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  • Christina Grange, Ph.D., Charlie Harris, Ph.D., Al Williams, Ph.D.

What Is Co-Parenting?

Understanding complexities to help move towards possible realities.

What Is Co-Parenting?

  • Whenever two people are raising a child together, co-parenting or some parallel of co-parenting is likely happening.

  • Co-parenting involves collaboration and is a process rather than a category. Parents engage in co-parenting differently based on many factors.

  • Co-parenting, or a version of it, is occurring in Black communities, although the term may not fit with cultural values and experiences.


Two people have a child together.


Maybe they were married?


Maybe dating?


Or maybe they were “just having sex”?


In this case, the "how" may not be as important as the "what" they produced – a beautiful soul who they have the opportunity to love and raise in this complicated world. It is real that working with another human to raise a little human is hard work. Parenting with a person that you otherwise would possibly have no contact with if given a choice is likely the hardest work that two people can do. Yes, many people do some version of this parenting life – often referenced as “co-parenting.”

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Co-parenting is a term that is born out of, but not limited to, divorce. Wherever there are two people raising a child together (which does not mean with equal or equitable responsibilities), co-parenting or some parallel to co-parenting is likely happening.


Let’s learn more…


Co-parenting is a collaboration

evidenced by the “co-”. That sounds so nice. “Ah…you guys get along so well!” However, let us not confuse ourselves because the “co-” does not have to also mean cooperation. This is an assumption to avoid. At its most basic level, co-parenting involves a process in which parents work together, from each of their distinct roles, to raise their child (Feinberg, 2002).


“Together” is the most important word here, again linking us to “collaboration.” Think of how collaborations happen at work. Collaboration can be required, but unfortunately, that doesn’t always mean cooperation will be integrated. Similarly, when it comes to co-parenting, relationships are complicated and there are many levels. The quality of the collaboration (togetherness) and the degree of this collaboration may vary across co-parenting relationships. For example, two parents can show up to the teacher conference or show up to the soccer game to support their child/children. They can engage, support their child and even make decisions together. Hence collaboration. But, goodness… there are definitely times when there is strain and cooperation is lacking. So, for those who are collaborating, let’s give credit where credit is due (to ourselves or others) and leave space for the cooperation to grow.


Co-parents may be married, in an ongoing romantic relationship, separated/divorced or may never have been in a formal relationship (McHale, 2012). Regardless of the structure in which it occurs, co-parenting involves managing the relationship with the other parent so that you can show up, be on the same team, to support your child the best way you know how.


Co-parenting is a process.

“You can get with this or you can get with that.”


“Either you is or either you ain’t.”


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We love our categorical declarations. They appear to make it easier to organize and communicate about our world. But it can get tricky. A commitment to categories can also limit us (e.g., racial categories) and oversimplify the complexities of our world. So, we need to be clear that co-parenting is a process, not a category. We shift from thinking of co-parenting as more than something parents do or don’t do (categories). Instead, it is a process that parents engage in differently depending on their individual characteristics and priorities, the current nature of their relationship and/or across different stages of their child’s development. Whenever systems change, the process changes… right? Co-parenting is the same.


It is important to realize that as children develop and change, each parent is on their own version of that same journey. The processes and approaches involved in parenting will likely change over time. As people change, relationships change. As a result, the co-parenting process will change too. We may benefit from considering that there are degrees to this process and allowing space for the evolution of what our souls really need. We cannot predict what that change will look like, but we can make space for what we know is coming.


Co-parenting (as a process) is occurring in Black communities

In the Black community, “co-parenting” is not a term that has been a natural part of our language. It may even be “under evaluation” for its “fit” with the cultural norms and experiences of Black folks. This is a fair pause because adopting existing language can also mean adopting cultural assumptions, beliefs, and behaviors, which is not always the best route. It continues to be important for Black people to define ourselves and our experiences using language that is consistent with our experiences and values. We are working on it.


In the meantime, what we do know is that being an “unmarried mother” does not equate to an “uninvolved” father (Grange, 2020). While there has been an imposed cultural narrative suggesting that Black father involvement is lacking, particularly outside of the context of marriage, we know that non-residential Black fathers are actually showing up, and in some cases more than non-residential fathers in other racial groups (Ellerbe, Jones, and Carlson, 2018). Thus, if we know that people will continue to parent outside of traditional norms, and we know that some fathers are working to be involved in the parenting process, Black families and communities are served by using language that captures what that involvement looks like.

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To varying degrees, co-parenting, or a version of it, is occurring. While there is data speaking to the presence of the process, we do not know the prevalence of the process in the Black community. We may also be missing the opportunity to use language that highlights an important reality for Black families. Whether it is called co-parenting or something else, acknowledging the process is an important addition to the narrative representing the diverse realities of Black families.


Understanding diverse parenting realities and strategies for managing them can only benefit our understanding of Black families and ultimately contribute to the well-being of our collective souls.




Christina Grange, Ph.D., Charlie Harris, Ph.D., Al Williams, Ph.D.


References


Feinberg, M (2002). Coparenting and the transition to parenthood: A framework for prevention. Clinical Child Family Psychology Review, 5(3), 173-195.

Grange, C. (2020). Evolving the “single Black mother” narrative. The National Center for Institutional Diversity.


McHale, J., Waller, M.R., and Pearson, J. (2012). Co-parenting interventions for fragile families: What do we know and where do we need to go next? Family Process, 51(3), 284-306.


Ellerbe., C., Jones., J, and Carlson, M. (2018). Race/Ethnic differences in nonresidential father involvement after nonmarital birth. Social Science Quarterly, 99(1158-1182).

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