Bonus Families | Co-parenting Advice For Divorced Parents And Stepfamilies
Bonus Families, as an organization was founded in 1999, but the ground work was laid years before. The founder, Dr. Jann Blackstone, a divorce and stepfamily mediator, had weathered the ups and downs of co-parenting children after divorce for ten years before she felt qualified to form an organization to help others.
Q. Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, but since I’ve broken up with the kid’s dad, I hate when October rolls around. I’ve been letting their dad go Trick-or-treating with us for the last two years, (we altered the parenting plan for that day only) but this year he’s taking them to Disneyland for Halloween and I won’t see them. I’m so angry! I have include him, but he’s not including me! What’s good ex-etiquette?
(Note: For all of you who are not familiar with the term, “good ex-etiquette,” it’s another way of referring to “good behavior after divorce or separation.” Check out our Ex-etiquette Department!
A. Halloween is a big deal at Disneyland and if he has tickets for Halloween night, the kids are probably so excited they don’t see the internal family conflict this may cause. Thank goodness. This is the parent’s problem, not the kids.
There are major red flags to be taken into consideration: First, The fact that dad is not including you this year is not bad ex-etiquette. It may make your Halloween sort of lonely, but if the parenting plan designates holidays with the kids to one parent or another, it’s that parent’s decision to make plans for that day. Of course, Ex-etiquette for parents rule #1, “Put the kids first,” is an important consideration, but it says “the kids first,” not the ex, first.
There’s a fine art to sharing with an ex–and sharing the holidays is the MOST difficult. It can stir up all sorts of feelings of “how it used to be,” or “let’s try it one more time,” or “Now, I realize why we split you, #$#%$$!!! Remember, keep you wits about you!
Finally, the main concern is what does all this togetherness says to the kids. On one hand kindness and consideration is contagious, and not holding a grudge demonstrates that people who do not get along can make the decision to kindly interact if it is necessary. This is an important lesson our kids can use not only in their personal life, but in their professional life as well. However, exes being too friendly in front of the kids can also be very confusing and that often translates into anger. Parents find themselves wondering, “What’s wrong with Billy?” when it could simply be that his parents were giggling on the couch at a holiday celebration while reminiscing and then he could go home with only one of them. It’s sort of like an emotional hangover–and Billy can’t handle it. So, if you notice your children acting up the day after a holiday that you have done your best to spend with their other parent, check your behavior at that holiday celebration. If you were short tempered, watch it. If you were too friendly, watch it even more.
Keeping the Peace (Our Strategies for Co-Parenting with Bio-Mom)
Raising any child isn’t easy. Raising a child split between two homes with an Ex has its own set of additional challenges. I am a Stepmom (SM) with a 6-year-old Stepdaughter (SD) with whom my husband and I share custody of with Bio-Mom (BM), who lives very close. My husband and I consistently make it a priority to keep the peace and maintain an amicable relationship with BM and her Fiancé. I can admit that it’s not always as easy as it sounds, but we have found that in the long run it’s been the best approach to take. Over the past several years we have had some struggles, but have managed to create a conflict-free arrangement between the two families that works. These are my family’s strategies for keeping the peace.
There are typically two approaches to parenting between two homes after a divorce, Co-Parenting and Parallel Parenting. In general terms, a Co- Parenting arrangement is one in which both parent’s problem solve together, compare notes on a regular basis, and rely heavily on parental interaction. While in a Parallel Parenting arrangement, the boundaries between both parents are very clear: communication is kept to a minimum and primarily in writing, no personal information or information about the child is shared, and typically there is one established primary parent.
I’ve often heard that you need to find the parenting arrangement that works best for your situation, as there isn’t a single approach that works for everyone. For us however, I find that we straddle the two. At its core, we are primarily in a Co-Parenting arrangement, but at times (sometimes by choice, while other times as a result of something BM’s forced upon us) there are aspects of Parallel Parenting that peak through.
