How to co-parent as true partners

Many people made fun of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s conscious uncoupling a few years ago. But it’s evident that they have influenced a number of other newly divorced celebrity parents who are raising kids together to put aside their anger and differences and come together for their family. (Sienna Miller even admits to doing the nightly bedtime routine together with former partner and father of her daughter, Tom Sturridge, while Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner take vacations together with the kids.

Could this happy co-parenting stuff happen before a couple gets divorced?

Of course —  a lot of couples have figured it out when it comes to parenting their kids. But many, many more have not and guess what happens? Conflict. And guess who suffers? Right, the kids.

Which is why one of the chapters on The New I Do is dedicated to a parenting marriage, a slightly different take on platonic parenting. But what both do so beautifully is this: anything related to the kids — from when and how to have them to how to raise and discipline them — is talked about and agreed upon. No surprises, no hidden agendas, no frustrations, no resentments  — well at least a lot less of all of that.

Merle Weiner, a law professor at the University of Oregon, proposes that the state should create a legal parent-partner status that binds parents — married, cohabiting, living apart, romantic partners or not —  with certain mandatory obligations in order to give their children what they need to thrive.

Whether you agree with any or all of the above, there is one aspect that is essential in making these sorts of arrangements work, and that is understanding your family-of-origin issues.

If you don’t want to end up like Jancee Dunn, who was almost at the point of divorce, as she writes in her new book, How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, because she and her husband  had “dreamy conversations” about their baby when they were pregnant, but never discussed  the day-to-day practicalities, then you might want to read Hoefle’s book. As she writes:

As tensions rise between parents, their ability to parent effectively is compromised, and as a result, both the children’s behavior and their emotional health are put at risk. Because we are a culture convinced that kids are the ones who need fixing (thankfully this trend is changing), it’s reasonable that parents place the discord in the home at the feet of the kids, rather than on the state of the individuals doing the parenting. With each passing year, parents grow further and further apart, until they are either sabotaging each other openly or have entered into a quiet battle of wills, otherwise known as a power struggle. Without a course correction, not only are the children impacted in a negative way; the marriage suffers enough that parents consider divorce their only remedy for an untenable situation.

As a woman who has raised two children in a marriage, truer words were never said.

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We need a contract for co-parenting, not just marriage

Readers of  The New I Do know that we present parenting marriages as a model and parenting prenups as a way to really plan to become parents.
Here’s a wonderful article by philosophy professor Laurie Shrage that ran in Aeon, which we are reprinting here by permission.

When I was in graduate school in the United States in the early 1980s, a member of our women’s support group informed us that she was pregnant. Although she was single and not in a serious relationship, she told us she intended to have the baby and raise it herself. She decided not to tell the genetic father, as she feared that he would pressure her to get an abortion, or disappear and then later try to enter the child’s life. She preferred to parent alone.

My mother was in a similar position, even when she was married to my father. In the US at the time, it was common for fathers not to be involved in raising the children. What we would now call a ‘traditional marriage’ never really spelled out any principles for shared parenting, except to assign all basic childcare to wives. A father might be called upon occasionally to back up a mother’s disciplinary rules, but I felt somewhat lucky that my mine was never enlisted for this role. When my parents separated, there was no question about who would get the kids: the wife, my mother. Once my parents divorced, my father was around even less, and never got to know my children (my eldest was 12 years old when he died).

These scenarios – being a single parent by choice, and raising children in a marriage and after a break-up – point to the fact that the institution of marriage often fails to facilitate the complex and shifting nature of parenthood. The modern family is changing, and an increasing number of people are choosing to have children outside marriage in the first place. In 1970, 11 per cent of all births in the US were extramarital; by 2014, it had climbed to around 40 per cent. In countries including Norway, Sweden, France, Mexico and Iceland, more than half of all children are born outside of marriage.

This trend troubles some observers, who think that marriage is necessary for the stability of the family. But people become parents under many different circumstances, and often these circumstances aren’t conducive to marriage anyway. Is there an alternative that adds a degree of financial and emotional security to the lives of parents and children?

