While co-parenting as a term is widely recognised, fewer people have heard of or understand the concept of parallel parenting. So what exactly is parallel parenting and why are so many separated parents doing it?
How much communication do you have with your ex? When your child goes to spend time with them do they keep in touch and share stories about what they’ve been up to at drop off?
While many parents are able to co-parent amicably, for others it’s not that simple. Controlling behaviour, narcissism and abuse can all play a part in making a co-parenting relationship incredibly difficult, if not impossible.
In these circumstances parents are often left having to completely separate themselves from the other person’s parenting relationship. Communications are kept to an absolute minimum or conducted through a third party and no information is shared about what the child does with either parent. Sometimes the parents may not even know where the other person lives.
Parallel parenting is the term used to describe co-parenting where the two parents operate separately from the other, with little to no communication. They follow their own parenting plans without consulting the other unless absolutely necessary.
This of course can feel incredibly hard, not knowing what your child is doing or where they are, and can also leave parents with feelings of guilt and failure. Because parallel parenting is talked about so little, you can feel like you must be the only person having to parent that way.
That’s not the case. Parallel parenting is a ‘needs must’ situation. You are doing your best to manage a very difficult situation in a way that ensures your child still has contact with both parents and that minimises stress for everyone involved.
Maxine Clancy is a Divorce Coach. ‘Life doesn’t always go the way we want it to,’ says Maxine, ‘and even if the ideal is to have an amicable and collaborative divorce and co-parenting arrangement, if the other partner isn’t on the same page, then you have to get the support you need and parallel parenting is just that.’
‘The important thing is to not see it as a failure. It is the court’s way of recognising a set of circumstances and doing what they can in the best interest of the child and the parents. The good thing about parallel parenting is that you don’t have to be drawn into regular communication with a difficult ex, and when the hurt has subsided and hopefully some healing has been done, you can apply for a different arrangement.’
Okay, so we understand the theory of parallel parenting, but what’s it like in reality for parents who are living it? Denise* is a mum of one, parallel parenting with her hostile ex partner.
‘I parallel parent,’ says Denise, ‘although like many I imagine, this is by necessity rather than choice. My ex is hostile and manipulative, and I’ve learned the hard way that the more contact we have, the more he weaponises our son and seeks to criticise any aspect of my parenting that he can.’
‘My son lives with me most of the time, only seeing his dad twice a month. I cope with it by trying to focus my energy on what’s best for my son, for example always being neutral about his dad and facilitating any contact I can – my ex only calls my son, who’s 5, once in the 13 days he doesn’t see him. It is heart-breaking and exhausting but I need to insulate myself from my ex for my own wellbeing.’
Denise’s experience of parallel parenting is a common one, and the feelings of exhaustion and heart-break are typical of someone trying to manage a parallel parenting relationship with someone controlling and manipulative.
As Denise says though, sometimes you just have to recognise that the only way you’re going to be able to go forward is by protecting yourself, and that can mean completely stepping back. This absolutely does not mean you’ve failed – this situation is not your fault.
Annie Kaszina is an Abuse Recovery Coach, who specialises in helping people recover from narcissistic abuse. ‘Chances are you already feel sad that you could not have a decent relationship with your ex’, says Annie. ‘Add to that the guilt you doubtless feel towards your child, or children, that you wanted better for. And then you discover that you can’t even co-parent like normal people – because a narcissist doesn’t behave like a normal, caring parent.’
‘Let go of all expectations of your ex being a decent parent. The reality is that they are biologically related to your child but don’t relate terribly well to that child. Let go of all the ‘shoulds’ in your own head about how they behave towards you and your child you and about how tough it is for you – it is tough but constantly reminding yourself won’t make it any less so. You have to accept that they do NOT prioritise what is best for the child involved. They only care about what works best for them. You will have to parent around them, at times.’
Of course it isn’t easy to separate yourself, letting go is difficult, and the other parent may do everything they can to try to antagonise you. Having a support network around you who can support you in parallel parenting is key, whether it’s close friends and family on the ground or virtual support through a single parent community like Frolo.
For Andrea* this support was vital while she was parallel parenting.
‘My ex and I ‘parallel parented’ for 5 years’, says Andrea, ‘although without knowing it, as I’m only recently aware of the label. It was incredibly difficult. Communication was in writing only and I would run my emails via a family member who would edit, remove emotion and keep them very factual and business like – his on the other hand were aggressive, critical, full of rage.
‘An incident last year led me to saying enough is enough and I am now ‘non contact’ with the children’s father. I have appointed an intermediary to do handovers, and to filter his emails, and send replies on my behalf. Six months in and my ex still replies to everything with ‘I refuse to deal with you, she must contact me directly’. It is exhausting, but mentally, I feel so free and so less stressed and dragged down into the pit of despair he would create.’
‘Don’t forget the plus side,’ reminds Annie, ‘that your child will still have one loving, competent parent: you. That may not be perfect but that is enough. Many children, maybe even you yourself, grew up without even one loving, competent parent – and went on to become decent people. Much as you might have liked to give your children more, one good enough parent is good enough to give them the good start in life that you want for them.’
*Names have been changed