Review: Co-Parenting from the Inside Out: Voices of Moms and Dads

Sara MacNaull

Review of Karen L. Kristjanson,1Karen Kristjanson is an author and a Professional Certified Coach with the International Coach Federation. Karen holds an MSc in Social Psychology from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and an MA in Managing and Consulting from the Leadership Institute of Seattle (Bastyr University). Co-Parenting from the Inside Out: Voices of Moms and Dads (Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press, 2017)

Throughout Canada’s history, evolving trends of coupling (relationship formation, e.g. marriage, dating), decoupling (relationship dissolution, e.g. breakups, separation and divorce) and recoupling (engaging in new relationships, e.g. remarriage) have shaped and reshaped family relationships across the country as well as our understanding of family more broadly.

Most, if not all, aspects of family life are affected by separation and divorce, and parenting is certainly no exception. Parenthood after uncoupling can be complex due to the number and intensity of transitions families experience, including those that are social (e.g. emotions, time spent with family, shifts in support networks), legal (e.g. division of property and assets, family court proceedings), economic (e.g. reduced household income) and more. Research shows that parental separation can have a significant impact on child well-being,2George J. Cohen and Carol C. Weitzman, “Helping Children and Families Deal with Divorce and Separation,” Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics (December 2016). Link: https://bit.ly/2Ed0RsY. and that their risk of adverse outcomes increases when conflict between parents is high.3Joan B. Kelly and Janet R. Johnston, “The Alienated Child: A Reformulation of Parental Alienation Syndrome,” Family Court Review 39, no. 3 (July 2001). Link: http://bit.ly/1GYfGLl.

Across generations, many parents experiencing divorce and separation have demonstrated a great deal of flexibility and creativity in maintaining family ties while trying to remain focused on the “best interests of the child” – a term and idea entrenched in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has had an impact on family law in Canada.

In May 2018, the Government of Canada announced amendments to the Divorce Act aimed at creating a more efficient and effective family justice system in order to protect families – especially children – from negative outcomes that can follow separation or divorce. Bill C-78 includes proposals for modernizing language to be less adversarial (e.g. changing potentially divisive/conflictual terms such as “access” to “parenting time”) and establishing criteria that help define the “best interests of the child.”4Vanier Institute of the Family, Changes to the Divorce Act Aim to Strengthen the Canadian Family Justice System (May 25, 2018). Link: https://bit.ly/2KVELwk.

“In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”
– UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 3, s. 1)

While putting the children first remains paramount for many families, it isn’t always easy when a family is navigating their “new normal” after separation or divorce. While some may settle comfortably into new routines as tensions are reduced or eliminated by now living apart, family members, including children of all ages, may experience a range of emotions in the weeks, months and years to come.

In Co-Parenting from the Inside Out: Voices of Moms and Dads, author Karen Kristjanson explores modern parenthood after couples go their separate ways while working to support their child(ren)’s well-being. Through interviews with parents in Canada and the United States, Kristjanson sheds light on some of the modern realities of parenting with a former partner or spouse.

Though the reality of co-parenting may differ in detail from one family to another, Kristjanson says, “The heart of co-parenting or shared parenting is the relationship between separated/divorced parents and their children. It is sharing everyday routines as well as holidays so that both parents are meaningfully involved in their children lives. It lets parents stay in tune with their children’s growth, needs and potential.”

Kristjanson takes a “storytelling approach,” sharing co-parenting stories from parents with diverse family experiences, such as same-sex parents, parents with children who have special needs, parents living with mental illness and/or addictions, parents who have experienced violence, and more – all of whom are trying to figure out the best ways to care for their children without letting their own feelings (such as regret and guilt) take over their ability to co-parent.