My husband and I have found that limiting contact with BM to pertinent discussions about SD is the most successful way for us to communicate. We do not text or speak out of emotion and it is always kept brief and to the point. We do not force friendships between the two sets of parents and do not attend gatherings held by BM. For example, we hold a separate birthday for SD at our home, and do not attend the one held by BM. Previously we had attended a birthday party for SD at BM’s home, but it was awkward and uncomfortable for all those involved. This has become our standard for holidays such as Christmas as well. Unfortunately, this often means that we have to concede our opportunity to celebrate holidays on the actual day, and we have to be the ones to choose an alternate date. Will we always be so open with forfeiting these dates? Only time will tell.
We have also found that a well-established routine is paramount in eliminating any additional contact. For example, our pickups and drop-offs of SD mainly occur at her school, and not from the individual homes. This reduces pickup/drop-off interactions with BM to mainly the summer months, which we then schedule to occur in a neutral place.
When it comes to sharing personal information, we always try to be courteous and inform BM of the happenings in our life that affect SD. For example, when my husband and I first became engaged, or when we first began to announce that we were expecting a child, we were sure to inform BM in a very passive and non-boastful way. We did this to ensure that BM didn’t hear the information from SD first, avoiding any possible awkward moment between them. Though this approach is not always reciprocated by BM, we still hold steadfast to this old adage: Treat others the way you would like to be treated.
Another strategy we use to keep the peace with BM is to respect the parenting decisions that she has made on her time and in her home. We allow her to make the rules for her own household – no matter how challenging this can be at times – but we expect to receive the same respect in return. This can lead to a set of rules that are drastically different in each home (i.e. bedtime and homework), and a less seamless transition back and forth, but we have found that SD is happiest and adapts easiest when we maintain our routine.
Even with this approach to foster the most amicable relationship possible, we still occasionally feel the sting of parental alienation by BM. Though tempting, we do not take this as an opportunity to retaliate, and we remain neutral at all times. We make a point to never speak badly of BM in front of SD. SD is also aware that she is free to speak about her other home at any time, even if it’s occasionally hard to hear. In addition, we allow for unscheduled phone calls between BM and SD whenever either of them see fit, and will continue to do so as long as this privilege is not abused.
Things became easier for my Husband and I when we accepted that not every day, week, or month was going to seem fair, but that our number one focus remain unchanged: Providing a healthy, happy environment, and a positive impact on SD. We are okay not always being the fun household, as we stick to a structured routine that supports our ideals of effective family values.
Every situation is different, but for us, following these strategies has helped strengthen the relationship between my Husband and I, while also reducing conflict between our family and BM’s.
Life Coach and Blogger
The Family Turf
For the first 3 years of being a step mom people kept telling me it was a thankless job, and I believed it to be true. Before I met my husband I had written out this chosen ideal of what I wanted in a partner, he had to be tall, kind, loving, be spiritual, honest, giving, loyal, and a lot of other wonderful qualities you would want in a mate, and at the bottom of the list, no children. Well pushing 28 it would start to be difficult to find a man with no children.
When I was 20 I got pregnant with my daughter, her name was Adisyn Rain. She was born with 4 heart defects and died when she was 6 weeks old after spending her short life in the hospital. It was tragic and I was broken. I drank heavily for 3 years before I hit a bottom and got sober. 7 years later I met the one. He had a two year old daughter. But he checked all of the other boxes. Turns out his daughters middle name was Addison, it made me feel the universe was telling me its okay, it’s the right path.
Being a step mom has to be the biggest ego deflater anyone can experience. I had to learn how to navigate in the family. What boundaries couldn’t be crossed? Where did I fit? Where did her mom start and I end? Is it okay to discipline, reward, be an active role model? It was a struggle the first few years. It seemed I had more responsibilities than any other family member. Motherly instincts were automatic because they were instincts that were still there from 8 years prior. But my ego got involved. I wanted her to call me mom even though I knew I would never replace her mom, I felt like I was a mom to her. But I couldn’t tell her to call me mom, that’s not appropriate. I wanted her to know I mattered, I wanted her to know “I’m choosing to love you”. I wanted her to know this is “a thankless job” and I’m doing it anyways.
