Nowadays what matters is the child.
Once upon a time…
Some time ago, as we are told by the anthropologists[i], marriages were more for the families, in order to join lineages and inheritances.
Having children was just a natural and final outcome of the wedding. Children were needed as a continuation of blood and property and marriage was an institution of such a social weight and so indissoluble that that adultery became the main theme along the nineteenth century novel. Literature owes some of its highest peaks to adultery, without which we wouldn’t be as moved as we are by Emma Bovary, Ana Ozores or Anna Karenina. We owe as well all the works of Jane Austen to the patrimonial matrimony, as depicted by that extraordinary observer of the subtleties of the English social ladder not only in her eighteenth century but prior and well way after her era.
When compared with that family, the current family is disintegrated, or as we may say with more correction and less stiffness, it has led to new models of family. Romeo and Juliet prevailed posthumously over Montescos and Capuletos and love replaced alliance, thus changing the marriage’s gameboard.
Marriage is no longer about inheritance, children nor blood-lineages. Adoption also conceives and begets and now that the desire to be together is sufficient to ground a binding commitment, both gay and lesbians have the same right as heterosexual couples to form families.
The seemingly unflappable distribution of roles between men and women has been also pulled down. Work, economy and war are no longer just for men while home and offspring caring are no longer women’s chores only. This is precisely the reason for the increasing number of custody claims placed by male parents, being this fact one of the reasons for the appearance of this special case of mediation, christened as Parenting Coordination.
And finally the child, that future heir put on hold while waiting for his or chance has been morphed into the ideal personage feature that gives meaning to the coexistence of loving couples. Or even without couples, since the desire to progeny has become also individualized; there are now monoparentalfamilies and the techniques of assisted reproduction, ova and sperm banks and rented wombs have proven that the flawless indubitable biological parentage is not the only possible one.
Psychologists in general have spent decades talking about Mom and Dad. Psychoanalysts shifted from considering the family first as a projection of the child to voice out attachments on one side and the functions of father and mother on the other. Today, when we want to talk about parenting, we must also discuss of conflictive post-divorce parenting, namely of parenting coordination.
In order to do it we will appeal to the comparison between its ambitions and means with the same ones of the family therapist, both sort of cousins in the increasingly branchy tree of psychosocial intervention.
According to Debra Carter[ii], Parenting Coordination seeks to:
Protect everybody in the family from the risk of physical abuse. Assure that the arrangements for custody are met. Arbitrate and decide if required on any dispute over the child. Educate parents about the burden that separation as well as hostility and chronic parental conflict has on children. Also train them on efficient ways of communication and conflict resolution techniques and even refer parents or children to psychotherapy, assessments or educational programs if necessary.
Parenting Coordination aims at helping separated couples to move from romantic intimate companions to parental partners. It teaches them to manage their frustrations and hostilities more productively and detect their own contribution to conflict by way of identifying their unresolved relational issues and how those interfere with co-parenting agreements. This helps ensure that the child has enough access to both parents, as well as maintaining and increasing the security of their emotional attachments.
Thus, children are able to keep both parents jolly active in their lives while decreasing their anxieties thanks to a reduction of marital conflict. A more relaxed atmosphere emerges at home and both parents have opportunities to demonstrate safety, stability and confidence. Parenting Coordination helps children to develop more effective communication tools when it comes to expressing their needs and desires and reduces the effects of chronic bonds of loyalty on their self-esteem, decreasing the risk of difficult relationships in the future.
Besides benefiting parents and children, Parenting Coordination benefits the courts, relieving their burden of endless resources and counter resources wasted on custody issues, assists lawyers by providing an outlet for clients caught in an endless game of back-and-forth and works ultimately for society’s sake, by guaranteeing zealous protection of their children. Parenting Coordination reduceschildren’s risks of becoming victims of neglect, through early identification of problems that if left undetected can lead to serious individual or family pathologies. In the long run the two greatest advantages are perhaps the reduction of the number of children who may eventually become entangled in the juvenile legal system, as well as the dispelling of the myth that children will get inevitably harmed by their parents’ divorce.