Yes: akin to a public marriage contract, we need an official ‘co-parenting agreement’ and associated civil status, which not only enshrines the rights and responsibilities of each parent in respect of their children, but also sets out the principles by which they relate to one another and make decisions.

Although children benefit greatly from having the ongoing support of several adults as they grow up, they don’t necessarily need this nurturing from people who commit to marriage. Their parents simply need to cooperate effectively, to respect the relationship the other has with the children, and to contribute in comparable ways to caregiving and family finances. In the United Kingdom, parents who are unmarried, separated, remarried or step-parents can already enter into a ‘parental responsibility agreement’ that aims to establish the terms of shared custody of the children. This includes obligations to keep co-parents informed about a child’s basic wellbeing, and to assist with providing housing, schooling, medical care and other costs.

However, I think that we need to take the notion of official co-parenting a step further – to include parents who might never intend to marry or live together, or who don’t wish to enter into an emotionally intimate relationship. In the US, organisations such as Family By Design and Modamily have sprung up to help single adults find a suitable co-parent for forming a family ‘minus the couple’, as a New York Times article put it. But without the state’s legal recognition, co-parents must draw up their own agreements. Such privately negotiated contracts could fail to protect the rights of weaker or vulnerable parties, or might reflect the quality of legal advice one can afford.

Of course, like marriage, entering and continuing a public, formal co-parenting agreement should be voluntary; parents should always be free to enter into private or informal arrangements, if they wish to do so. But without an institutionalised public option, we expose families to the risk of nightmarish conflict, especially when relationships break down.

When people become parents, they might not be able to anticipate all the ways in which their interests could be interfered with or undermined. Particularly after a break-up, parents often use tactics that they might admit are unfair, and would be incensed if used against them. But when access to their kids and involvement in their lives is at stake, moral consideration for the other parent is not a priority, even for otherwise decent people. Among my friends, and friends of friends, I have seen one parent use a partner’s lack of US citizenship as a bargaining chip to gain access to the children. Another took advantage of the circumstance that her same-gender co-parent had not obtained legal parent status. Yet another elected to move residence far away from the other parent, which made shared arrangements impractical. Many of us know similar stories.

Because marriage generally does not cover the terms of shared childrearing, public co-parenting contracts would offer a social insurance scheme for both ‘traditional’ and non-traditional families. An official contract would help to safeguard parents’ basic entitlements, such as the right to be involved in the lives of one’s children and to appropriate forms of child support from each co-parent. If and when cooperation among the co-parents breaks down, the existence of an agreement can guide courts or mediators in negotiating new agreements for shared parental responsibility.

The process of formalising one’s status as a parent would also encourage people to think through and communicate their expectations right from the start. When we cross the threshold to parenthood, surely it’s sensible for society to nudge parents to reflect on and discuss who will make career sacrifices to be at home with the children, how the children will divide their time if the parents have separate households, and how important decisions will be made that affect a child’s future.

Of course, it can be hard to know precisely what to expect in advance of something as momentous as having a child, and the contract doesn’t have to lay it all down in detail. But the point is that future decisions would take place in the context of a formal commitment and a public declaration about the primacy of the co-parenting relationship in one’s life. Such an agreement would also provide an incentive for parents to work things out to their mutual benefit – in part because they know that ending the arrangement has tangible consequences.

In short, one’s rights as a parent, and the relationship with one’s children, shouldn’t be contingent on the ups and downs of one’s love life. Co-parenting as friends, or at least as collaborators, is good for children, adults, and society. If a civil institution of co-parenting had been available, both my mother and my friend from graduate school might not have had to go it alone.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Why do some men cheat on their pregnant wife?

There you are, finally pregnant, getting the nursery ready and looking forward to your new role as Mom and — bam, your husband cheats on you.

Wonderful.

At least that’s what happened to Katie Price, one of the stars of the British daytime TV show Loose Women. pregnant_cheating

Not only did hubby Kieran Hayler cheat on her, but he cheated on her with her best friend.

Former Congress-
man Anthony Weiner was sexting (the first time) while wife Huma Abedin was secretly pregnant, back in 2011. Whether you consider that cheating or not, Abedin finally did — filing for divorce after the third sexting scandal.

