When I was in high school, I attended this seminar for the kids in my class who had demonstrated "leadership skills." In one exercise, two blindfolded people's hands were tied together. Without speaking, each of us had to make a sandwich, and then we had to make one together. Looking back, this messy, chaotic, but pretty fun challenge is an excellent metaphor for co-parenting. Interestingly, everyone who participated wound up going about it a different way, which just goes to show that there are things you don't have to do when you're parenting with a partner, even though everyone says you do.
Visit any online mom group or playground and you will learn quickly, if you didn't know already, that there are a million and seven opinions about "the best way to raise a child." You'll also learn that people get pretty "passionate" about those opinions, to say the least. Of course, the fact of the matter is that different personalities, co-parent relationships and dynamics, cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, and a million other factors ensure that there is absolutely no "one size fits all" way to go about raising a child. Honestly, that fact alone can be really, really frustrating. I mean, can a mother get a straight answer about something for a change? Why can't we just be told what to do instead of having to figure out what works best for us?!
The good news, however, is that this means that rather than having to walk a straight and narrow parenting path with your chosen co-parent, you have countless great options to ensure happy kids and happy parents are the "norm." In the end, there are very few things you absolutely have to do when you're co-parenting, no matter what they tell you, including the following...
You Don't Have To Be Married
Because what sort of regressive, myopic nonsense is this? Look, I'm married, because getting married meant something important to me and my husband. Sure, marriage as an institution is important and meaningful to a lot of people. (I mean, hello, we fought enormous, lengthy, uphill battles for years to make it accessible for all people, regardless of orientation, so obviously it can be really important.) For many others, thought, it's a piece of paper that means extremely little. Or it's an archaic hold-over of another time when women were property. Or it is not representative the way a couple feels about one another for a slew of reasons. The point is, you don't have to be married to love or be committed to one another. You especially don't have to be married in order to be amazing parents or co-parents.
You Don't Have To Live Together
I would venture to say that for most co-parents, living together is probably the preferred (and most convenient) way to raise a child together. But neither relationships nor parenting is a one-size-fits-all sorta deal. Even if you're very much a couple, co-habitation might not be the best fit for you and your family. It's almost certainly not the best fit if you aren't a couple or, due to employment, military service, or other opportunities and obligations, living together just isn't possible for lengthy periods or stretches of time. Point is, it's absolutely possible to co-parent a child beautifully between multiple homes.
You Don't Have To Move To The Suburbs (Or Even Want To)
While this tends to be a pointed concern for a very particular demographic (upwardly mobile, middle class, generally cis-hetero, generally white city dwellers), the fact that it speaks to a privileged group of people (those who most likely have the resource to uproot their lives to move elsewhere for the perceived good of their family) has given it a kind of aspirational status in popular consciousness. The idea often exists that if you are a couple with a young child in a large city, you not only want to leave but should, if you can, so that your kid can have a back yard and access to great schools, and some oak-lined street to ride their bike.
Because, of course, no kid ever had a happy childhood if they didn't have a backyard, right? For goodness sake, people! Like there are no parks in cities? (In addition to the cultural institutions and events you cannot get outside of a city?) Like cities are devoid of great educational opportunities? Like a parent's ridiculous commute to a city job from the suburbs isn't going to be a stressor families are going to have to overcome? Guys. There's no right place to raise a child. Don't listen to the people who insist you only have one great option.
You Don't Have To Go Out On Dates
Don't get me wrong: dates are great. I love dates. Being out of my apartment is pretty thrilling in and of itself for this SAHM. I love being with my partner and eating good food and seeing good movies and drinking bespoke cocktails I have neither the knowledge nor ingredients to make myself. But dates are also expensive and so are babysitters and you have to get dressed to go on them. Sometimes you're kinda poor and really tired and you just want to drink wine out of a box on your couch in your pajamas.
Just because you're not going out doesn't mean you can't make time for one another and your relationship or time for yourself and actively seek out a relationship. Here's what the "make sure you schedule a weekly date night" proponents mean: it's important to continue to make your relationship and one another a priority even after you've become co-parents and 97% of your energy is spent on your child. That's also going to be hard. I contend that even though everyone tells you you have to go out to do that, you really don't have to. Play a board game. Build something together. Actively engage in a movie together. Sit and talk with a glass of wine. There are endless possibilities.
