Updated: May 27, 2020
When Chris and I went to marriage therapy, we talked a lot about co-parenting and how difficult it was at that time. Our therapist said something that stuck with me, but was totally foreign at the time, and I believed it would never happen.
Chris and I were caught up in the day to day of co-parenting: transfers, arguments about parent time, struggles paying child support (especially when bio mom mentioned that she was using child support money to buy her then husband an Xbox), dealing with kids who were emotional about going between houses, paying for clothes and doctor visits with no reimbursement, and feeling frustrated at it all. Our therapist said there would come a point where we felt genuinely sorry for bio mom, and I thought he was out of his mind. I couldn't imagine then ever feeling sad for bio mom. I was so caught up in my own emotions and frustrations with her that I couldn't imagine feeling anything but anger towards her.
8 years later, with more experience and social/emotional growth, I DO feel sorry for her. Not the sad, southern "bless her heart" sorry, but genuinely sorry. I don't really get angry anymore at what she does because I have changed my expectations of her. I expect that she will always do what's in her best interest, even if it means she doesn't put her children first. And I don't judge her for that, because I know parenting is really hard and sometimes you have to put yourself first as a mom.
It's really easy to paint our co-parent as high conflict, narcissistic, possessive or jealous, and when we do that, it makes them fit into this box in our minds, which frees up mental time and energy. Our brains LOVE things that free up energy and time. But having such a one-dimensional picture of anyone is going to be inaccurate. People aren't good or bad: they're both. And everyone sees themselves as the hero/heroine in their own story. Maybe while you're painting your co-parent as high conflict for not communicating with you, they see you as high conflict for insisting that they communicate with you instead of your partner.
So how do you have empathy for your co-parent? You put yourself in their shoes. You try to imagine things from their perspective and understand how the things you're doing appear to them. You have actual conversations with them where possible. You learn about their life. You remind yourself that they're doing their best, whatever that is, even if their best sucks. You focus on raising healthy, emotionally well-adjusted children and step children. You focus on how people are complicated, not one-dimensional. You give yourself space and time to heal and grow as a person.
I'm sure that my insecurities made things more difficult in my co-parenting relationship with Kylee and Hayley's mom. It was hard for me to be around her at first, and my anxiety still goes up when we see her, but it has gotten lower over time. We're not friends, but we're friendly, and I don't personalize what she does anymore. I try to give her grace and understand that she's doing what she thinks is best, just like I am and just like we all are. Are there some bio parents who are petty and vindictive? Yep, but you can choose to feel sorry for them too. They're hurting so much that they don't care who they hurt with their behaviors. When you step back from what they're doing to focus on what you're doing, it helps you disengage from negativity around you, and helps you have more empathy for those around you. Try it and let me know how it works!
Sara Susov: Step Up Parenting