Whether you are married, just moved in together, separated or going through a process of separation, whether you are in a same sex or heterosexual relationship, whether you are in love or it’s complicated, when it comes to parenting, it pays of to communicate effectively, drop your expectations and focus on what is right for your family as a whole, whatever the set up.
Unfortunately, there are instances where one or both partners are abusive towards one another, where loving and peaceful communication is simply not possible, and often not safe. For such extreme circumstances, here in the UK (and in many other countries), there are laws and safeguarding policies to ensure the children remain safe and healthy and where possible maintain relationships with both parents without them having to be in a direct contact. Fortunately, most parents are able to find a way to manage to parent their children together with or without external help and whether they share accommodation or not. Often, not without their own challenges.
The number one issues I come across that parents have with each other, is not being on the same parenting page. I must admit this is mostly a problem for heterosexual couples, but everyone can be susceptible to a bad communication, especially when sleep deprived.
The best way to get around this, is to discuss how you wish to parent before the baby is born, actually, ideally before they are conceived. Make sure you talk about how you will approach sleep, what are your views on sleep training, co-sleeping and bed sharing. Discuss feeding the baby, including whether and how long you’d like to breastfeed, whether you’ll pump, combo feed or use just formula, as well as how will you approach weaning onto solids. Discipline is another big subject, discuss how will you deal with challenging behaviour, the use of punishments and/or rewards, the use of physical punishment. You should talk about the division of responsibilities, who will do what and when, who will work and who will stay at home with baby and for how long. Have a chat about childcare, will you have relatives helping? Are they on board with your parenting choices and if not, are you ok with it? Consider nannies, daycare, nursery and school or even home school. What about toilet training?
All this might seem months and years away, but time flies when you have a baby and it is hard to make some of these decisions on a spot or in a heat of a moment, when you are stressed or tired. It’s not impossible, but it’s much harder and takes more concerted effort.
Educate yourselves on all the different options, do the research, ask the questions, talk to each other and more importantly listen to each other. Try and truly understand the other’s point of view and where they are coming from, be open to trying something different. Consider how each decision affects each of you personally.
For example, mum wants to bed share because that way both her and baby get more sleep, but dad is a heavy sleeper and it is not safe for him to be in the queen sized bed with them. Dad insist on sleep training and putting baby in a cot to sleep. Mum sends him books and articles explaining how sleep training is damaging to baby’s health. Dad insists it did him no harm when his parents let him cry it out. Neither of them are willing to back down nor listen to each other’s reasons. Often the need behind the dad’s request is loneliness and fear of rejection and abandonment likely caused by his parents when they sleep trained him. There also might be cognitive dissonance in that he loves his parents and cannot bring himself to admitting they might have albeit unknowingly caused him harm. To maintain his illusion his parents are perfect, he cannot accept evidence to the contrary, so he won’t even look at it. He wants his life back and the baby to fit into it - quietly.
Mum on the other hand, has done her research and is convinced sleep training would harm her child, her body is full of hormones encouraging physical closeness and responsiveness to her baby, so being apart brings in panic and physical pain. She can’t do it. She can’t not answer her baby’s cries. She also knows if she was to sleep train her baby and put them in a crib, she’d get much less sleep as she’d still have to feed baby at night as advised by the WHO until at least 12 months old. Instead of just rolling to her side, offering her breast and falling asleep again before baby even cried, she’d have to get up, pick up baby, sooth by now hysterically crying baby, feed baby, sooth baby to sleep, put baby back without waking and going back to bed and try and fall asleep again while possibly listening to a crying baby and her snoring partner.
Both parties can continue to refuse to listen to each other, feeling disrespected, abandoned and rejected. They can also really hear each other out and come up with a solution that meets everybody’s needs. Sometimes individual or couples therapy is needed to make it work, but as long as there is willingness on both sides to not give up on finding solutions but let go of the need to be in control and to be right, as long as there is introspection, kindness and compassion in their communication, it can absolutely work no matter how close to a break up or break down they are.
What is wonderful is that when parents are on the same page and respectful of each other even when they live apart, their children thrive no matter what is the family set up. As long as children feel loved and safe, they are incredibly adaptable. They can take into their stride that their parents are divorcing, finding new partners, living in different towns, even countries, that mum becomes a dad and vice versa, that they have two dads or two mums etc. What matters is that they know beyond any doubt that both their parents love them and care about them.
This can only be achieved if the parents are respectful and kind not only to their kids but to each other and of each other. You can decide you cannot live with your child’s other parent anymore, but you can remain calm and kind in your communication to and about them. If you discuss parenting styles and decisions before you have a baby, you know where you’ll stand and how much you can trust each other should things go down south as well as offering your child the so needed consistency.
If you struggle to communicate your emotions and thoughts clearly and calmly, a chat with a therapist might be a good idea as some deeper trauma might be getting triggered and needing resolution. Often, when we reconcile our past traumas and relationships, are present ones improve automatically.
Ultimately, the most important issue here should be the well being of your children. If you do not agree with your co-parent’s approach to raising your child and you are presenting a different way, pick your battles. If you know in your bones that your child would be harmed by the way proposed by your partner than by all means, insist (while taking steps to understand, validate and meet your partner’s needs that are behind their request). However, before you broach the subject, ask yourself: “Is what they are doing truly harmful to my child or is it just different to what I do and my way is best?” If you are proposing something that your partner is opposing stating it’d be harmful to your child, ask yourself this: “I am truly doing this for the benefit of my child or my own?” (i.e. do you want to sleep train your child because you truly believe it is good for their development or because you want to get some sleep?) Be honest with your self and if it is the later, seek a solution that will meet your needs without the possibility of causing harm to your child. Educate yourself, read studies of opposite views and make your own mind up based on the information. Ask for help when you are struggling to find a solution to your problem.
Parenthood is not easy nowadays, let's not make it even harder for ourselves by naively avoiding talking about it with the only person we really should. Listen to each other, open up, be vulnerable and honest. Most importantly, be kind.