Queer Mom Chronicles: There’s No Manual for Navigating Co-Parenting

I know I write about our experience as a two mom family, but here’s the thing: My son has a dad. And he has been sleeping on my couch on and off for the last four months. Yes, you’re reading this correctly. My ex boyfriend has been living with me and my partner and my kid for the last four months. It has been a truly eye-opening experience that has forced me to examine how we co-parent.

My son’s father has always been inconsistent in his parenting, but I didn’t truly understand how much until he was under my roof and I could see it all the time. One day not too long ago, while my son got ready for bed, his dad turned to me and asked, “do you think we should send him to speech therapy?” to which I asked why. “Well, he stutters sometimes and can’t talk,” he said. There’s nothing “wrong” with his speech; his brain thinks faster than his mouth can talk, which I explained. If you tell him to slow down and take a minute, it’s easier for him to talk.

He has never come to doctor or dentist appointments and has no real interest or investment in his son’s education. He would show up for the first day of school or a parent teacher conference but wouldn’t ask about what he was learning or help with schoolwork. This hasn’t changed since he’s been staying with us. But over the years, he’s suggested that my son needed to be “tested” because he was sensitive to loud noises and maybe a little emotionally immature. Or he gives me a hard time because I don’t force him to eat foods he doesn’t like. The boy is now almost ten years old and damn near five feet tall. The way my son’s dad showed up is never consistent and has never made sense to me, which has become more apparent in the last four months.

But how did we get here? Allow me to tell you the story.

His dad and I started dating when we were 23. He was my first (and only) boyfriend, and we were together for six and a half years. I got pregnant when I was 26, and it was a complete accident. By the time I found out I was pregnant, it was too late to terminate the pregnancy, but if I’m being totally honest, I only would have because he wasn’t ready to be a dad, not because I wanted to. Would it be difficult? Of course, but we would figure it out together; we were a team. Or so I thought.

Our relationship started to change while I was pregnant, and when my son was two months old, my boyfriend put us on a plane and sent us to live with my parents in NYC. This decision was made behind my back and without my consent. I was unemployed, and didn’t have much of a leg to stand on, so I had no choice but to go. Despite my best efforts to end the relationship, he gaslit me into staying in a long-distance relationship for two and a half years before I finally ended things. We could parent our son even if we weren’t together; I was always committed to co-parenting however was most beneficial to our son. My dad has strained relationships with my half-siblings, and I didn’t want that for my son.

Long-distance co-parenting isn’t really co-parenting, especially when you’re dealing with a toddler. I was the primary parent; I made any and all financial and medical decisions. I was the disciplinarian. I called myself a single parent, because all his dad did was video chat with him a couple times a month and buy diapers. We saw each other as many times as we could before my son was two, because he could fly for free. But I was always the one doing the traveling; his dad didn’t come visit us in New York until his third birthday, and even then, we only saw him for a couple of hours.

When my son was three and a half years old, I was finally able to move us back to LA. I was excited to finally have a co-parent — mainly someone who could pick up the slack when I was too burnt out. Before I even got on the plane, I tried to stress to my ex the importance of communicating. I told him I needed him to step up. He immediately got mad at me and tried to make things my fault. It was then I learned my most important lesson about co-parenting with him: He was never willing to rearrange his life for his son. For example, he offered to take him to preschool everyday. Then it turned into picking him up. Five days a week went down to three, and eventually two. He would only keep him for a couple hours at a time; if I wanted time to myself, I had to ask and hope he’d say yes. There was never any spontaneous “I’ll take him overnight so you can get a good night’s sleep” or so they could spend some real time together. One night, I called him crying, begging him to take him more because I was so burnt out.

And then the pandemic happened, and it only made things worse. My partner and I were emotionally spent from having my kid home all the time. We played games and watched TV and did virtual school without any sort of a break. My ex told me his girlfriend (who he lived with) was giving him a hard time about my son being around, which affected how much he could see him.

In March of 2021, my ex had to move back to Missouri to live with his parents after his girlfriend broke up with him. The relationship needed to end; she had caused enough tension between me and my ex over the years. But losing my co-parent as a result wasn’t ideal. My son loves his dad and was devastated they wouldn’t be able to see each other. My heart hurt for him. (I would be lying if I didn’t say the karmic retribution of him having to live with his parents didn’t tickle me a little bit. I’m only human.) They set up weekly Zooms, but it wasn’t the same. At the end of 2022, my ex told me he was gearing up for a move back to LA. I know how hard it is to find a place, so I told him he could crash with us while he looked. I had no idea he would still be on my couch months later.

