This is something that's been rattling around in my head all day. I've had people over the past few years comment about how well Ex1 and I get along, and at times I have wanted to laugh at them. It's no secret that he and I don't like each other a whole lot, but we have both really grown up and we have gotten to the point that no matter how we feel about each other, the kids come first. As the kids get older, more and different situations present themselves, and we often find that we have to figure out a new way to deal with each other in order to look out for the best interests of the kids.
I wrote this from the point of view of a divorced parent, but I think it can apply to most single parenting situations - divorced, separated, never married and now broken up, whatever. This is what I have learned after going through 2 divorces and having a child with a guy who I didn't marry - needless to say, I've learned a few things from my experiences, and if those things can help someone else in a similar situation, it's worth taking the time to type it out for you to read.
Granted, this most likely will not apply to situations that involved abuse. I'm not even going there.
My advice (in no particular order):
1. Be nice to each other. You don't have to like each other. You don't have to be friends. But you have to be nice. "Please" and "thank you" go a long way with an ex. Courtesy is a wonderful thing - and remember, chances are that the kids are watching and/or listening. What do you want them to see or hear?
Don't tell your child "well if it wasn't for the divorce, we'd be able to _____." No. Don't do it. Kids focus on things like that like you would not believe. Be creative if you have to in order to not blame things on "the divorce". The kids will resent "the divorce" more and more over time, and then the "why don't you just get back together?" questions will start. And trust me, those are hard to answer.
3. Support each other. Again, you don't have to like each other. But you've got to support each other when it comes to the kids. The kids are the important ones here - not you. If your ex has the kids and is sick, offer to take them until the 'bug' is gone. Switch a few days around in the schedule. The kids don't need to be around someone who is sick unless there is no other option - and you need to step up and do your part to help. On the flip side, if you have to be out of town for a few days for whatever reason, ask your ex to keep the kids instead of sending them somewhere else. It's common courtesy, it's respectful, and the kids deserve to be with their other parent just as the other parent deserves to have some extra time with the kids.
4. Show a united front. Talk to your ex about how you are going to explain the divorce to the kids. Make sure you're both saying the same thing, even if it's a cover story. Chances are that the kids don't need to know all of the details, so rather than giving two totally different versions, figure out to say when the questions are asked. "Mom and Dad were having trouble getting along with each other, and we decided that it's best for us to not be married anymore. But no matter what, remember that we both love you very much and that will never change" is a nice vague one that can be customized - it doesn't point fingers in one direction or the other, it doesn't say that it was Mom's choice or Dad's choice, it doesn't blame the children, and it reassures them that they are still loved.
5. Attend parent/teacher conferences together. You have no idea how important this is. Divorced parents walking into a conference together shows a united front, not just to the kids but to the teachers as well. It shows the school that yes, you are both involved parents and you are both concerned for your child's social and academic growth. You both get to hear the same thing at the same time so there is no confusion on your part OR on the teacher's part. Neither one of you is more important or has more say than the other. Make sure that you explain your custody situation to the school so that they are aware of who they can call in an emergency. You are a team, and you are there to support your child. Period.
6. Keep track of the good things your ex does. It is so easy to fall into the trap of documenting every wrong action committed by your ex. If you look hard enough, you can find something wrong on a daily basis. But you know what's really more important in the grand scheme of things? Focus on what your ex does right. Focus on the strengths, on the good things, on the positive effect that your ex has on the kids' lives.
7. Communicate. You have to talk to each other. Find a way that works the best for both of you. For some parents, it's face to face. For some it's email or texting. But find a way that works. Talk about what is going on in the kids' lives when the ex isn't around. You don't realize it, but little things that happen at your house can affect what happens at your ex's house - and the only way to truly understand everything that your child is going through is to talk to each other about it. If you can do it, try to sit down together with your kids on a regular basis and talk to them - as a family. Just because you aren't married anymore doesn't mean that you're no longer family - because as long as those kids exist, you are connected, like it or not.
8. Tell your family and friends what you expect of them. Explain to your family and friends that you expect that they will treat your ex with respect, regardless of their personal feelings. Chances are that your kids will be around these people, and not everyone is smart enough to keep their opinions to themselves when little ears are present. The kids don't need to hear Uncle Jake talking about what a deadbeat their dad is or to see an old family friend giving Mom the cold shoulder in public. You are capable of acting like a grown up, and you should expect that from other people in the kids' lives as well. It's not about them - it's about the kids.
9. Be flexible. Chances are that a custody schedule will be put on paper. Follow it as much as you can, because the consistency will help the kids to adapt to the new normal. But at the same time, be willing to be flexible. If your ex has family visiting from out of state and it's your weekend, let the kids go see their relatives. It might be the last time that they'll get to have that visit for a while. If it's your ex's holiday and you have the opportunity to take a once-in-a-lifetime vacation somewhere with the kids, try to compromise. As parents, we often feel as though we are "losing out on our time" with the kids, but we need to look at the bigger picture - do you really want your kids to miss a rare visit with Aunt Bertha just because it's your weekend?
10. Always remember - THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU. The moment that you have kids, your life stops being all about you. No matter what your ex did to you (or vice versa) that led to the divorce, no matter how angry you are, no matter how hurt you are - it's not about you. You have to keep your eye on what is really important - and in the grand scheme of things, it's not you. It's the kids. Everything that you do will affect them in some way. You might think that a silly argument with your ex about a coffee table isn't that big of a deal - but what you don't see is that your ex might be drowning in stress and the stupid coffee table argument caused the kids to have to deal with an even more stressed out and angry parent that night at supper.
The bottom line is this: The kids come first. You don't. Remember that, and you'll be in good shape.