My son’s dad and I were never married or committed to any kind of relationship between the two of us. When I was pregnant we decided to move in together for a minimum of 2 years, thinking it would be an arrangement that would last 2-3 years – during the most intensive parenting period. Currently we parallel parent our teenage son. Most people I talk to have never heard the term ‘parallel parenting’ before.
What is Parallel Parenting?
Parallel parenting is a type of co-parenting where the parents engage in parenting activities alongside each other but not together. Parallel parenting is rather like the notion of ‘parallel play’ for toddlers wherein they may play beside each other with little actual interaction.
I define co-parenting as parenting activities that you do with another person whom your child(ren) consider another parent, and that other person is not living with you. It can be helpful to look at co-parenting as a set of activities that take place along a spectrum of cooperation, with ‘true’ co-parenting as a collaborative effort on one end of the spectrum and parallel parenting on the other end with little-to-no cooperation.
The Coles Notes of My Co-Parenting Evolution
For the first couple of years after The Boy was born his dad and I were co-living (first just the 3 of us, and then with various housemates) and cooperatively co-parenting. As a person who places very high value on relationships and communication this was an exceptionally good set-up for me. I think the main reasons co-living and co-parenting worked for us in those early years were that The Boy’s dad and I had very similar parenting philosophies and lots of discussion had provided clarity on our individual roles.
When The Boy was 3 years old I started working outside the home Saturdays and Sundays (I had been working from home prior to this) and his dad started living elsewhere on weekdays, but he came back to the communal house on weekends to parent while I was at my other job. This worked well too since we were both crazy in love with The Boy and wanted to parent.
Just before The Boy turned 4 his dad made a move to a town almost 1000 km away from the city were The Boy was born and we had all been living. This move had been planned even before The Boy was born. Around this time our parenting relationship started to change to conflictual co-parenting, and this lasted for about 6 years. During this period of conflictual co-parenting The Boy was in elementary school, his dad and I consulted with lawyers and mediators, I went to grad school, and The Boy went between two distant homes A LOT. Those were tough years characterized by the continual question of ‘who gets to have The Boy?’ It felt like a constant tug-of-war.
All the back-and-forth was breaking my heart to bits. It was tortuous to have my son living a 12-hour drive away and it was also very difficult to have The Boy living with me knowing that the two of them missed each other and I was shouldering all the work on my own. The Boy’s dad also refused to talk to me about our son, about parenting, or keep me connected to The Boy when the two of them were living together. Single parenting was hard on me, and being an alienated parent was far, far worse.
It dawned on me one day when I was desperately ill with the flu that The Boy’s childhood was over half-way done and there was NO WAY IN HELL that I would be able to look back on all this separation and conflict and tell myself, ‘you were a good mom Kerri.’ And I couldn’t live with that. A few weeks later I quit my job and within a couple of months I moved to the next time zone and settled into an apartment 2 blocks away from The Boy’s dad.
The Boy was ecstatic.
As soon as I moved to town The Boy’s dad and I no longer had to fight over travel plans or contribute money to plane tickets or share school holidays. All that stuff we used to talk about was in order to facilitate parenting-at-a-distance, so now we hardly needed to communicate at all. We settled immediately into a 50/50 arrangement based on his work schedule and The Boy lived with each of us half time. This way neither of us was paying child support to the other (as we had previously done). The Boy could go back and forth between our homes as much as he wanted, and since he was almost 12, he started to run his own show in lots of ways. For example, he could tell his dad before soccer practice, “we need to stop by Kerri’s house to pick up my knee pads,” or he would call me and say, “my dad is going to a friend’s birthday party tomorrow night so I’ll come to your house.”
We had arrived at parallel parenting.
I deeply craved collaborative co-parenting until just a few years ago. I saw it as a personal failing that I couldn’t get The Boy’s dad to work with me on this joint project. I thought that parallel parenting was inferior to regular co-parenting and I was jealous of parenting teams I knew who discussed their children as easily as ordering in a restaurant.
I still wonder how future milestones like graduations and weddings might be coordinated to allow The Boy to feel truly treasured by his parents, but then I remind myself that it’s not my business how my son feels. My job, as always, is to keep doing the personal work that allows me to provide a home with deep emotional safety for my son.