Him being in our home hasn’t changed any of the co-parenting issues we have. I still have to beg him to spend time with his son. During spring break, he didn’t once offer to have some one-on-one time on his day off. I gave him advance notice of our son’s performances so he could possibly switch work days, but he didn’t even try to come. He has told my partner and I to go have a date night without us asking, but then he let my son stay up late on a school night. Summer break just started, and I know I will have to beg him to spend some quality time with his son. But then, if my kid acts like a typical kid and gets mouthy with me, his dad will scold him and try to be a disciplinarian. I have to pick and choose my battles, because I don’t want to cause tension my son could pick up on. He constantly thinks I hate his dad because he might hear me and my partner talking, and I don’t want him to feel caught in the middle.

I stupidly thought that time away would change the way my son’s father would show up for him, but I’m beginning to realize I was probably wrong. In the three years my partner and I have been together, she has been the parent I was always hoping my ex would be. Having him in our home strengthens our relationship and how she parents my son. Every day, she shows up for that little boy, and I know his dad is taking notice. I only hope my ex sees what a real parent is supposed to be and steps up to the plate. Maybe it’s my fault for not saying anything sooner, but there is no manual for co-parenting. All I know is that my son now has an example of two loving parents, and however his relationship with his dad develops in the future is out of my hands.

Is anyone out there a co-parent? How do you navigate co-parenting?


Queer Mom Chronicles is a monthly column where I examine all of the many facets of queer parenthood through my tired mom eyes. 

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Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 115 articles for us.

16 Comments

  1. sa’iyda, i am in awe of the strength and grace this situation has brought out in you, and so deeply appreciate your sharing this with us. sending so much love your and your son’s way –

  2. Wow, this sounds so difficult! I admire how much you are trying to keep the peace and avoid creating unnecessary drama, and I hope your son’s dad finds his own place asap. It must be even harder to work as a team when you probably don’t have enough space for yourself.

    I am coparenting in a different role (my girlfriend and her husband had a baby and I am the “bonus parent”) and it has generally worked well so far. You’re totally right that communication is v important. Sometimes it’s hard to make sure that my girlfriend doesn’t have 100% of the mental load. Maybe I’ll come back and write a longer comment about this later.

    • thank you! i would love to know more about your situation if you’re open to sharing. it’s something i don’t know much about, and i would love to learn!

      • Hi again! I came back to say more but there are a lot of comments here that I find extremely unhelpful! I don’t want to get into internet fights so I will just say to you, Sa’iyda, that I’m really glad you’re writing this column, and that there is parenting content by POC writers on Autostraddle.

        You have been a parent for way longer than me, so I doubt anything I say will be new to you, but I did want to say a few practical things I’ve learned so far about coparenting, in case they are useful to someone. Our baby is only 9 months old, so I am a beginner.

        – To share time and tasks fairly, it really helps to have a conversation between all three of us (co-parents) where each of us says what we need/want – e.g. “today I need to do 4 hours of work, and I want to go for a walk alone.” Then we can work out who is able to put the baby to bed/cook dinner etc.

        – So that we can all cooperate, we all need enough knowledge. e.g. what do we need to bring with us if we go outdoors with the baby in summer? Sometimes my girlfriend (the baby’s mum) is the only one who “knows where everything is”, and that makes things more unequal. So we stuck a list next to the door where everyone can see what we need to take.

        – I really like my girlfriend’s husband and his way of being a co-parent with me. He already has a teenage son so he has done a lot of this before, but he never tells me how to do things. He gives me space to figure out my relationship with our kid, and I am so grateful for that.

  3. I am happily divorced and have found single parenting to be much easier than trying to parent with my now ex-wife. I wish she had been more interested, invested, and involved in our kids’ lives, but alas. Still I love being a parent, and I love creating a welcoming and joyful home for my kids!

    I’m fortunate to have jobs that are flexible enough that I can be with my kids when they’re sick or have appointments, and that my younger ones are in daycare, giving me a bit of a break for hikes with a friend now and then. And I have friends and family close by who are available to help in emergencies.

  4. Thank you for sharing this personal and vulnerable piece. I know this is a bit invasive, so feel free to ignore, but I would be very interested in hearing more from your partner’s perspective as well. I can imagine it would be difficult to be a full-time parent and then suddenly have to juggle the situation where a bioparent pops back up and you are not one of the bioparents in the situation. Wishing all the best to your family.

  5. i worked with kids for a long time, the ones who were happy had a loving parent who talked with them and listened. glad your son has two people who provide that. i’m sorry his biodad isn’t one of them, but maybe he’ll still benefit from that example in a way that’s helpful.

    sending you peace and strength.

  6. Hey, your son’s experience of talking fast enough to stumble over words, being sensitive to loud noise and certain foods, and being emotionally immature sounds a lot like my experience of being autistic! (I got speech therapy for a while because of the way I talked; I personally think this was unnecessary in my case and that I should have been consulted.) If you want to learn more about autistic people, you can look into the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, the Autistic Women’s Network, Just Stimming, and/or Ballastexistenz.

    • Her son may be on the spectrum for autism, but I also know Scorpios (Sun or rising) whose brains are faster than their mouths can talk. As for not liking loud noises and such – not everything is for everybody.

