Co-Parenting at the Holidays: It’s the Most Wonderful, and Complicated, Time of the Year

Co-Parenting at the Holidays: It’s the Most Wonderful, and Complicated, Time of the Year

latestBy Shannan Younger

I stayed in an irretrievably broken marriage longer than I should have in part because I hated the idea of sharing my amazing daughter, and the idea of spending the holidays without her terrified me. The thought of not seeing her face light up with wonder on Christmas morning seemed like too much, until, of course, everything else felt like too much.

That moment came when my four-year-old said something silly that gave me the giggles. She ran to the phone and called my parents. “I just made my mommy laugh, and that never happens!” she proudly announced.

It was then that I realized just how much I was failing at my job of modeling how to be a happy adult woman for my daughter. I was finally able to do the emotional math and see that my sadness at sharing her was no longer greater than the sadness of raising such a bright light of a little girl in an unhappy home with unhappy parents.  She deserves a mother who laughs, at least on occasion, and I needed to make the necessary changes to allow us both to be happy.

The fact that this epiphany happened in the middle of an intense summer heat wave probably helped make a holiday without my sweet girl seem distant, and bearable. But as the temperatures dropped and winter approached, my dread of spending holidays without her grew. I had no idea how to be without her.

This struck me as odd, given that when I first found out I was pregnant at the age of 25, the idea of being a mother with a child was foreign to me. The life-changing news came as a complete shock on a frigid December day and for the next few weeks it felt like I couldn’t walk two city blocks without encountering a nativity scene. Instead of feeling comfort and joy at the coming holiday, I felt panicked, unprepared, and inadequate. I had no idea how to be a mother, let alone be like the Virgin Mary, who always appeared so peaceful and serene. I was neither.

Five years later, I was full of angst and uncertainty again, but this time at the thought of not mothering my child. Yes, I would of course still be my child’s mother, but not in the way I had been the prior holidays. When a child is absent, the act of mothering is different, and in fact unnecessary. Someone else would give my child gifts, fix her food, tuck the covers around her body that was exhausted by a full day of celebrating, all without me. I loved all of those tasks, and most of all I loved making sure she knew I loved her.

So, I did all that before saying goodbye to her. And I still do, years later. She’s very tolerant of some extra hugs prior to her departure with her dad now that she’s a teenager. That first holiday season was difficult, but we made it through, and I’ve even gotten a bit better at it. Some years I am more successful than others. As soon as I think I have figured out this coparenting thing, the situation changes. Each year is different, and has its own curveballs. Perhaps the most memorable one came a few years into co-parenting when the phone rang one Christmas night.

“Is Santa real?” my then seven year-old daughter demanded to know in her most no nonsense voice.

“Uh . . .  Why do you ask?”” I pulled out my go-to, not-so-stellar yet sometimes revealing maternal response.

“Because Mr. West at dinner said that his granddaughter still believed in Santa and he thought that was really silly,” she said. The Wests were family friends of my former in-laws who had apparently joined them for Christmas dinner. She continued, “When he said that, everyone paused and then very slowly turned and they all looked at me. I think they were all staring at me because I still believe.”

“Did Dad tell you to call me?” I asked, stalling for time and wondering what the party line was here in a situation happening an hour away from my current location.

“Nope. Nobody knows I’m in here calling you,” she said.

“Great,” I thought to myself.

“What do you believe? I need to know,” she asked in a voice laced with desperation.

I indicated to my soon-to-be fiancée and his parents were waiting for me to rejoin them that I was going to need a few moments. I proceeded to have a heart to heart with my daughter about how not everyone believes the same thing, which is okay. I told her that I believe in love and giving and magic, all things for which Santa stands, and so yes, I believe in Santa and while it’s true that he gets some help from parents around the world, I see evidence of his existence every single year, sometimes when I least expect it. I left it up to her and said that what matters most is what she believes deep down in her heart.

Ideally, we would have had this conversation when I had the ability to look into her deep blue eyes and wrap my arms around her, but that was the circumstance. My heart broke that I could not do so, but we got through it. And sometimes co-parenting is about getting through it as best you can.

