Parent Trap

Complex family relationships and hectic lives create serious challenges for today’s parents. But there’s more help available than you might think — Around 6 p.m. the doors to a downtown Kelowna office building swing open intermittently. Men and women enter solemnly alone, making their way up the stairs, into the offices of the Kelowna Family Centre and a classroom where 15 chairs are set out in three neat rows.

At the front there is a whiteboard and a flip chart. Set out in bold black type are the stark words: parenting after separation.

“You are not alone,” counsellor Gaylene DeGruchy tells this collection of 21st century parents. “We hold this group three times a month and the room is never empty. This is about life—what it is, and where you’re at. It’s reality. Everything here in this office is for you—it’s all for you.”

Thinking that anything could be “all for me” probably comes as a surprise to the 12 parents here. One is a grandmother fighting for custody of her two grandchildren. Another woman only separated from her husband two-and-a-half weeks ago, leaving her with a five-year-old and 15-month-old. Then there’s a widower. In a new relationship, he’s trying to regain custody from his former mother-in-law. Others have no custody issues, but they’re here just the same—to learn how to “co-parent.”

Co-parenting is the new word for how to continue to parent children when the parents no longer live together. Gone are the days when the “custodial parent” got to make all the decisions. Parents are parents for life, and learning how to stay in that role in the midst of physical separation is only the latest twist in the evolution of parenting.Counsellor Jason McCarty stands up and asks participants to share their losses. The list is long. Their house, their belongings, friends, family, stability, pets. The last thing anyone mentions is relationship. Then Jason asks for emotions, and the words pour out fast and furious—anger, hurt, frustration, disappointment, confusion, helplessness. One man discloses how his four-year-old daughter received the Santa gift he sent to her. “I knew it was you. We don’t believe in Santa anymore.” The room fills with hurt and betrayal.

Jason explains that for every loss, every emotion parents experience, their children feel the same. And it’s up to the adults to begin the healing process, so they can help their children—like donning the oxygen mask on an airplane.

“When we don’t express these things to other people, we feel stuck there. It’s just ripe and ready to be easily pushed by the other person. You can see that this gets in the way of co-parenting and gets in the way of helping our children.”

The two counsellors describe the change as a journey.

“You will figure out how to co-parent, but you can’t rush yourself there,” Jason says. Parents learn how to move from anger and manipulation to negotiation. From using their children as messengers and spies, to direct communication and release. It’s a brave new world, for brave new families.

Parenting through challenge. It was ever thus. Since the dawn of time, parents have done their job through war and peace, through sickness and health, through family violence and drug and alcohol abuse. They’ve parented as widows and widowers, survived, succeeded and failed—with or without community support.

And it’s that sense of community support that seems to make the difference, especially in cases where there is no extended family available.

Parents are resourceful and a single crisis doesn’t usually break a family. Many families today are two-income—either because they need to be or because both parents want to pursue careers. Add children into the mix and the work/life balance requires a well-oiled machine in order to function efficiently.

Now add in a few more possibilities. Like lack of housing. And finally, the worst possible confluence of events—young inexperienced single parents from impoverished backgrounds, little education, and drug or alcohol problems—a recipe for tragedy as BC’s representative for Children and Youth pointed out in her report Fragile Lives.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s report examined the deaths of 21 children under the age of two. In each case, the families were in contact with the Ministry of Children and Family Development and yet somehow they didn’t get the support they needed.

“Some of the most fragile families in our province are slipping through the cracks here. Government needs to take a hard look at this. We need to fix the existing lack of a coordinated and responsive approach and create seamless coordination among all support services,” she said in releasing the report.

Suzanne Harrington is a counsellor at Kelowna Family Centre and says the families she works with today are far more complex than those she worked with 10 years ago. And as complexities increase, government services have shifted.

“There has been a change in child protection services from prevention to intervention. Families can’t phone a social worker anymore about their child without fearing repercussions. It’s hard now to say, ‘I need some respite, there’s nowhere else for the child to go and I need a break.’ It’s a real catch-22 for families.”

So what do we need? Experts say support systems need to be in place long before any crisis occurs. Establishing a network of family or friends to help carry you through the tough times seems to be the critical factor. And if that hasn’t occurred organically, there are now non-profits like The Bridge that can help. Sometimes that’s all you need, says social worker Michele Hucul who leads both parent talk and creative playtime programs.

“When parents come here, the issues they talk about are universal. It doesn’t matter if they’re single parents, rich, poor, educated. They’re all dealing with the same struggles and they want their child to be happy. The thing is, parents are overwhelmed 24-7.”

The Bridge’s parent place facility in Kelowna offers a variety of services, at times today’s parents can access—daytime, evenings, weekends—and often with childcare provided. The atmosphere is warm, inviting, and family-focused with the aim to help parents figure out what works for them.

“If we understand our own motivations and reason for our practices, then we don’t need a book. And we also need to appreciate our own parenting values—and when we start to get a grasp on what that is, we don’t get swayed by five different other ways of doing things.”

It’s a complex world that requires complex solutions. Parenting is a full-time job and in an ideal world, a lifetime job. But there are only 24 hours in a day. With apologies to John Lennon, parenting is what happens when we’re making other plans. We still need the time to make a living, to be there for others and fill our individual lives with joy so that we can recognize the signs when we need to put the oxygen mask on.
The African proverb says it takes a village to raise a child. It’s equally true that it takes a village to raise a parent.

