Navigating co-parenting as a single or newly separated/divorced parent may not initially seem like a workplace issue. Still, its ripple effects permeate every part of life—positive and negative—and can affect job performance. For some, a dysfunctional parental relationship can include constant arguing, refusing to communicate or unpredictable visitation, which can result in missed meetings, late arrivals, having to leave early, calling in at the last minute, court dates and being distracted with phone calls.
Alysha Price, founder of The Price Dynamic, a professional family coaching and engagement consulting firm, sees this behavior often with her clients, including single and co-parenting families, struggling to create a functional structure that allows each person to flourish. A product of a co-parenting single-parent household, Price found herself in a difficult co-parenting relationship and used what she learned to create a better environment for her son.
“In my process of parenting, I realized how much I was repeating things that I had grown up around, things that happened in my household. I realized how much I wanted to change some of those things and improve.”
When it comes to the effects of co-parenting on job performance, Price says many are unprepared for the toll it can take on their careers.
“You’re present, but you’re not mentally present. You’re spending a lot of work time contacting attorneys, navigating school and those types of transitions that happen.”
Price says that aligning what happens after school and who picks up or drops off the kids to their extracurricular activities can be stressful for parents trying to deal with their emotions from the relationship breakdown.
The stress can also fuel illnesses for the adults and their children, causing more missed days at work.
“You’re being somewhat of an executive assistant to your new family dynamic, and attendance is severely affected by illness. When your child is moving back and forth from one household to the next, things are affected, like their sleep and stability, which, of course, adds to their not being well.”
Marissa Johnson understands the effects of parental relationships on a family’s ecosystem. As a licensed clinical social worker, she works with adults and children to help them work through issues that impact every facet of their lives, including co-parenting, which can tremendously impact the workplace. When she found herself in a dysfunctional relationship while pregnant, she had to take stock and change course.
“I tried to keep the relationship going, and then when I was about seven months pregnant, I was just like, ‘nah, I’m not going to do this.’”
Johnson had a difficult co-parenting relationship when her daughter was born, which spurred her to start grad school so she could eventually find employment that paid enough to support a single-parent household. In the second year of grad school, she quit her job to focus on school alone and survived solely off student loans.
“When we were going through the courts, I was doing my internship in grad school. We had to do a practicum, and I remember I was so emotional because we had court the day before, and I had to explain to them why I couldn’t even get through a sentence.”
The stress took a toll on her mental health.
“It impacted how I was showing up in my classes and at work. I wasn’t able to give my full self.”
Johnson says her supervisor, a Black woman, also a single mom, helped her through the situation and didn’t make her feel embarrassed when she shared her situation.
Price explains that it is important for supervisors to be empathetic, but worrying about their employees with co-parenting issues can take a toll on the company. She developed “Family Meeting Cards” to help families make better decisions that can reduce the negative impact on their careers.
“We give our clients tools that put the onus back on the employee to deal with their family dynamics, but in the same sense, teach effective communication skills and skills to discern what is appropriate to share at work.”
TaShara Caldwell knows all too well how family dynamics can impact career paths. A paraprofessional completing her internship for her master’s, she has to give 600 hours of free labor on top of her current job, which has prolonged completing the requirements.
“It’s hard to do that when you’re trying to also work and work around someone’s schedule.”
She and her ex-husband, a firefighter with an unpredictable schedule, often barter and negotiate who will take off work when their child has a doctor’s appointment, is sick or has a school function. Caldwell says early in their separation, communication was rocky.
“We would get in these battles of who is going to take off work, kind of whose time is more valuable than the others.”
Caldwell looked to couples counseling, even though divorce was eminent, to figure out how to navigate their new dynamic.
“His schedule is going to be his schedule and I am going to be a mom forever, so even though we are not together, we share a Google Calendar.”
She says even with the shared calendar, when she has to take off work unplanned, it impacts her job even though it is common practice for moms to leave work to take care of their children.
“Schools automatically call mom, even though they have both numbers, they just call mom.”
Sometimes Caldwell’s supervisor will ask if her ex-husband can go instead, often followed by personal questions she does not want to answer.
“It’s frustrating because you don’t want to tell everybody your business.”
According to Price, when the co-parenting relationship begins affecting job performance, employees should keep their chats with managers “brief to minimum” while communicating their needs and leave out details that are not necessary to share. She recommends talking with human resources to ensure a documented paper trail.
When the parents cannot work together constructively, parallel parenting may be an option. This method allows each person to parent separately in all aspects of their child’s life, including doctor’s appointments, sports games and birthday parties. Text-only communication or using apps, such as Talking Parent, may stop parents from disruptive, negative communication yet allow them to keep abreast of schedules that include work trips, conferences or shift changes.
Johnson says text-only communication worked the best for her and her co-parent. Their relationship and her career improved when she took her emotions out of the situation and focused on herself.
“It’s very possible for you to have everything you want career-wise and still be a good mother. When things like this happen that set us back, like having to co-parent with people who aren’t easy to co-parent with, you start to develop these beliefs that it’s not possible or it’s too hard. You can’t do it.”