Ethan Cramer draws the air into his cheeks to blow out the six lighted birthday candles. But he hesitates, his wet swim trunks dripping water upon the hot pavement of his grandparents' backyard in York, Pa., as two dozen of his friends and family wait. He can't think of a wish.
With his mother on one side of him and his father on the other, wishes from past years have been granted: no more fights. The blond-haired boy blows out the candles with no wish in mind and hugs both of his parents in unspoken gratitude.
Ethan is among the one in every two children experts say will experience the divorce of their parents before 18 years of age, according to the Heritage Foundation. Though a co-parenting relationship with an ex-spouse can be far from ideal, divorced parents like Ethan's who put aside their differences by focusing on their child's needs maintain a more satisfying custody arrangement, new research published in the upcoming issue of Family Relations suggests.
"What has helped me throughout the years?" Ethan's mother Suzanne Cramer said. "My son. He is constantly at the forefront of my mind. Everything else is of minor importance. Anything between me and my ex remains between me and my ex."
For the new study, researchers examined a small group of 20 divorced and separated mothers — ages 26 to 49 — who shared legal and physical custody of their children — ages 21 months to 12 years — with their ex-spouses.
Almost 45 percent were in continuously contentious co-parenting relationships, while 20 percent reported an amicable relationship. However, 35 percent of the women showed improvement in their co-parenting relationship.
The study is among the first of its kind and, though small, indicative of the possibility for improvement in a co-parent relationship when parents are able to put aside their differences for the interests of the child. "The changes were sometimes dramatic, going from the involvement of a restraining order to attending family events together," Mindy Markham, assistant professor of family studies and human services at Kansas State University-Salina and co-author of the study, told the Deseret News.
Parental conflict after divorce is the most harmful thing parents can do for their children's development, said Marilyn Coleman, curators' professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Missouri, and her co-author in a release. "They've lost some access to both parents. If the parental fighting continues, the children have not only lost access, they're still involved in the conflict — in the ugliness."
Shared physical custody does not ensure positive, cooperative relationships post-divorce, Coleman said. Conscientious effort on the part of both parents is required.
"The courts tend to use a one-size-fits-all philosophy when dealing with divorces and determining custody of children, and that really doesn't work for some parents— especially if there has been abuse or if high levels of conflict continue."
Markham hopes to conduct larger studies in the future.
Ethan is 9 now, three years removed from the birthday party where he had no wish. His mother Suzanne says prior to that party, adjusting to post-divorce life was difficult at first. Child support came in intermittently, visitation schedules were missed and Cramer didn't always feel her ex-husband gave her son the attention he deserved.
Residual marital issues can resurface if parents don't work to redefine their relationship, Christina McGhee, author of Parenting Apart, told the Deseret News. "You are now more like business partners, in the profession of raising successful, happy children."
It's difficult to see the picture when you're in the frame, McGhee said. She suggests stepping beyond emotion to see the whole picture.
And the benefits? "They're tremendous, given the alternative." Children form a stronger connection to family, are more confident, adjust better and perform better academically, if divorced parents are able to focus on the child and work as business partners.
Cramer learned that it was better to adjust to the needs of her ex. "My son treasures this time (with his dad) and I make those times work even if they are an inconvenience to me."
Many who see Cramer and her ex-husband sitting together at their son's sport games ask them how they get along so well. "We don't talk about the things that irritate us."
On the same page
For Christina Robert, mother of 3-year-old LuaClaire who lives in the outskirts of Minneapolis, being a co-parent can be one of the biggest day-to-day stresses. "One of us is an hour late dropping our daughter off and it turns into an ugly legal battle," she said.
A proactive approach is crucial to avoiding conflict between two ex-spouses, said Elizabeth Thayer, author of "The Co-Parenting Survival Guide: Letting Go of Conflict after Difficult Divorce." Disputes most often arise when there is ambiguity, and dates, times or schedules haven't been well-defined.
Thayer advocates a weekly phone call or email between ex-spouses that addresses a standard agenda outside of the presence of the child, in case an argument arises. Sharing an online calendar can be useful for both parents to be aware of upcoming activities and events.
When birthdays arise, Thayer advises: Be present. Participate. Have some family celebration, even if you have a reconfigured family. Otherwise, you are making your kids choose between their parents and you're reminding the child you're divorced. "That's a message that is exhausting to kids, over time."
Other holidays and events can and should be handled differently, based upon family structure, custody arrangements and religious differences, Thayer said.
Consistency in discipline can also help smooth over issues as they arise. Parents can better work together when laying the groundwork for anything from toilet training to curfew, Thayer said. "Consciously listening to the other parent and believing that you both love those kids can really open doors for a positive relationship."
Happy parent, happy kid
The stamina required to be a good-natured co-parent often demands individual attention, McGhee said. Kids observe when their parents are stressed; they soak it up like a sponge and will mirror it in their own behavior.
Give yourself time to go from "we" to "me," McGhee said. There is a lot of loss there. It's the loss of what wasn't, and the hopes and dreams of what could have been. "Give yourself an opportunity to grieve and then focus on moving forward with life."
A strong support network — whether it's through family or other co-parents in similar situations — can be crucial, Thayer said. She also advised becoming involved in a community organization or finding a positive work environment.
"My ex and I share one important thing — a love of our son," Cramer said. "In the end, little else is more important."
Rachel Lowry is a reporter intern for the Deseret News. She has lived in London and is an English graduate from Brigham Young University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.rachellowry.blogspot.com.
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