Back at the parenting after separation class, more than two hours have passed filled with videos of children describing their journey to healing after divorce. One young fellow recalls feeling like a “package” being moved from one house to another. But others say they remember when their parents started talking to each other like human beings, when they started treating each other with respect, when they started to think about the interests of the child and why that mattered.

This may be the greatest gift to come out of divorce and separation and the crazy hectic world we live in today. Parenting in the 21st century is about co-parenting. It requires coordination, communication and consideration. It requires seeing our children as individuals.

More and more parents are co-parenting, with dads taking on roles never done before and moms relinquishing. We no longer “have” children like possessions in the past. We are custodians of children and the responsibility now is to raise them to love, honour and protect the next generation.
It’s a risk. It’s a gamble. And with parenting, it’s ever thus.

The Parents

A day in the life of parents today may look something like this.

8 a.m.
Dad: Marc Arellano,
college instructor/filmmaker
Status: married, double-income
Child: age 6

“I’m sick in bed. You need to pick up Camille.” The text from his wife Natalie arrives just as Marc’s class is about to start. She normally walks Camille to school on the way to her own teaching job. Marc left the house at 5:30 a.m. to play hockey with no idea Natalie was ill. He calls a colleague who grabs the booster seat, puts it in the car, and drives to Marc’s home to take his daughter to school.

With no family in town, friends fill in the gaps. And when Natalie stays at school for parent-teacher meetings, he’s had to leave early. “It’s hard to tell the chair of my department I have to leave early because I’ve got to pick my daughter up. I know I’m making sacrifices in my career.” But he’s pleased with how life is going. “We love what we do, and we’ve both invested an enormous amount of time and money into our education. If both parents aren’t self-fulfilled, it’s basically game over.”

9 a.m.
Mom: Tara White, full-time parent
Status: living together with Jason, blended family, single income
Children: ages 3, 4, 7 and 9

Tara wakes up and gets her two children to pre-school. Her partner Jason’s two children are with the other parent this week, so the house is a little more quiet. But Tara’s still thinking about them. Later in the day, she’ll be back at the school for parent/teacher interviews with both her son’s and stepson’s teachers. She’ll have to carry that load on her own since Jason is out of town. The other mom won’t be taking part. Cross communication between the two families is strained and the teachers don’t quite understand the complexities of the two-household lifestyle. “We’re trying to get the teachers on email and just try to convey to them that we need the teachers to give us the information. They’ve got two bedrooms to lose things in and we never know if something is in one house or the other.”

She attends The Bridge parent talk program where she gets support. “It’s been good to meet the other moms and talk, but there’s no one else with a blended family. Even so, it’s given us a strong start.”

4 p.m.
Mom: Tamera Doyle
Status: single, self-employed hair stylist
Children: ages 2 and 10

The school calls around 2 p.m. asking Tamera to come down. It’s her 10-year-old son. He’s in trouble. Tamera packs up and goes. Her two-year-old is with his caregiver, so that’s OK, she’ll pick him up later.

“He got an in-school suspension. He challenges authority a lot and gets bored quite easily. It’s definitely a challenge working with the school. They think everything is about what’s going on at home. But my kids are my life and I’m fully involved. People still totally judge. They think: she’s on her own, maybe she’s partying, maybe she works too much. It’s hard to get that perfect healthy balance.”

She’d like to get her son into counselling, but so far hasn’t been able to find a program she can access or afford. Like so many others, her support comes from friends.

“I have very close girlfriends and they’re single parents as well. We can vent to each other and we’re all going through the same kinds of scenarios. I lean on my friends a lot—not so much any more, now everything seems like a piece of cake. It used to be worse—when I was married. He was amazingly high stress.”

5 p.m.
Mom: Melissa Berry Appleton
Status: married, single income
Children: ages 3 and twins 7

Plans for a scheduled meeting at 5:30 p.m. followed by a “date night” get quashed at the last minute despite calls to a roster of eight babysitters. Melissa makes the meeting, leaving her husband Lee to take care of the kids. With no grandparents in the province, Melissa has been taken in the arms of a group of women who make it their mantra to be of service to someone every day. That keeps them on track, keeps them supporting each other, and takes away the shame of asking for help.

“I don’t think I ever understood how much of a selfless service it is to be a parent. And it is a selfless service,” says the former addictions counsellor. “And I don’t think I ever thought I would question myself so much on a daily basis—because what I do affects human being’s lives. I remember a doctor saying to me that if I thought getting pregnant was work, I had no idea. I didn’t realize how even-keel my life was before. And I didn’t realize how blissful it was to be a parent.”

Parenting Resources

The Bridge
offers education and support

•     Family resources program
in Kelowna, West Kelowna, Lake Country and Peachland

• Strengthening your step/blended family

• How to talk so kids will listen

• Siblings without rivalry

• Systematic training for effective parenting of teens

• 1, 2, 3, 4 Parents!
a discipline-focused program for one- to four-year-olds

Building Healthy Families Society

• Nurturing fathers program

• Self help opportunity for parents

• Parenting through recovery

Okanagan Boys & Girls Clubs

• Parents in the know

Karin Wilson

Photos by Douglas Farrow