“It didn’t feel like a negotiation, we didn’t disagree on much to do with parenting. We made a commitment that we would put them first.”
– Ayla, interviewee

Though the reality of co-parenting may differ in detail from one family to another, Kristjanson says, “The heart of co-parenting or shared parenting is the relationship between separated/divorced parents and their children. It is sharing everyday routines as well as holidays so that both parents are meaningfully involved in their children lives. It lets parents stay in tune with their children’s growth, needs and potential.”

For one former couple, the focus was on remaining a family, despite the separation. This involved both being present at all the children’s events and refraining from embarking on new intimate relationships for more than 10 years to “preserve the family for their children.” Another former couple chose to invest in shared living space. Although this was a temporary arrangement at first, after a few years post-separation, the former couple and one new partner, along with their children, moved into a home together. It relieved them of some financial stress while allowing them to co-parent within a unified home base for their children.

For the interviewees whose stories are shared throughout the book, there were a lot of unknowns following the initial decision to end the relationship. As Kristjanson says, “I didn’t know how this next phase would work, just that our family life as it was couldn’t continue” – a sentiment shared by many couples. Part of the “what’s next” for many of the parents interviewed was seeking help and support. For Kristjanson, support came in the form of family, neighbours, self-help books and eventually the support from a new spouse. Not only does this demonstrate the diversity of families and family formation, but also the extended circle of support that often encompasses them.

“I grew a lot that summer as a dad, I think. I had never had that one-on-one time with them. I started to see being a parent in a different way, and things began expanding for me. But it took a while, it didn’t happen at once.”
 – Joe, interviewee

What stands out in Kristjanson’s book are the reflections by the parents. Their voices shine through with detail about their relationship journey and redefined role and experience as a co-parent. Though some of the stories don’t necessarily have the ending they once expected – as tensions and conflict may still exist – Kristjanson focuses on hope. She concentrates on the parents’ abilities to be the best parents they can be, even when parenting separately and differently than before the separation or divorce. She also emphasizes the importance of self-management skills, cooperation and personal growth. This book, though insightful, also serves as a handbook for parents who are trying to figure out how to be the best co-parent they can, with their children’s best interests at heart.

Facts and Stats on Parenting After Separation or Divorce

According to the 2011 General Social Survey (GSS):5New GSS data on families will be available in spring 2019.

  • 24% of separated or divorced parents in Canada had children under 18.
  • 83% of separated or divorced mothers and fathers6Same percentage reported for mothers and fathers. whose child spent equal amounts of time at their homes said that major decisions regarding their children were made jointly or alternatively, compared with 35% among all separated or divorced parents.
  • 70% of mothers and 15% of fathers who were separated or divorced reported their own household as the primary residence of their children (time was divided equally for 9% of respondents).7The primary residence of the remaining 6% was either “somewhere else” or “more than one residence.”
  • 74% separated or divorced parents in Canada reported being satisfied with the amount of time spent with their children over the past year.

 

Sara MacNaull is Program Director at the Vanier Institute of the Family.

 


Published on January 8, 2019

Notes   [ + ]

1. Karen Kristjanson is an author and a Professional Certified Coach with the International Coach Federation. Karen holds an MSc in Social Psychology from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and an MA in Managing and Consulting from the Leadership Institute of Seattle (Bastyr University).
2. George J. Cohen and Carol C. Weitzman, “Helping Children and Families Deal with Divorce and Separation,” Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics (December 2016). Link: https://bit.ly/2Ed0RsY.
3. Joan B. Kelly and Janet R. Johnston, “The Alienated Child: A Reformulation of Parental Alienation Syndrome,” Family Court Review 39, no. 3 (July 2001). Link: http://bit.ly/1GYfGLl.
4. Vanier Institute of the Family, Changes to the Divorce Act Aim to Strengthen the Canadian Family Justice System (May 25, 2018). Link: https://bit.ly/2KVELwk.
5. New GSS data on families will be available in spring 2019.
6. Same percentage reported for mothers and fathers.
7. The primary residence of the remaining 6% was either “somewhere else” or “more than one residence.”

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