Parallel Parenting Changes What We Thought We Knew About Divorce

It's not co-parenting, and in some ways it's better.

I wanted to believe that fairy tales came true and that someday, my handsome prince would come, promise to love me forever, and we would have our own “happily ever after.” Well, my prince came, we said our vows, and we added a new bundle of joy to our blended family. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, it wasn’t long before we realized that eternal happiness would elude us as long as we remained married to each other. 

Our son was born six months before my mother lost her battle with pancreatic cancer. Shortly after we laid her to rest, I uncovered painful secrets about my husband and our marriage began to unravel. The unbearable combination of grief, postpartum depression and devastation threatened to take me out and it took a few years for me to recover from hitting my personal rock bottom. We tried to work it out, but we eventually threw in the towel. He moved out of our apartment, and we focused on figuring out how to raise our toddler — who was too young to understand what was going on — together with as little tension and few conflicts as possible.

It was difficult in the beginning — my mental health suffered and our finances weren’t in the best shape. Despite the strong examples I had in my communities, I worried about being judged for being a struggling single Black mother. Little empathy is extended to Black single moms, and support can be hard to come by, especially when people focus more energy on blaming them for being abandoned by the fathers of their children. With my mom gone and no sisters or close ties to any other women in my family, I felt incredibly alone and I was afraid I would fail miserably. 

My ex-husband was a dutiful father, though, and he stepped up in unexpected ways to be there for our son. I say “unexpected” because I grew up in communities where many of my friends either had no idea where their fathers were or had sporadic interactions with them. My own father had been sparse in his engagement with me in my earlier years, so I had few healthy examples of what co-parenting looked like. I grew up hearing the same defeated message a lot of Black girls grew up with: “If you get pregnant, make sure you’re prepared to raise your baby alone.” I welcomed his active participation as I worked to stabilize myself. I knew that I didn’t want to make the same mistakes our parents made, so I was determined to establish an arrangement that worked for the three of us, regardless of what others thought about it.

When our son began preschool, we worked out an even split where he was with each of us for half of the week: Monday morning to Thursday morning with dad, Thursday evening to Monday morning with me. We each had the responsibility of taking him to school and picking him up, but I had most weekends, which meant I got more quality time with him, which I loved. We both attended parent-teacher meetings and school performances, and we took turns chaperoning school trips. We adjusted as needed, based on our respective work and travel schedules, and for several years, it worked well despite living in different parts of New York City. Because we evenly shared costs of food, housing and clothing, neither of us paid the other child support and it worked out well. 

As my son got older and became more responsible, my ex-husband and I simply interacted less. We only really checked in when it was time to get clothing and supplies for school and for birthday and holiday gifts, so we could avoid duplications and wasted money. I got my son his own cell phone so when I needed to speak to him, I didn’t have to go through his father. His father has since remarried and his blended family lives together and we don’t need daily check-ins like we used to. 

 I owed it to my son to do whatever needed to be done to secure his relationship with his father. And, honestly, I didn’t want to give up on pursuing my goals as so many women have done for generations.

I learned of the term parallel parenting just a few years ago. Parallel parenting differs from co-parenting in that it all but ends interaction between parents unrelated to the child(ren)’s needs, and requires deep trust in each other’s parenting abilities. While co-parenting usually manifests as an amicable relationship wherein parents regularly consult each other and come to agreements before making bigger decisions, parallel parenting is rooted in the idea that each parent is fully capable of making good child-rearing choices and has the “OK” to do so without checking in with the other. When Parent A has primary custodial duties, they call the shots and when duties are transferred to Parent B, so is the authority. It’s generally seen as a last resort for parents who have such difficulty communicating, they can barely stand to be in the same room with each other. It’s often juxtaposed with co-parenting as the less cordial, strained approach to parenting, but our experience hasn’t been like that. Our mutual respect for each other’s parenting style is solid, so we trust each other to make the best decisions for our son and, for the most part, we function harmoniously because of this trust. We don’t have communication barriers and have had several occasions when we’ve come together in celebration of our child — we just don’t need to talk to each other much.

When I made the decision to move out of state, in part because it made more financial sense for me, we agreed that it made sense for our son to stay in New York with his dad. He was 10 years old and transitioning into one of the most transformational periods of his life: puberty. It wasn’t that I wanted to abdicate my responsibilities or that I didn’t feel I could do a good job of raising him — quite the opposite, in fact. I felt that by having my Black son spend his coming-of-age years closer to his Black father, he would be better prepared for navigating the world as a Black man. My love for him and my desire to do what is in his best interest compelled me to sacrifice my own selfish wants and give him the best experience he could have. Having seen the negative impact of growing up without a present, devoted father had had on too many of my male peers, I owed it to my son to do whatever needed to be done to secure his relationship with his father. I refused to allow my own ambition and career choices to interfere with their relationship and, honestly, I didn’t want to give up on pursuing my goals as so many women have done for generations. I considered myself lucky to have had a child with a man who was so dedicated to being an amazing father. The answer was simple: Let his dad take over and become the primary caregiver for a few years.

There’s still a negative stigma around parenting arrangements in which the mother isn’t the primary caregiver. Our arrangement has faced judgment and criticism from family and others. My ex’s biggest complaint used to be how people immediately assumed he only had his son during the week because something was wrong with me. And being open about our arrangement on social media led to people making nasty comments about me as a mom, insulting me for being a “weekend mom,” despite our even splitting of time. It made me acutely aware of how parenting double standards work, and I admit it hurt to be judged for doing what I believed was best for my child. I stopped talking about it and, in recent years, I’ve shared less and less about my son in part due to not wanting to deal with people’s questions or comments. He’s happy, healthy, loved, and supported by both of his parents, and that’s what matters most.

One of the most persistent and detrimental parenting ideas is that fathers are secondary parents inherently less responsible for childrearing than mothers simply because they’re men. This is the other side of the patriarchal coin that expects women to prioritize marriage and motherhood as life goals, and to be willing to give up their professional aspirations to devote themselves to their families. Historically, men have rarely been expected to make the same sacrifices because they’re supposed to be the breadwinning providers. Feminist women have pushed back against this lop-sided labor distribution, because women are more than capable of being breadwinners and men are more than capable of being active parents and primary caregivers. Feminism rejects gender-based domestic role assignments and argues that gender doesn’t determine one’s ability to be a good parent or have a successful professional career. Ironically, “men’s rights activists” are quick to blame feminists for this unevenness, when it is feminists who have argued in favor of men being afforded legal support allowing them to become more active parents.

Ultimately, I’d like to believe parents want what’s best for their children and sometimes, it means eschewing tradition and making unconventional arrangements. Parallel parenting works best for us, and in his 13 years, our son has never doubted whether or not his parents loved him nor has he felt one parent loves him more than the other. Yes, it’s hard not spending as much time with my son as I did when I lived in New York, and my goal is to have him come live primarily with me when he attends high school. We’re still working out the details around what that would look like, but the important point is that we are working it out together, amicably and trusting of each other. 

Feminista Jones is a Philadelphia-based feminist writer, public speaker, retired social worker, and community activist. She is an award-winning blogger and the author of four books, including Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World From the Tweets to the Streets.