fact that we knew that the other person would always act in the best interests of our children. We used that to take off the table some of the behaviors and motives that we otherwise might have been suspicious of in the other person. Slowly we were able to grow the trust between us as we had some success as co-parents. And remember, you don't have to trust this person with your heart anymore, you just have to trust that you can work with them to help your child.
How do you deal with a situation where one parent isn’t present, or has a substance abuse problem that makes it impossible to co-parent?
Deesha: Children need consistency, and unfortunately, absentee parents and those who have substance abuse problems can't provide that consistency. And of course with substance abuse, there are also health and safety issues to consider. So instead of being a gateway to a relationship with the other parent, the stable co-parent has to play the role of gatekeeper, balancing the child's right to be with the other parent against health and safety concerns, including emotional health. For children, the pain and disappointment that comes with having a parent not show up or being in and out of their lives can be devastating. It's not unreasonable to insist that your co-parent stick to the parenting time schedule.
Absentee parents leave a void in a child's life, but it's not helpful--and in fact, further damaging--for the custodial parent to constantly speak ill of the other parent, or focus so much on the absence that the child comes to define herself by it, by what she lacks than what she has and who she is. Affirm how she feels about the absence; listen to her concerns and wishes, instead of assuming you know or conflating your feelings with hers. Absenteeism can create a longing for the other parent and fantasies about living with them, which can feel like ingratitude to the custodial. Family therapy can help here.
That said, absentee parents don't always remain absentee. Re-engagement may feel like a slap in the face to the custodial parent, but if approached carefully, responsibly and respectfully, on the part of the previously absent parent, and in the context of family counseling as needed, it can work.
One mother wrote to us because she felt guilty about saying "no" to her ex's demands to let him spend time alone with the children. In family court, he'd been given supervised visitation time on the condition that he get treatment for substance abuse and attend anger management classes; he refused to do either. Subsequently, he accused her of keeping the children from him, and she felt badly about that. But ultimately, he's responsible for his relationship with his children, not her. And if time with his children comes with conditions that are in their best interest, it's up to him to meet those conditions. It can be helpful for children to learn about substance abuse in terms of illness and grown-up choices, not something they as children caused or can control or fix.
Hazelden Treatment Center and the American Psychological Associations' Magination Press both publish children's books about divorce, absentee parents, and parental mental illness and substance abuse.
Mike: I will defer to Deesha's response on this question. I can't say it any better.
When one or both parents get remarried to someone who also has children, the blended family adds another dynamic to the mix. If this was a perfect world, we would follow the “it takes a village to raise a child” philosophy and all parties would work together, but that isn’t usually how it goes. How does someone deal with the challenge of a new stepparent being involved in a child’s life?
Deesha: I've personally experienced both ends of the spectrum. I welcomed Mike's wife, Sherry, our kids' stepmom, but there was a little sting in the beginning, when Mike and Sherry were dating, when the girls would tell me about fun things they did with Sherry. By contrast, I wasn't feeling very fun...being a disciplinarian, and the homework and chore police. But then I caught myself: this wasn't a competition and there was plenty of room in my kids' hearts and lives for me and for Sherry.
The other thing that's helped is that Sherry and I have a mutual respect for one another. We communicate well and respect boundaries of our respective households and roles. For example, Sherry loves to shop and I don't, so our oldest daughter ends up shopping with her more. But I was clear about my desire to take her shopping for her first heels and make-up, and everyone was on the same page with that.
I have to give Mike some credit here too. Because of his respect for me as a mother, I've never felt as some moms do, that his wife was there to replace me.
On the other end of the spectrum, my husband's ex has felt very threatened by me, despite the fact that I have no desire to try and replace her in my stepchildren's lives. A new stepparent can illuminate a parent's fears, regrets, and insecurities. And again, if the parent doesn't address these kinds of emotional burdens, they become burdens for the kids involved--to prove loyalty, to become a caretaker and confidant for the angry parent, to feel conflicted about enjoying themselves at the other house. It's a lot for an adult to deal with--an ex's remarriage--but it's even harder for a child to deal with trying to be in a blended family and placate an angry parent. So hopefully concern for their child can be an incentive for a parent to face the challenge in a mature fashion, even though it's hard work.
Mike: This could be (and has been) the subject of another book! It takes a special person to step into a blended family situation and all that it requires of you. Our experience has ranged from fantastic to uggh and was most often somewhere in the middle!
The relationship between the stepparent and kids needs room to grow and develop. Kids can be resistant to that particular change in their family circumstance. In our case, my daughter's have a great mom. My wife Sherry didn't want, and wasn't needed, to replace their mom. That was made clear from the beginning. However, there are still rules within our house that sometimes require, practically, that Sherry be able to provide some guidance occasionally. That can be sticky.
The relationship between the stepparent and the other parent is also important, if it can be established. The stepparent can play an important role in affirming the place of other parent and vice versa. If this able to happen, it allows for much greater communication and dissemination of information. It also facilitates a more amicable relationship between the co-parents.
Finally, the co-parent sometimes sits in the center of all these relationships and can feel pulled in multiple directions, never being able to please anyone -kids, spouse or co-parent. This can be very wearing emotionally and can lead to a person having less emotional reserves available to perform any one of their roles as well as they'd like.
