A single mum’s starter guide to complementary co-parenting

Kinderling News & Features

Raising a family is hard. That’s nothing new. Though what happens when your role as a parent has to evolve to a time-share one, when your relationship with your partner doesn’t turn out the way everyone hoped it would? Not every separation can be fixed with a Parent Trap style switcheroo and a joyous loved-up reunion. So, what comes next?

Lucy Good is the founder of Beanstalk, a website that connects and supports single mums in a variety of ways. She’s also a single mum herself.

“It’s hard. The thing is the timing of it all,” Lucy says. “You have to deal with [emotions] as well as the practical side of a break up which can often mean moving house, selling house, moving schools and dividing assets. And then of course you’ve got these little people in your world whose lives you’re upsetting in a huge way and that is just desperately sad.”

What is complementary co-parenting?

When Lucy first split from her partner, it became obvious that their parenting styles were vastly different. Where she set boundaries, and was ‘strict’, he was every inch a Disney Dad.

“My ex-husband is a very good dad,” Lucy says, “But he was also a bit of a Disney Dad… he just did everything that they wanted to do. My girls had him wrapped around their little fingers and it was almost quite amusing to watch. The end was result was that they’d go to his and get everything they wanted… They would have so much fun and they would come back to me totally and utterly exhausted, full to brimming with junk food and with an attitude of if ‘I want it. I will get it.’”

Listen to Lucy on Kinderling Conversation:

Lucy says this is a common thread she sees in her closed support groups on social media; that mums get upset over the way the dad parents. Instead of trying to change the way he looked after kids, she decided to try to complement it. When her girls were with their dad they would live like mini rock stars, and when they came back to her they had set bed times and vegetables.

“I felt like I was filling in the gaps in his style of parenting,” she explains. “There was no way I could have changed his style of parenting even if I had tried and caused loads of problems. Instead I filled in the gaps. The end result was that we had happy kids.”

Kids will try to play you

Lucy uses an example of a family trampoline to explain that children will absolutely try to game the system. She said no to buying a trampoline. This was largely because she was strapped for cash. So of course, her girls went to their dad and requested a trampoline, that was hastily purchased for them. “They played it, they worked it, kids are clever and I often think, well let them do it then. They’ve got separated parents, they’ve got to have some bonuses.” Lucy says. “Now that they’re older they’re so happy with the way it’s been and the way it is.”

5 tips for separating ‘well’

“If my kids come home from their dads happy then that’s enough for me and I’m not going to do anything to stop that happiness. It’s the ultimate for kids,” Lucy rationalises.

Lucy’s advice is

  1. Don’t get swept up by how well things seem to be going
  2. Your children will want you to spend time together - but you don’t have to. Do what is comfortable for you.
  3. Don’t do too much with your ex in the beginning. It can feel great, particularly if you are all getting along. But Lucy says that, particularly from her experience, it just ends up confusing the kids, and you!
  4. Have a clear message about your separation. In an ideal world (which we know doesn’t often happen) try to have both parents emphasising the same message that you are not going to get back together. Explain that you are getting a long, and this how you’ll try to keep it.
  5. Try to avoid blame and emotion when talking about your ex. It can often slip out when you’re feeling particularly frustrated or tired, but speaking about your ex in a negative light can be confusing and lead to problems later on down the line. At the beginning Lucy says the best way to explain your separation to your kids is to just keep it simple; “There are reasons why it’s [the separation] happened. Perhaps we can explain them to you later on you’re too young to go into that now.”

What about Christmas, birthdays and family holidays?

The first Christmas after a separation can be the hardest. Figuring out what works for you as a family can take time. For Lucy that meant three Christmases of feeling pretty average.

“Christmas was really important to them that we were always together as this family and of course they use were using the opportunity of getting us together…” she remembers. “Whoever’s house it was they were at the other parent had to drive over at like 5:30 in the morning so we were both there for stocking opening… I think the first year was ok and then it just got… flat. We didn’t really want to be together and… the girls notice that now we’re older.”

Prepare yourself for big events in advance

Particularly at the end of the year, Lucy says that opening the lines of communication early is essential. Not just with your ex-partner, but extended members of the family that might want a piece of your kids. If you can’t come to an amicable agreement, Lucy says to consider running it through the courts, by changing a court order or a parenting plan. It can sound daunting and extreme, but it may be necessary and you want to be prepared for it early.

Just like when you were together, the principle is the same. Be. Prepared.  “You need to plan like a military operation when you’re shared parenting at Christmas so everyone knows where they stand and nothing goes wrong. And for those that are really struggling there are some emergency numbers – if something goes wrong on the day, make notes, keep a record of those phone numbers, and speak to your family lawyer afterwards.” 

Emergency contacts like Relationships Australia and Reachout are great, as well as mental health organisations such as Beyond Blue and Lifeline.