Everything changed a couple years ago. I don’t know how but it did. I realized I don’t need to be called mom. Nicole is just fine. Sometimes she does call me mom. But I don’t “need” it. I know how important I am to her and she knows how important she is to me. So though in the beginning it felt thankless, it doesn’t anymore. Her mother has thanked me multiple times for being a great step parent to her. Her mom’s mother has thanked me multiple times for the role I play in her life. My daughter, because that’s what I call her, has thanked me for being in her life. She can’t think of a time that I wasn’t here. She knows I will always be here.
So the moral of all the “it’s a thankless job” sayers is, we have to let go of ego. It’s not about being thanked, though it feels good, it’s about how much love we can bring to the children and family. I have learned a lot about myself being in a blended family, and when I can get my ego out of the way of what “I need” and think what can I bring to the family, without expecting a thank you, there is more harmony in our life.
I would like to think I am a seasoned ‘co-parenter’ – if there even is such a thing! I state this because I have been co-parenting for 6 years now and we are not the ordinary co-parents. We don’t just go through the motions, but we actively and intentionally place our children at the front and centre of all of the individual decisions we make. Will this be good for them? Is the schedule going to work for them? Will they be happy with this arrangement? Does this decision enhance their life rather than be detrimental to it?
Divorce is tough enough – for all involved, so we focused on making co-parenting as loving, functional and life giving as we possibly could. And this was no mean feat. This intention means that sometimes you make decision that are more beneficial to the children than they are to the parent like location or shared care plans.
I am yet to re partner but my ex husband has twice. Bringing a ‘bonus’ parent into the family unit is a big deal. I don’t think it should even be seen as anything else. This is another human who is not the biological parent of your child and one of the parents is going to know very limited information about them. What are they like? are they kind? Will they treat my children with love? What other family scenarios and relationships do they bring to the table? It is a vulnerable situation for the everyone involved – all of the adults and children.
I have taken a similar approach to both of the ‘bonus mums’ that have come into the lives of my children over the last 6 years. My approach and thoughts have been along the following lines:
– I have no control over the relationship between my ex husband and any partner he chooses. We are divorced and live separate lives. Who he is in relationship with is none of my business and I don’t express an opinion about it to him nor to my children.
– I respect the new family unit my ex husband is trying to build with a new partner and I do nothing to influence, investigate or interfere with it.
– I trust that my ex husband will choose wisely and believe that he has the children’s best interest at heart. I trust he will not put them in any danger with a woman who would be abusive or nasty to our children. He loves them too much.
– I foster open and positive communication with my children about the time and activities they spend with their family unit on their dads side. This includes with their bonus mum and bonus siblings. I never speak negatively about them to my children.
– I have never interrogated my children on information about the new woman in their dads life. This is none of my business and I am not interested in his personal life. The children do not need to be placed in the middle.
– I embrace any woman who loves and shows kindness to my children and see her as a nice addition to my children’s lives. They receive even more love and affection and get to experience two families.
In saying the above, I understand we don’t all have great, responsible and mature ex partners and I keep communication channels open with my children to ensure that if there was anything unusual or uncomfortable going on, they could and I am positive would tell me.
Let me leave you with some Co-parenting food for thought:
– Your ex partner is not your children’s ex parent. They are still their current mum or dad. Not ex mum or ex dad. You have separated from the parent, they have not separated relationally from anybody. You are all still family to them, the logistical structure just looks and operates differently for them now.
– They are the flesh and blood of your ex partner. An insult about their mum/dad is an insult to them as they are biologically and inherently an intimate part of one another. They love the parent you are making a derogatory comment about and it hurts them, regardless of whether it is true or not. Please remember this.