      I think a professional who is sensitive to not only getting the proper diagnosis, but also to the emotional needs of the patient are in order.

      If he is autistic or whatever, there are non medicinal therapies that can help. I am weary of giving children, especially males medicine because it is often a knee jerk reaction. Sometimes caretakers and doctors look for a quick fix when time and care are in order. Use medicine after other therapies exhausted or at least a second opinion.

  7. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I am not a parent, step parent, nor even a fur parent. However, I find learning of others’ experiences interesting and may still provide insights.

    I think it is imperative to find a moment when both you and biodad are naturally free to talk alone. HOWEVER, hearing the words “We need to talk make me cringe, and I’m guessing it will for him as well.

    If you can’t find a moment alone to speak without saying “We need to talk,” then talk at least out of earshot of your son.

    You need to ask: How is the search for your own place is going. What are you looking for? What price range do you want? What is your timeline for getting a place? Is he saving money for a deposit, etc?

    Listen very carefully with as little judgement as possible. Ask him if he can be a roommate with other people? Has he considered a real estate agent who will show him more of what he requests rather than the one property they want to get rid of.

    Has he considered moving to a neighborhood that is more affordable? Has he considered staying and paying relatives that are compatible with him?

    I am not comfortable with this living arrangement. The more time he stays there, the more everyone will be annoyed with each other including him.

    Because he shares a history with you and a child, I don’t want to just rudely kick him out. However, I don’t want him getting the idea he can stay there forever.

    This is the part I really don’t like about this arrangement. Forget his parenting style. He is role modeling undesirable adult male behaviour for your son. I hate the type of man that is not there for child, woman, etc – but is quite comfortable staying with said persons when HE needs.

    You can still co/single parent, but the priority should be getting him out of your place as safely and as quickly as possible.

    I hope you might still be checking out the comment section and share your thoughts on how you feel about my opinion or if you have questions.

  8. I say this with nothing but good wishes for you, and respect for what sounds like a really rough few years of parenting you have had. However, as a child of divorce, I have to say that I really think you should take this article down. Reading something like this, where one of my parents publicly criticized my other parent and stated that they didn’t care about parenting me well, would have DEVASTATED me. My parents made it clear that they did not like each other, and (almost more important) didn’t respect each other. This has created pain and a sense of alienation within me that I can’t put into words. As much as I love them, I will never be fully comfortable with either of my parents for this reason. And the things that my parents said about each other were much less pointed and critical than the things in this article. Also, this vision of your ex’s feelings towards his son may influence your son’s own relationship with his dad in really painful and unhealthy ways, with long-term consequences. No matter how you feel about your ex and no matter how many ways he has failed as a dad so far, I hope you can give him the space to change — for your son’s sake.

    I’m sure everything you’ve written is true, and of course you have a right to share your story. But I would suggest that you might want to share the story in a place your son can’t find it.

    • I am sorry to hear about your parents’ divorce and how deeply it impacted you. Every child is different, but I have mostly heard from people who were negatively impacted from parents’ divorce. Even when there is abuse, children may wish to stay together as a family.

      Oddly enough those children whose parents seemed fine, then divorce are the children who suffer the most. Even if these parents divorce when their children are adults, their children may be negatively impacted. They are taken for surprise and started questioning how to love and relate.

      Shabazz’s son never had the consistency of both bio parents in the home loving each other and actively engaged with him. Hence, he like many children of similar households may not internalize his parents feelings for each other the same way as a child of divorce.

      Shabazz’s son is also 10 years old and may already have formed his own opinions about his father and how they relate. He may have seen different examples on tv or the parents of schoolmates or when he visited other relatives.

      Quite frankly, Shabazz’s son may suffer from something entirely different than what you had to endure. Feeling alone or separated from the father even when he is in the same room. At least when the father lives outside the home, the child may possibly rationalize the separation due to work or living far away. However, living with a father who shows little to no positive engagement is worse than this article. Children are the first to notice and the last to speak.

      With that said, one should be careful how they act toward and what they say about the other parent. I know there’s psychologists for couples in a romantic relationship; I am hoping there’s an equivalent for couples who only co-parent.

      As much as I appreciate learning from such articles, I must agree with you on possibly taking this post down. If Shabazz is using a pen name and a different image, then she should just keep the post up as is.

      However, if her son can easily find this article, then maybe take it down only for the content regarding the father’s assumptions. I say maybe take it down because the child may have already read the article. Worse yet, the father may have already expressed this or previous theories.

      I do strongly feel that whether the child sees this article or not, these co-parents should get counseling on how to mesh and optimize their parenting styles.

      • Correction:
        Worse yet, the father may have already expressed this or previous theories DIRECTLY TO THE CHILD or in front of the child.

        PS
        Maybe do this series anonymously or a pen name if you want to spill details.

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