Author’s Note: I’m very grateful that talks about the challenges of co-parenting during the holiday season. Millions of Moms and Dads will be sharing their children this holiday season; knowing we are not alone and hearing how others navigate the waters is helpful and comforting. I love the tips on co-parenting through the holidays in this video, and most of all, I appreciate how VProud has initiated the conversation about this important parenting challenge.

Shannan Younger is a recovering attorney living in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and teen daughter. She blogs at Mom Factually, ChicagoNow’s Between Us Parents and as part of the Chicago Parent Blogger Network. Her writing has appeared on the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, Mamalode, Scary Mommy, Club Mid, BonBon Break, and In the Powder Room, and her essays have been included in two anthologies by The HerStories Project. She is also freelance writer for regional magazines. Shannan was in the 2013 cast of Listen to Your Mother, despite the fact that her daughter often fails to do so. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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On Nitpicking and Co-Parenting

On Nitpicking and Co-Parenting

By Carley Moore

FFIR Image 1“Where did you get that?” I stared at my ex-husband as he affixed a headlamp to his forehead and our five-year-old daughter wriggled off her shirt and settled into his office chair for what had to be the millionth hour of Angelina Ballerina.

“Duane Reade.  Jealous?”

I nodded.  I was impressed.  Not to be outdone, I offered, “I bought coconut oil and tea tree oil which we can melt together and slather on after we pick.  I also brought my hair dryer.  I’ve heard they can’t take the heat.  Oh, and new hair clips to section off the hair.”

“Mama, is there candy?”

“You can eat whatever you want.”  The only way to get a five-year-old to sit still for an hour or two of nitpicking is to stuff them with sugar and cartoons.

M. rummaged around in the brown shopping bag of lice treatment products her dad and I had been toting back and forth between our apartments for the last week, and pulled out a bag of cherry hard candies.  She scratched her shoulder and returned to the mouse dance drama that was unfolding in the English town of Chipping Cheddar.

This was our second lice battle.  I’d found them crawling around on M.’s head before Christmas and spent a disgusted six hours shampooing and combing the still kicking lice out of her hair on a Saturday night.  M.’s dad was out of town and after I was done, I went into my bedroom, shut the door, and cried for a quick minute.  I felt exhausted and overwhelmed, like I feared being a single mom would feel in the months before my separation from M.’s dad.  This time, the school called her dad, and he called me since it was my day.  We agreed to get supplies and meet up later to nitpick.  When I arrived at her school, M. had been quarantined in the nurse’s office with at least twenty other kids.  Instead of speaking to the school nurse, I was greeted by a lice-removal salesperson, who was charging parents $1000 to comb through a child’s hair and de-louse the apartment.  He thrust a flyer into my hand, and turned to one of his employees.

“She’s got live lice, right?”

“Yep,” the young woman didn’t look up from the hair of one of M.’s classmates as she deftly parted it with two small sticks.

M. buried her head into my leg and cried.  I wanted to cry again too, but I didn’t.  I’d learned that in my five years of being of mom—if you’re a good parent, mostly, you don’t get to cry.  Or you do it later, on your own, with a glass of wine or with a friend or for a quick minute in the bedroom while the Backyardigans are dancing the two-step.  There was something so galling about the cold practicality of the lice removal salesman when I was hoping for the folksy comfort of a school nurse.  Do public schools even have nurses anymore?  I haven’t met ours yet.

A week later, I found out from another mom in my daughter’s school that she actually paid over $1300 to have her daughter combed out and nitpicked.  Neither M.’s dad or I have that kind of money lying around, and if we did, we’d probably spend it on summer camp or three year’s worth of school clothes or half of a shitty used car.  I get that parents need help, and that many of the parents at my daughter’s public school can afford these treatments.  Nitpicking and lice removal are big business, especially in cities where infestation is common and there are a lot of middle-class overworked parents.  I found several articles about Orthodox Jewish women in Brooklyn who had become professional nitpickers after dealing with their kids’ lice.  One has put six of her nine kids through college by nitpicking.

