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SportsLife: Co-parenting 1 young athlete in 2 separate households

Navigating the exhausting schedule of games, practices, school and everything else is hard for one household, even trickier when parents are divorced or separated.

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. — SportsLife is an ongoing blog dedicated to topics and issues impacting young athletes, their families, coaches, officials and anyone who cares about youth sports. Ideas come from you - email them to dthiede@kare11.com

Ask just about any parent with a kid who is active in sports, and they'll likely tell you it's the equivalent of having a second full-time job.

Seriously. Shuttling a daughter or son to and from games and practices, embarking on weekend tournament road trips, buying and maintaining equipment, planning meals and logistics... it's a dizzying list of demands that can test even the most unified household. 

Imagine, then, doing it without the support of a spouse or partner, or even more challenging - with someone you have split from, who is living in a separate space with different ideas about what is best for the child you share. It's commonly called co-parenting, and attorney Kimberly Miller says it is NOT easy. 

"At a bare minimum, it's two or more people making decisions and trying to come together on how ideally to best raise the children," said Miller in a wide-ranging Zoom interview. "But when it comes to extracurriculars, or sports or music or theatre, whatever they're doing outside of school time, it can be really challenging. But it's about working together on it, figuring out a way to come up with compromises."

Miller is a divorce attorney, but also a family therapist, co-parenting specialist and certified financial planner who works with ex-partners to keep their disagreements out of court if possible. She says disputes between parents that are no longer together can generally be traced to two things. 


"As the time commitment becomes more and more and more on these kids, and it's not just three or four practices a week, it's tournaments out of town, it's the hotel cost, the food cost, the driving costs," Miller reflects. "Sometimes you're putting your kid off with another family or someone else Is taking them on, I've had a minivan full of, you know, six kids going to Des Moines for a soccer tournament. And then sometimes there's the unknown time, you don't know if you're gonna be there for one game or four games. And when you're crossing over on parenting time, there's that element of, 'Is it my time, or my co-parent's time? Do I like the sport? And do I want to be as equally involved and on the sidelines as the other parent?'"


"So often, there's such a huge financial contribution that goes in... I ask kids, I ask families when I start working with them, do you have a hockey player, a club sport player or a dancer? Those are the three that you have to almost have a separate budget for, to figure out 'how are we going to pay for it?' What happens with the unknown costs, it only gets more as they get older usually. And then you get the tough situation, what happens if one parent can't afford it or financial circumstances change and the other can, how do you balance that out with also trying to have a unified front for your kids."

"One of the things just important in general is supporting your co-parent and trying to not alienate the other parent or a child no matter what, but you could be in a legitimate situation where I can afford to continue to pay for hockey and the co-parent can't. And how do you message that to a kid that allows them to recognize 'we still love you. We just are in different financial circumstances.' It's hard enough to do in one household, but when you're dealing with it in two households, it really increases that difficulty."

The Social Divide

The social side of sports can also be a major challenge for partners who are no longer together. Fellow parents they used to sit in the stands with may feel awkward, not know what to say or feel like they have to take sides. Miller says it's best to be transparent, acknowledge the elephant in the room and let them know you're trying to make it work. 

"I think it's really upon parents to communicate to other parents that we may be divorced, or we may be separated, but we're here as a team, and we're going to be unified," she says. "So like, knock it off, don't treat us any differently. And kind of keep them out of it (the breakup) as much as you can. Again, it might be really hard, I'm not undermining the fact that it might be really hard for parents to pretend that it's okay. But do that for a short period of time."

Standing together on the sidelines can ease the worries of a young athlete, who may be worried about separating or divorcing parents and the impact it might have on their life. Instead of watching from separate parts of the gym or rink, Miller advises to park your differences and consider the bigger picture. 

"I always say parents, you would do anything for your kid, you know, you would jump in front of a bus, you would take the bullet, you would do whatever you can for the kid. All I'm asking you to do is try to get along with your co-parent, for a two-and-a-half-hour soccer game. Don't make it about you. Make it about your kid."

Successful Co-parenting

While every relationship and family situation is different, Miller shared a laundry list of things that contribute to successful co-parenting. 

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.
  • Come up with a unified plan that deals with time and financial commitments related to sports. Put it in the divorce decree or documents. 
  • Avoid making promises ("Sure, you can play in that tournament...") without consulting your ex. 
  • If things aren't good between you and your former partner and it's stressing your child out, ask them if they actually want you at a game. Both of you showing up may cause stress - a little space may be better.
  • Do not introduce a new significant other by bringing them to your child's sporting event. It's "almost never a good idea," Miller says. 

It's also important to remember, Miller says, that navigating these temporarily turbulent waters is part of laying the groundwork for a long-term future relationship with your child. Show them that you can agree on at least one thing: That their success and overall happiness are the most important things in both of your lives. 

"Teach your kids that you can divorce well, you can be friends, or friendly enough to support them on the sidelines of a sporting event. And then just, you know, just keep loving them and keep doing the best that you can for them. And then also, just make sure you're doing it for all the right reasons for them. It would be my same advice for non-divorced parents. It's just a little harder." 

"Really hard."


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