Given all of this, the introduction of a stepparent requires sensitivity and great communication. It may also require some amount of counseling. And a good sense of humor. I remember my wife and I having a pool party a few years ago at our house and Deesha attended. At some point, Sherry, Deesha and I were talking. During the conversation, Deesha said something that prompted me to jokingly ask Sherry why Deesha would think that. Sherry's response: "I don't know, ask her. She's your wife!" Yes, a good sense of humor is a must!
Deesha, you give an online workshop for women, “Writing Through Your Divorce”. This session just started July 8th. Will you be doing this again, or can women still sign up? You are an amazing writer. As writers, we understand the power of words, but any woman can find clarity and healing through writing about her feelings. They may even discover a talent that was hidden under the daily grind and the sorrow of a broken marriage. Can you tell us a bit about the workshop?
Deesha: Thank you! I'm co-presenting the workshop with Magda Pecsenye, who is also divorced and who blogs with her co-parent at When the Flames Go Up and on her own blog at Ask Moxie. We designed writing exercises and selected readings (Nora Ephron's Heartburn and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God) that would provide an opportunity for exploration of the divorce process, before, during and after. Some current participants have been divorced for a while; others are just beginning. At every stage, there are feelings to explore and the potential for healing and self-discovery. We take a guided approach; we're not providing therapy or writing instruction. But our hope is that the experience will be therapeutic and motivating. The next session will begin on September 30th and all the details can be found at writingdivorce.com.
Mike, traditionally, men haven’t been treated as equals when it comes to custody arrangements, even if the father is just as loving and competent as the mother. We’ve made some progress with father’s rights, but we have a long way to go. What does a man have to do to ensure that he has the chance to co-parent and be as involved in his children’s lives as their mother?
Mike: I've been fortunate to have Deesha as a co-parent, especially as it relates to this issue. I have never been in a position of having to assert my rights and have always been affirmed as an important partner in my daughters' upbringing. Unfortunately this is not always the case and, when it isn't, its important for fathers to establish a consistent presence in their children's world in ways that may fall outside of formal parenting time. Ways to do that include: participating in parent-teacher conferences, keeping up with important school activities and milestones, attending extracurricular activities, making birthdays and other family events a special priority and keeping to the schedule that they do have. One consistent recommendation that we have gotten from successful co-parents in this situation is for men (and parents in general) to take advantage of technology to stay connected. In person parenting time may be limited, but today many fathers incorporate Skype, texting and various forms of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) into regular and consistent communication with their kids. When parents separate, it tears a child's world in two. Though imperfect, co-parenting that fully involves both parents is an important part of helping kids to heal. If parenting time doesn't reflect a commitment to this ideal, then men need to get creative to get as close as they can. The kids are worth it!
Image source: Co-parenting101.org
You must be special people. You both seem to have a great sense of humor. Not only do you co-parent, but you work together to help other parents. You have a fabulous blog and you’ve written a book, Co-parenting101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households after Divorce. You show us how it can be done. Your children must be very proud of you! How did you come up with the idea for Co-Parenting 101 and what is it like working on a project such as this with your ex?
Deesha: Thank you. I'm a freelance writer, but the book idea came from Mike. People who knew us and our kids would comment on how well things seemed to be going and how we weren't combative after our separation and divorce. Some of them would tell us, "You should write a book." So Mike said to me, "You should write a book." But I thought it would be more meaningful if we wrote it together. So we set up the blog as a means of finding out what others were experiencing as co-parents and what would be useful to include in a book about co-parenting.
Collaborating has been pretty straightforward. Our focus has been on the blog (and now the book), not on each other. Since we're no longer married to each other, we don't have personal expectations of each other beyond co-parenting, the site, and the book. We see the blog and the book as a service, and we have a shared vision for it. Also, being mired in these issues and other people's co-parenting stories keeps us mindful of our own choices and interactions with each other and with our children. We're very aware of the pain and stress that results when co-parents are uncooperative or inflexible.
I think the process of working on the book and the blog has also kept us grateful. I'm thankful for the healing and emotional work we've both had to do to get here. The process has made me even more thankful for who Mike is as a person, a parent, and a co-parent. For my part, I'm much more laid-back our our differences than I think I might have otherwise been. The blog and the book have given me a context for issues that come up with us: things could be much, much worse, and the fact that we trust each other and can communicate effectively is a gift. It's a gift for us and for our kids.
Mike: Thank you! I honestly don't feel like we are so special. I just think that we are fiercely committed to raising emotionally healthy kids, or at least, to minimize the damage that we do to them! I'll let Deesha's answer stand on the origins of the book. As for working with my ex...it is not something that I ever envisioned doing at the time of our separation and divorce. But as we have spent time on this project over the past several years, it has been surprisingly rewarding. What I mean to say is that, I have come to realize how important it's become for me to be able to contribute a bit to the healing of children who find themselves in a co-parenting family. The most surprising part is how taking part in this project has contributed to my own healing. Speaking with other co-parents and seeing how difficult the relationship can be was helpful. But getting to talk to Deesha about all of this and to hear her passion for it and to really consider how I measured up to the "ideal" has helped me, I think, become a better father, husband and co-parent myself. Of course, you'd have to ask Deesha about that last bit!
Thank you, Deesha and Mike! It’s been enlightening and lovely speaking with you both.
Are you struggling with co-parenting, or have you made it work? Share with us in the comment box below.