Let us return to the comparison between Parenting Coordination and family therapy. Any professional well seasoned on treating couples and families will identify immediately with many of these goals, while raising his hands to his head, overwhelmed by the sum of them all.
As family therapists we are bent to look like more modest in our expectations about a family. And surely we are, but truth or faked, ours is the down position, always trying, with humor and deft touch to prompt the family dynamics to dance the tango that sounds us best, but respecting the choir and each instrument, always alert to put sails down at the slightest false note telling us of mutiny against our score or baton from any instrument. And even though we dote on change, we’ll challenge the more sagacious psychoanalyst on the distrust with which we welcome them, fearful that our patients have only learned to change to please us, especially if we are working in a coercive context, such as assistance to violent or abusive families.
Family therapists believe that the tortoise will always beat Achilles, that if we want our family to take a trip to Paris we’d better tell them to buy tickets to Montreal and if a mother asks us how to get her teen to stop telling lies and we can’t convince her to stop asking questions … then we will advise her to ask him many more, and more absurd ones. We think that movement is rarely action and we generally trust more our left hand than our right. However, we acknowledge that our stock and power are limited, that we often generate changes only visible for us, that our creativity when prescribing paradoxes, reframing messages, counter-triangulating Bermudas and generating new narratives all too often do not transform vicious loops into virtuous or protect the family members of abusing relapses.
Viewed from the perspective of couples and family therapists, Parenting Coordination looks like an overly ambitious undertaking, whose aims may yearn for if we saw them realistically possible, especially with clients who have an intensive training in legal proceedings, arena in which they employ sophisticated skills already drilled in their marital conflict.
But surely we are making a mistake, grounded on a skewed interpretation of what is and moreover what is not Parenting Coordination.
Parenting Coordination is not therapy, although it often has clinically good effects. Nor does it seek structural changes; it is considered a success when custody agreements are met. Parenting Coordination is much closer to mediation and education than to therapy. A perusal of the objectives in Debra Carter’s list shows a significant predominance of verbs like “educating”, “teaching”, “modeling”, “training”, “mediation”, “decide” over other references like “identifying emotions” or ” reduce conflict” or similar.
When we try to do Parenting Coordination, family therapists risk committing the mistake of employing instruments we know very well but that are forbidden by principle. During interviews with parents we’ll undoubtedly find many opportunities to operate in ways we know all too well but that we must refrain from and if we deem it necessary produce the appropriate referral to the better or handiest therapist or therapy center.
Parenting Coordination shoots a powerful waking-up salvo in the responsibility parents assume with society concerning their offspring’s the welfare, development and mental health. It reminds people that having children is a very serious thing, although it is best carried out with humor.
Created to relieve family courts and aimed at keeping a balanced order between mothers and fathers in managing custody issues, Coordination Parenting has evolved into a couples tutelary censor in those cases where their conflicting conjugality was putting good parenting in jeopardy. If, until now, having children was seen as a blended issue of vocation and social image, parenting has now become a duty to children and society. Surely Parenting Coordination is not a rewarding job. Sullivan (2013)[iii] calls it a “daunting” one, to undertake it puts us in situations of serious conflicts between couples, little or none separated, in which the professional identification with the best interests of the child to have his development and curiosity facing the world protected, often lead us to become agents of peace, in the words of Hayes[iv] “more of a street cop than a detective”, usually against our therapeutic instincts which will surely lead us to prefer the detective.
[i] Las nuevasfamilias. (Octubre 2012) Ed. Ayuntamiento de Barcelona. Área de Calidad deVida, Igualdad y Deportes – Dirección de Mujer y Derechos.
[ii]Carter, D. (2011): Parenting Coordination: A Practical Guide for Family Law Professionals. New York : Springer Publishing Company,
[iii]Sullivan, M. (2013) Parentingcoordination: coming of age? Family Court Review, vol 51 nº 1, January 2013, pp56-62
[iv]Hayes, S (2010) “More of a street cop than a detective”: an analysis of the roles and functions of parenting coordination in North Carolina. Family Court Review, 48 698-709.