What is ‘co-parenting’? Is it the same for each separated family? How do you make co-parenting work? Do we have to sit and discuss our children?
The above are just some of the unknowns for separated parents. Family lawyers can give advice and guidance on co-parenting, but those lawyers don’t actually have to live it or make it work. Sometimes as a lawyer I say to my client, ‘I know it’s easy for me to say’. But what I can also add is this, I can speak from experience. It can take time and patience to make co-parenting work or to establish ‘your’ co-parenting relationship. It is true that every household and family are different. There is not one size fits all in managing the aftermath of a relationship breakdown.
It can be difficult to co-parent when the hurt, sadness or anger still exists. The last thing a parent may want to do after separation is to talk to the other parent or ask their opinion on a parenting issue in ‘their’ own home – ‘it’s my home and I’ll decide what is what for my child’. Sure, you can make the decision about day-to-day matters in your home, but it’s a different response about ‘major’ decisions. Often it is not practical to require parents to consult with each other about day-to-day issues.
However, after separation parents must make decisions jointly about major issues impacting their children. Examples of major decisions include the child’s school, religious and cultural upbringing or the child’s name, and any changes to the child’s living arrangements that would make it significantly more difficult for the child to spend time with the other parent.
There is a presumption of equal shared parental responsibility in the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) that requires parents to make decisions jointly about major issues relating to their child or children. Section 61DA(a) provides that “when making a parenting order in relation to a child, the court must apply a presumption that it is in the best interests of the child for the child’s parents to have equal shared parental responsibility for the child.” This presumption applies unless it is rebutted and deemed not appropriate for it to exist.
Working on the basis that the presumption exists, how do decisions get made? In my view, the decision-making falls into the category of co-parenting responsibilities. I think back to when my children were starting school. It’s an exciting new milestone for them and we want to make sure it’s special and they have both of their parents attend on day 1. As parents we don’t want it ruined for them. So why do I see it time and time again, arguments and objections to schools proposed. Parents spend thousands of dollars arguing about one of the most exciting chapters for their child, all because they’ve separated.
If a decision needs to be made about where the little one starts school (or other major decisions), send an email to the other parent, or a text message, meet for coffee, pick up the phone and talk to the other parent, use a parenting communication app or attend mediation (family dispute resolution). Irrespective of the reason for the separation and the existence of hurt and sadness, the child doesn’t need to be punished for their parent’s separation. Life may already be hard enough for them.
I also appreciate that the above may not always work or be possible. The existence of family violence and power imbalances will have a major impact on a parent’s ability to co-parent. Guidance may be required from a family lawyer, social worker or counsellor.
I am a believer in referring clients to ‘co-parenting counselling’ with a qualified professional. A counsellor or social worker. This is not relationship counselling, but counselling to help improve parent’s ability to positively communicate with each other about their children. The responsibilities for making decisions about children do not stop until they turn 18. You may as well make it work as best you can sooner rather than later.
 B and B: Family Law Reform Act 1995 (1997) FLC 92-755