They weren’t the first poorly behaved dads-to-be.

The concept of a husband who cheats while his wife is pregnant is “probably more common than people suspect,” says Scott Haltzman, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and author of The Secrets of Happily Married Women.

In fact, a 2012 study indicted that men are at a slightly higher risk of cheating when their wife is pregnant.

Why?

Find out more here.

What’s holding couples back from having an egalitarian marriage?

There’s an image we have about marriage, about “two becoming one.”

Anyone who’s been married for length of time realizes that’s a bit of a lie. We’re still people with our own needs. In fact, many believe what hetero men and women experience is a “his” and a “her” marriage.

Some 50 years ago, sociologist Jessie Bernard noted that marriage is not a single entity; how marriage was experienced depended a lot on whether you’re the wife or the husband. In general, she noted, marriage generally benefits the guys more than the gals. His and her marriage

True, marriage was a lot different in the early 1970s, when women had fewer options (although Bernard herself bucked a lot of trends back then). It’s now 2016, the age of stay-at-home dads and breadwinning moms, the age of equal partnerships.

Well, not quite.

Heterosexual marriage, especially among white, educated and well-off couples, is still a gendered social reality and a gendered institution, or so argue sociologists Karyn Loscocco and Susan Walzer in Gender and the Culture of Heterosexual Marriage in the United States. The two explore the work of Andrew Cherlin in his book The Marriage-Go-Round, which attempts to  explain the high rate of divorce in the U.S. While he does not take gender into account, Loscocco and Walzer argue we must:

“The role expectations  associated with being a husband or wife intersect with those to which men and women may more generally be accountable. … people tend to be accountable to dominant gender beliefs whether or not they act on them and to treat them as shared cultural knowledge whether or not they endorse them.”

Which means even in the most equal of marriages, there’s an incredible awareness of gender and how a wife and a husband “should” act. And that continues to drive “contemporary heterosexual marriage and its discontents.”

And boy, are we discontented.

What does that look like? They cite studies pointing out that:

So, what’s making women so miserable in their marriages? For one, women are still in charge of the emotional caretaking:

“Typical studies of the household division of labor do not begin to capture all the unpaid caring work — for friends, extended family, schools, and religious and other community organizations — that women disproportionately do. Nor do they capture wives’ planning, organizing, and structuring of family life.”

It’s exhausting being the one who always has to be on top of the emotional temperature of a relationship, and keep the ties to family and community going. Plus, that kind of work often goes unnoticed or undervalued — and sometimes even resented — which, they note, “can lead to marital tension.”

What about in so-called equal marriages? Nope; the wives still “tended to be the ones who monitored their own and their partners’ contributions to their relationships.” Even when the imbalance was duly acknowledged, nothing changed, “leading to feelings of resentment and frustration.”

Of course, self-help books and relationship “experts” — from Steve Harvey (Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man) to John Gray (Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus) and others — tend to encourage women to “accept imbalances in their relationships with men to attract and keep them.”

The message is always the same; if a wife just worked hard enough she could save her marriage, if not from unhappiness than at least from divorce. Yet studies show that when husbands take greater ownership of the emotional work — beyond just household chores and child care — wives are happier and healthier. So by continuing to advise women to “act like ladies or girls and to accept their ‘cavemen’” sets couples up for “reproducing the very patterns that are implicated in marital stress.” There’s a bit of craziness to that!

Why can’t men and women have an “our marriage”? Clearly, there’s some huge disconnect in what a husband and wife know how each is experiencing the marriage. Can that change? Maybe; their paper cites studies that indicate ‘‘unrealistic expectations’’ and ‘‘inadequate preparation’’ for marriage are keeping many couples from having an “our” marriage (which is why we believe our book is so important because it raises essential questions couples need to address).

Poet Jill Bialosky once wrote, ‘‘I had wanted to get married, but I realized now that I had never wanted to be ‘a wife.’’’ Oprah Winfrey doesn’t want to be a wife, either. What about you?

Want to have an “our” marriage? Learn how by ordering The New I Do:Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.