Hello Divorce CEO Erin Levine recently connected with Elisabeth Stitt, owner of Joyful Parenting Coaching in Mountain View, CA. Elisabeth is an author, parent educator and coach, and retired teacher, mother and stepmother. Through Joyful Parenting Coaching, she helps families think ahead about values and priorities, and helps facilitate communication between parents so each understands the role and responsibilities they want to hold in their child’s life as they design a co-parenting plan that works best for their family, and their child.
Erin: In your day job, you help other parents navigate the stress of co-parenting. But, you’ve been there yourself. How did you get through the initial transition?
Elisabeth: My number one strategy as a divorced mom of a young child was to repeat the mantra, “Take the long view.” Every time I wanted to lash out at my ex, or be petty about some arrangement between us, I imagined all the future events when my daughter’s happiness depended on having both her parents be there to celebrate her: her concerts, her graduations, and someday, maybe even her wedding or the birth of her child. The truth is, kids are able to accept a lot of changes as long as they believe that both their parents believe the change is for the best. A parent’s job is to make your kids believe that you support your former spouse 100%.
Erin: In your first year of co-parenting with your ex, were there any ‘curveballs’ that surprised you? What advice do you share based on your own experience to help others navigate these waters, especially in the first year?
Elisabeth: The hardest part of that first year is coming to terms with the lack of control you have over your child once you send her out the door. The one promise I asked my ex to make was to not introduce his girlfriend to my daughter for at least six months. He lasted three months before taking her to a sleepover at his girlfriend’s house. He didn’t even warn me, so when my 3-year-old said she had slept over at “Daddy’s friend’s,” I had to control my reaction with no time to think about a best response. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do other than take a deep—really deep—breath, smile and nod your head. Quite frankly, I wanted to rip my ex’s head off! But, since that would have only hurt my daughter, I focused instead on reminding my girl that her dad loved her no matter who else was in his life.
Erin: Your spouse remarried, and the way you handled this transition for your daughter is truly a master class in co-parenting. Can you tell me more about that?
Elisabeth: As broken up as I was about my ex getting remarried when my daughter was six, I made it my job to speak well of my daughter’s stepmother and to be excited for my daughter about her part in their wedding. I did my best to never burden my daughter with my doubts and fears for her. Instead, I reassured her that her stepmom would love her and do what was best for her. From time to time, things happened that were pretty different from the way I would have handled them, but I would tell my daughter that her stepmom was smart and had a lot of good ideas, and that she should be given a chance.
Erin: You are now remarried and are a stepmother yourself. How did your own divorce experience shape the way you help support your spouse in co-parenting with his ex?
Elisabeth: I think my biggest role in supporting my spouse was to reassure him over and over how essential fathers are to the parenting equation. His divorce was a high-conflict divorce, and he sometimes fell into thinking that it would better for his boys if he just gave in to their mother when it came to dividing time. It would have been easier for him, as holding the line with her took a lot of patience and energy – but the kids would have felt that having more time with their mom was a sign of his not being fully invested. Just as I had to remind myself to keep my eye on the prize in my own co-parenting situation, I had to remind him.
Erin: Your daughter is 21 now. You’ve been co-parenting for 18 years. How did everything work out?
Elisabeth: I am happy to say in the greater scheme of things, everything did work out. Eighteen years later, we have enjoyed many milestones together—including when her father and I took her to a jazz club on her 21st birthday for her first legal drink.
Erin: Any final words of advice, or any tools and resources to share with parents beginning this next chapter?
Elisabeth: A big reason parents come to me for coaching is because they have had so much tension over raising the kids that it has really worn down the quality of their relationship. Many of these couples are on their way to divorce. Living separately takes away the daily strain of watching someone parent differently than you do, but, actually, divorced parents should be taking the same steps as married ones.
When parents see a partner’s interaction with their child, and see something they do not like, that parent tends to then over-compensate themselves. For example, if a parent feels his spouse or ex comes down too hard on the kids, he is likely to give them extra slack, which polarizes the parents even more. What he should do instead is step toward his parenting partner’s style, and hold limits a little more firmly himself – but still in a soft manner, and with empathy. The first parent will respect that their partner is holding the line, and at the same time will see the effectiveness of doing it in a less commanding tone.
Elisabeth Stitt is the author of Parenting as a Second Language: A Guidebook for Joyfully Navigating the Trials, Triumphs and Tribulations of Parenthood and the founder of Joyful Parenting Coaching. Before that she was a teacher in the Redwood City School District (Redwood City, CA) for 25 years mostly English and Language Arts to mostly middle school students.
In addition to her interactions with thousands of students and parents, Elisabeth is the mother and step-mother to three adult children. Now that her own kids have left the nest, she spends her free time babysitting for families around Mountain View, CA where she lives with her husband and mother-in-law. She is known for her wisdom and warmth and sheer love for all things kid. Elisabeth is especially gifted at getting parents to tap into their own inner child, so they can do more than just go through the motions of parenting. She founded Joyful Parenting Coaching in 2014 to support parents in getting the skills they need to restore their confidence as parents and their enjoyment in the role. Joyful Parenting Coaching offers newsletters, blogs, workshops and webinars that all strive to provide a balance between concrete advice and the understanding that there are many, many ways to approach parenting – and that each family has to find what works for them and their child.