Civility, respect and professional help are key to healthy co-parenting after separation or divorce, writes Samantha Ball.
When Jennifer Martin became pregnant, she and her partner, Raymond Wallage, were in a new relationship, and broke up shortly afterwards. Their daughter, Makenna, was born in 2007.
During the pregnancy and their baby’s first year, they had tried to reconcile several times, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Though their romantic relationship didn’t last, Martin says as co-parents, they make a strong team.
“I feel that what we have is the best-case scenario for our daughter and us,” says Martin, 38, a registered nurse who lives in Stittsville.
“There have been some bumps along the way, but overall it’s been a great experience for everyone.”
Wallage, 43, agrees. “For the past seven years we have put our daughter as our main priority and everything else seemed to fall into place.”
Martin made a point of ensuring no one ever spoke negatively about Wallage and if disagreements occur, it’s never in front of Makenna.
Children have “a right to respect and love each parent, despite how the parents feel about each other,” she says.
In 2012, Martin married her husband, Anthony and they had Brayden, 2. Because of the solid foundation Martin and Wallage created as co-parents, Makenna transitioned easily to having another key adult in her life and is a loving older sister.
Wallage and Anthony, for their part, enjoy a friendly relationship.
Wallage is always included in Makenna’s birthday celebrations and special occasions and Martin also ensures her daughter spends time with her paternal family.
“I honestly don’t think I would do anything differently,” says Martin. “I look at where we are now – we have a good relationship with open communication and I look at our daughter, who is thriving in all aspects of life and I couldn’t be prouder or happier.”
This is exactly how it should be, says Diane Valiquette, founder of the Separation & Divorce Resource Centre. “It’s not the separation or divorce that causes hardship for children. It’s how you handle it.”
The centre provides services to cope with separation, divorce, or relationship struggles, including family mediation, counselling and family-focused financial planning.
Tarah Sly, a child and youth program coordinator and counsellor at the centre, describes their work as a “support system for the whole family, which leads to the healthiest outcome.”
Sly says parents should seek support soon after the separation and make every effort to maintain a respectful relationship. Using children as messengers or leverage, she warns, causes long-term
Though parents may think their child is coping well, children may “suffer in silence” to avoid burdening their parents. It isn’t until they are teens or in relationships themselves that issues will arise.
When parents consider beginning new relationships, Sly advises moving “very slowly,” and explains the importance of “age-appropriate honesty,” since lying breaches trust.
And Valiquette says parents should do their “personal work” before considering another relationship, to avoid repeating negative patterns.
If the parents can make joint decisions, family law litigator Amanda Hall recommends completing a written agreement clearly outlining the issues agreed to (e.g., access/child support).
It must be in writing, signed by both parties, witnessed and dated. Independent legal advice is advised for both parents prior to signing.
“Life changes. Circumstances change,” says Hall and dispute resolution clauses in an agreement will help map out exactly how changes will be dealt with.
Hall suggests seeking help in working out a parenting agreement, whether through a lawyer, mediator, therapist, social worker, parenting coordinator or a combination.
“Professionals can save you money, heartache and stress.” Nataxja Cini, a social worker at Family-Therapy in Kanata, says learning to co-parent in a healthy way is crucial.
“The reality is once you have children, you will need to be in contact with your child’s other parent forever.”
Photo: Jennifer Martin
Photo: Anthony Martin