Nitpicking, I’d learned was a very particular kind of hard focused labor.  It reminded me of the kind of feminine precision work I’d failed at growing up:  needlepoint and quilting.  You needed good eyes, and really good light, and you needed to care.  “Don’t drop the stitch,”  I heard my mother saying gently over the hoop of a sampler I’d botched.  “You have to follow the pattern,” my 4-H teacher sighed into the soft light of her Singer.  I was too impatient to be much of a seamstress.  I refused to use the seam ripper on mistakes, instead insisting that I had my own vision, one that included dropped and crooked stitches.  The results were shoddy and embarrassing.  I usually stuffed them under my bed or threw them out altogether.  As an adult, when I saw a quilting show of the African-American quilters of Gees Bend, Alabama, I understood the difference between improvisation and mistake.  Intention.  Vision.  Belief.  My daughter’s kindergarten teacher calls a mistake that turns into something viable, a “beautiful ooops.”  As a young girl, I knew only patterns and rules.  I wanted to be an artist, to improvise off of a mistake, but I couldn’t make the leap.  Mistakes were to be ripped out.  They were not a riff to extend.

Staring at my daughter’s teeming, bug-infested head for that first comb out, I knew I had no choice.  I had to remove every last bug.  It was tedious, precision work that we were too broke to pay anyone else to do.  The nits are the size of a grain of sand, and you have to look on almost every hair follicle.  My daughter’s hair is fine and long, and as her dad and I have taken to calling it under our breath “louse brown.”

M.’s dad and I have been separated for a year.  We are slowly heading towards mediation and a divorce.  We are friends, we talk or text most days, and we are co-parenting.  M. spends half of her time with each of us.  He is an excellent dad, and my dear friend.  I miss him a lot.

When you Google the words “nitpicking” and “women” most of what comes up is relationship advice.  The top hit is, “Want a Happy Marriage?  Don’t Nitpick.”  As I learn the true meaning of nitpicking, I think now about the ways in which I nitpicked M.’s dad when we were married, especially in those last two very hard years of our marriage.  I suppose we picked at each other, or I picked and he withdrew.  We both felt so wronged and so misunderstood!

You’re bossy.  You’re very detail oriented.  You like to be right.  You cross all of your t(s).  You can’t let it go.  You have to have it perfect.  You always get your way. I’ve heard phrases like these from parents, friends, and even-well meaning colleagues.  I suppose my ex hurled one or two of these at me too, and I’m sure I deserved it.  They are code for nitpicking, ball busting, acting the part of the difficult woman.  The nitpicker is a good foil, a scapegoat for larger struggles around relationships both at home and in the workplace.  And I admit too that I can be difficult and disappointed and exacting.  But I’m also funny and sexy and smart!  I may pick nits, but I am no longer that nitpicking wife—maybe I never was.

The last year has been hard on us all.  M. is adjusting to living in two apartments, and to the loss of married parents.  M’.s dad and I are mourning our marriage and learning how to live as single adults.  But I see in our relationship of late, in our shared quest to rid our daughter’s head of vermin and our resistance to getting fleeced out of money we don’t have, some core beliefs about co-parenting that are at the heart of my new favorite parenting book, Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households after Divorce by Deesha Philyaw and Michael D. Thomas.  I was drawn to this book because of its tagline, “practical advice from a formerly married couple.”  Wow, I thought.  They’re divorced and they managed to co-author a book!  I’ll buy that!  In their introduction, Philyaw and Thomas define successful co-parenting as “any post divorce or post-separation parenting arrangement that (1) fosters continued, healthy relationships for children with both parents and (2) is founded on a genuinely cooperative relationship between the parents.”  They urge co-parents or divorcing couples that are considering co-parenting to put the kids first and to remember, “It’s not about you.”

And so for the two weeks, M.’s dad and I have come together to nitpick.  We have two metal combs now, and though we can not both fit around the small circumference of our daughter’s head, we keep each other company, we make jokes, and we divide up the sections of her head.

“I’ll do the bottom, if you do the top.”  He clicked on his headlamp.  M. scratched at her shoulder again until it was red.

I suppose I write this essay as a wish to return nitpicking to its original lice hunting origins.  Nitpicking is precision work, often relegated to wives and mothers, but it needn’t be so.  M.’s dad is actually better at getting the nits off of her hair than I am.  His vision is sharper and he has a firmer pinch.

Carley Moore is a poet, novelist, and sometimes blogger (  Her debut young adult novel, The Stalker Chronicles, was published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 2012.

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