You Don't Have To Have Couple Friends
So there's this weird idea that persists that once you're coupled off with someone you need to do the majority of your socializing together. That's especially true, I have found, once you have kids. Like, you'll have nothing in common with non-parents? And you have to find other couples with kids so your kids can hang out? Yeah, no. For starters, almost none of my friends have kids and have no immediate plans or interests to change that. Second, my husband's idea of socializing and mine are wildly different. As such, we tend to just sort of do our own thing, for the most part. Sure, we can get along with the other's friends (I, in particular, like hanging out with his buds), but we tend to do our own thing and neither one of us mind.
Oh? And our kids? Yeah. They're fine. They're kids. They run up to another kid on the playground and within two minutes they're best friends. They can find their own damn friends on their own, they don't need us to prearrange anything for them via our friend networks.
You Don't Have To Get Professional Photographs For Every Single Life Event, No Matter How Trivial
I get it: everyone knows someone who's a photographer these days and y'all saw something really cute on Pinterest that you wanted to recreate. I mean, come on, who doesn't love well-done photos of beautiful children? I'm not immune! I've had professional photos done! But some people? Every single birthday party, holiday, milestone, season, whatever seems to require a photo session. And hey, if that makes you happy, follow your bliss and live your best life. But please don't think that seeing innumerable "pro-pics" on your friend's Facebook profile presents an obligation for you to do the same. Because it doesn't. Personally? I'm like, "I have camera in my phone. I'm good."
You Don't Have To Unplug
Much like the "go on a date once a week" people, the people who tell you you have to unplug aren't completely off-base here. You don't want to ignore your partner because you have your nose buried in your cell phone or your eyes glued to the TV. However, I put it to you that technology can serve to bring couples together as much as it can drive them to solitude. For example, last night my dude and I watched Stranger Things together and then went on to talk about it together for about an hour afterwards. That wouldn't have happened if we'd unplugged!
You Don't Have To Give Up Individual Hobbies
Look, I'm not saying you're going to have 10 hours to dedicate to your Dungeons and Dragons campaigns every Saturday anymore, now that you have kids, or that your spouse can continue to take days at a time hiking like you used to before you had littles. Things are going to change. You're going to have less time in general and that's probably mostly going to take a hit on your personal hobbies and interests. That doesn't mean, however, you can't work with your partner to ensure that you each set aside some time for yourselves to do the things you love.
You Don't Have To Join A House Of Worship
A lot of people (including writers on this site), feel it's important that they raise children with some sort of religious background even if they don't have one themselves. That's fine if that's your thing, but it doesn't have to be your thing. Don't feel pressured to introduce your children to a belief system you don't believe in, just so they "have something."
"It doesn't matter what you believe," a well-meaning relative once told me. "Just as long as you believe in something."
"Fine," I replied, "I'm joining a demonic cult. You know. So that the kids and I have something."
That's the last time she ever brought up the idea.
You Don't Always Have To Agree In Front Of The Children
Certainly you don't want to have Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf level arguments in front of your kids, but you don't have to shy away from disagreement or debate. In fact, I think it can be really healthy for little kids to see adults disagree in a calm, intelligent fashion while trying to understand the other person's point of view. It will give them some ideas about conflict resolution, compromise, debate, and the idea that you can love someone even if you don't always see eye to eye.
You Don't Have To Remain A Couple If It's Not Working Out
Sometimes couples don't work out, but once you're a parent you're obligated to be a parent forever. Just because you're not working out as a couple, doesn't mean you can't remain committed co-parents together. It's going to be tough, it's going to be frustrating, but it's possible. In the end, it's going to be way better for the child, because once a couple can recognize that their relationship is over, the energy they would be using to rekindle something that just isn't going to reignite can be more appropriately channeled to put forth solid co-parenting plans.
There's no one way to start a family, raise a family, or keep a family together. The sooner we shake off the idea that there's a cookie-cutter "ideal," the sooner we can figure out what really works best for each of us.