– Your feelings toward your ex partner are not necessarily their feelings. They have a completely different relationship, set of emotions and past experience with their other parent. It is unwise to try and convince your children to share the same feelings and view of their other parent as you do if they are in a good, healthy relationship with them. It is a totally different relationship and should be left to develop its own positive journey and path.
– Please don’t make your children your emotional sounding board for negative feelings about their other parent. I encourage you to process your feelings of grief, heartache or resentment with a professional counsellor or a close friend when the children are not at home. Children are not counsellors for adults. They are not mature enough to process adult emotions nor carry them. It is unfair to burden them with a weight they cannot bear. Doing this lacks wisdom, maturity and emotional intelligence.
– You are not expected to love or like your ex partner – that is a completely personal choice but for the benefit of your children, I want to encourage you to learn how to ensure that they think (preferably know) there is a basic respect for the other parent (as a parent) on a fundamental level. If children feel or know there is conflict, they grieve. Grief is the root of emotional distress and avoiding as much distress as you can in an already difficult situation for them is the most loving and mature gift you can give them.
– Please remember this: When it comes to unfaithfulness in a committed relationship, your personal history with your ex partner is not their personal history with their parent. Your pain and hurt is not your children’s pain and hurt. It was experienced by you and to you, not by them or to them. Your sadness is not their sadness. Please don’t burden them with your grief and taint their view of the other parent. They can form their own view and perspective as an adult in the individual relationship with that parent later in life when they are emotionally mature enough to process it.
– Negatively reacting to hearing about positive experiences they have had with their other parent creates pain and confusion for your child/children. They are simply telling you about their day and are not expecting you to react negatively or emotionally. Maturity whilst simultaneously experiencing personal pain is the challenge of healthy co parenting. Keeping what is your wound as your wound and not then making it your children’s wound is the ultimate co-parenting goal to move towards and successfully achieve.
Leigh Nicholls is a co-parenting mother of 2 children aged 15 & 11.They live on the coast of one of the most beautiful countries in the world – Australia!
Leigh has successfully co-parented well with her ex husband for over 6 years after 14 years of marriage. Birthed out of a strong desire to help other separated families co-parent healthily, Leigh shares her tips and thoughts for success as the founder and writer of the blog ‘Co-parenting Well’ – www.coparentingwell.wordpress.com
“I am the ex wife of a man I respect and is still (and always will be) family, regardless of the circumstances that led to the end of our marriage. We both take responsibility for the parts we played.
We co-parent in a healthy, very amicable 50/50 shared parenting family unit where both parents invest emotionally, financially, spiritually and physically into the health and well being of our 2 all time favourite humans.We speak highly of one another to them, never speak poorly of the other in front of them, make the co-parenting structure as loving and normal as it possibly can be and it works. They know they are loved, valued, nurtured and their parents are respectful toward eachother, mature and emotionally intelligent.”
Leigh is currently studying a double degree – Bachelor of Law and Arts at University with the plan to become an author, documentary film maker and Lawyer.
As Stepmom Warrior tells us…Becoming bonus is not instantaneous. It takes time and patience before being added to the picture.
My stepdaughters and I have always had a positive relationship since the day we met. They were only 5 and 7. We spent a lot of time at the art table coloring, drawing, and creating. Some of the early drawings by the 5 year old were of her mom, dad, and sister. Sure, it stung a little bit. But as a reasonable adult I understood she was only a kid and she was only expressing herself. I hoped that one day I’d make it into her drawing. Our bonds continued to develop. Then one day, a couple of years later, we were spending time coloring and drawing together. After some time my stepdaughter ripped the page out of her sketchbook and said, “Here Niki, I drew a family picture of us.” I looked at the picture and tears filled my eyes. There I was in the picture with my husband, my stepdaughters, and even our two dogs. I told her she was very talented and that I absolutely loved it. It melted my heart completely.
It isn’t grand gestures or huge moments that mean the most, it’s the little things. That day she made my day and brought joy to my heart. I’ll never forget the day I was added to the family picture.