By DEESHA PHILYAW
A friend recently sent me an MSNBC article about Trayvon Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, and the trial of George Zimmerman which began last week. As the co-founder of co-parenting101.org and the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce (both in collaboration with my ex-husband), I was particularly struck by a 2012 photo accompanying the article, a photo of Fulton and Martin holding hands as they listened to the charges being filed against Zimmerman. It occurred to me that this moving image stood in stark contrast to the image of co-parents that tends to dominate the cultural conversation about parents of children who live between two households: Combative, not conciliatory. Difficult, not cooperative…and certainly not comforting.
The larger culture generally expects co-parents to be disagreeable with each other. Fights over child support or one parent’s (usually the father’s) lack of parental participation are familiar reality TV show fodder. A few years ago, I cringed while watching a scene from Basketball Wives LA in which two divorced African-American co-parents screamed at each other in a therapy session, airing all of their dirty laundry… as their teenaged daughters, also in the session, looked on.
This expectation of conflict and animosity between co-parents is so great, that congenial co-parents are sometimes viewed with suspicion; surely one of them must still be carrying a torch for the other. I consider this kind of presumption to be a failure of imagination–and a failure to recognize that congeniality between exes can simply be a reflection of two people choosing to love their child more than they dislike or mistrust each other.
And it doesn’t–or shouldn’t–take a situation as tragic and extreme as what Trayvon’s parents are going through to bring co-parents to the point of civility. For some parents, it’s simply an outgrowth of the love they have for their children, and a desire to spare them exposure to on-going adult drama that pulls them in opposite directions. Some co-parents get along (even if it’s just going through the motions) in order to reassure their children that they still belong to a loving family–albeit across two separate households.
There’s much “what about the children” hand-wringing over single-mom headed households and low black marriage rates, owing in part to the politics of respectability, but also in part to concern over the poor socioeconomic outcomes that many children of single parents experience. However, as the child of a single mother, I know that these outcomes don’t have to be foregone conclusions. And as a co-parent, I know too that having both fit, willing, loving, and responsible parents play an active role in a child’s life can lead to positive outcomes, even if the parents are not married and living under the same roof.
As co-parents, we must do the hard work required to heal from our break-ups; to recognize that child support is neither a punishment nor an admission price to see a child; and to honor our child’s relationship with the other parent, however imperfect, as separate from the relationship we had with this person. Devoted parents will speak of being willing to die for our children, but are we willing to truly live for them? Even to the point of moving past personal hurts and disappointments, for their sake?
We don’t know what Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin’s co-parenting situation was like before Trayvon’s death. If it was a high-conflict situation, that surely doesn’t matter now. In a very public and united way, Fulton and Martin are grieving and seeking justice on behalf of their son, as co-parents, regardless of the circumstances that ended their marriage in 1999, and regardless of what has transpired between them since. And there’s a lesson for all co-parents in this. Whatever happened or happens between the adults, co-parented children deserve to have both their parents loving, protecting, championing, and guiding them. This is their right.
Despite the differences that led Trayvon Martin’s parents to divorce, there is much that they undoubtedly still share: love for the son they have lost, memories of him, grief and sadness that his young life was taken so violently, and a desire to see justice served. They have looked beyond themselves, traveling extensively here and abroad to reach out to the families of others’ whose lives were cut short by racial and gun violence. Looking beyond themselves and beyond their differences is what all co-parents are called to do in order to partner effectively in service to their children. Fulton and Martin are doing this under horrific circumstances that the vast majority of co-parents will never have to face. The nightmare they are living puts more typical co-parenting challenges into a humbling, sobering perspective.
We don’t have hold hands with our child’s other parent in order to create the respectful, mature parenting partnerships our children deserve. We just have to be willing and committed to keeping the focus on our children’s needs and well-being, not our adult gripes and regrets. It’s not easy; sometimes you have to be the bigger co-parent, sometimes you’re the only one willing to cooperate, and sometimes you have to fake it til you make it. But our kids are worth it.
Deesha Philyaw is the co-founder or co-parenting101.org and co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive In Two Households After Divorce, both in collaboration with her ex-husband. She is a Pittsburgh-based mom and stepmom to four daughters.
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3. George Zimmerman Charged In Trayvon Martin’s Death: Justice For Black Children
4. Teenager Killed in Florida by Neighborhood Watch Brings Terror To My Heart