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Co-Parented: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
Hey, it's Anita. If you've been with us for a while, there's a name that probably sounds familiar to you: Omisade Burney-Scott. She was a guest on one of our very first Embodied episodes.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Then I started in a perimenopausal kind of phase of life. My mother was already deceased, and so I couldn't tap into her and say: Hey, Mommy, I'm pregnant, and I'm 41. Is this what I should expect?

Anita Rao
Since then, we've had Omisade back every chance we could. She joined us to talk about menopause and shared her experience as a death doula. She also hosts her own podcast, "The Black Girl's Guide to Surviving Menopause." She's warm, wise and has life experiences that intersect with almost everything we talk about on this show. Given all of that, we're thrilled to share she's going to be a recurring guest host for us. So without further delay, I'm turning things over to Omisade.

Omisade Burney-Scott
My mother came to her marriage with my dad Charlie, the father who raised my sister and I, a young widow with two small girls. Our father William passed away from cancer when I was 1, and my mother was pregnant with my younger sister. We already had two older sisters from my father William's first marriage, and when Mommy married Daddy we became little sisters that had two big brothers.

We had a pre-Brady Bunch, Black, blended family, and she was quick to correct people about my siblings from my father: These are my children. She would say: These are your brothers and your sisters, no steps. This way of doing family was embedded into me as a child and is what has shaped my co-parenting relationships that I entered into with the fathers of my own children.

This is Embodied. I'm Omisade Burney-Scott, guest host today and regular host of "The Black Girl's Guide to Surviving Menopause." People who are no longer married or romantically involved can and do co-parent. It isn't always easy because, well, we're human. We've got history, and we're still trying to grow as individuals outside of who we used to be to each other. But more than that, much more, we center our children, the person we made, the ones who come to us by blood or by circumstance, and we show up. It's possible. It's real, and it's necessary.

One person I've learned a lot about co-parenting from is Michael Scott, because we are in this journey together. Michael is a co-parent for my sons Che and Taj. When I met Michael, Che was 8 or 9 years old, and that started off our parenting journey as Michael would become father to Che when we moved in together. While Michael and I were living together, Che's dad, Big Che, and Michael had a conversation about parenting. And it stuck with Michael ever since.

Michael Scott
I want to say I initiated it, but I can't remember for sure. But I know it was important for me to have a conversation with Big Che. Because even though, at the time, I wasn't — quote unquote — a father yet, I knew that I was going to be heavily involved in raising Che. And I knew that the relationship I had with my dad — I wanted to be sure that Big Che was comfortable with me not taking his place. But being there as a co-parent, being there for Che for some of those things that a father kind of looks forward to — being involved with teaching your kid how to drive, having birds and bees conversations, discipline stuff. I wanted to make sure that Big Che and I had an understanding. Had a friendship. And that I could talk to him [and] he could talk to me, if anything came up that may need addressing.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Our family has only grown since then. Three years after we got married Michael and I had our son Taj. Michael and I separated and divorced. And Michael had another daughter, Kylie, with his partner Patrice. But those changes have not stopped us from being a family, and from recognizing the importance of communication and giving ourselves grace as we navigate challenges.

Michael Scott
Probably the biggest challenge is or was at least me thinking about: Wow, Big Che — we were successful at this co-parenting thing, and if we could do it, we can do it with Kylie and Patrice, Kylie's mom, just like we did it with Big Che. Instead of letting that happen organically, I think I've tried to make it happen. And the only resource I would say that helped me through that is my therapist, talking to her. I mean, I'm a big proponent of therapy for Black folks — I realized that I was trying to force this Kumbaya, when if I would have just let it happen naturally, it would have happened. But I think that it's much more the way I envisioned it early on. It's like that now, but because I stopped trying to make it happen.

Omisade Burney-Scott
I think that I'm very clear that you wanted us all to see each other as family and also wanted to make sure that all of the parents who were taking care of these kids saw each other fully, and we were respecting each other. But I want to shift gears a little bit because I know you love being a daddy. And there are so many stereotypes out there about Black fatherhood. There's so many assumptions — you get the question, is the father in the picture? And our answer for our family is yes and yes. And so I really would love for you to talk about what you love about being a dad to Che and Taj and Kylie? And do you think your experience of co-parenting has been shaped in any way shape or form by those external messages or stereotypes that you might have wanted to disrupt?

Michael Scott
Those external messages, I think I have disrupted them. Not in my mind, but in other people's minds. Because in my mind, I'm not doing anything out of the ordinary. I'm doing what feels right for me as a dad. What I hear a lot of: Wow, you're such a great dad. You're an awesome dad. Man, it is something to be applauded for, but not applauded for in the sense that: Great job Black guy, because not a whole lot of you guys are like that. That's what it feels like.

Omisade Burney-Scott
It feels like and that's not true. Right?

Michael Scott
Right. I look at my friends that are my age who have kids, and we are all involved in our kids' lives. We are all taking them to events and all this stuff — why wouldn't it be like that? In my mind, that's what dads do. I couldn't see it any other way, so I don't want a pat on the back.

Omisade Burney-Scott
The external pressures on parents are huge, especially if your family structure looks different than the norm. But what's funny is that there's so many different parenting structures and it's a wonder that there's even a normal. Michael and I have one version of a co-parenting story, and a father we heard from named AJ Feeney-Ruiz has another.

AJ Feeney-Ruiz
I have been a co-parent since about October 2019, when my friend Claire and I decided to try to have a baby as friends. And Rhett was born in August 2020 in the midst of a global pandemic. It's a bit rough sometimes. We created a parenting plan before he was born as to how we would raise him. One of the things for me to be a co-parent was that I would be traveling for up to six months a year. So when I'm in Indianapolis, where we live, I have him 40-50% of the time, just depending on the weeks, and he gets 100% of my attention. So I get to be a full-time dad when I'm with him, but it's a full-time single dad. I just returned back after several days back in Indianapolis where I was staying at the house of Claire and her fiance, and got to spend amazing time there. And we're family. We make it work, and it's awesome. And if anybody's ever thinking about being a co-parent, just remember it takes some work and some planning — but you can do it.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Platonic co-parenting is growing in popularity. There are websites and apps to guide you in finding nonromantic parenting partners. But co-parenting isn't new. Indigenous, Black and queer communities have long been raising kids outside of a nuclear family unit, with larger networks of community and collective care. This is history Zena Sharman learned as she started her own parenting journey early on. Zena never thought she'd be a parent, and then she fell in love.

Zena Sharman
I was in my late 30s, and I fell in love with someone who was already in the process of making a family with three other queer people. And that was really the entry point into this family formation for me.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Zena now shares the care of three children with her partner and another queer couple. In addition to parenting, she's a writer, LGBTQ+ health advocate and author of the book, "The Care We Dream Of." When we chatted, I could hear what a busy household she has with all seven people living under one roof, including five-week-old twins and a 4-year-old in tears over going to daycare. But they found a system to make sure that they can handle the responsibilities of the day as a unit.

Zena Sharman
We came up with our own family structure, and it was really a family formation. I think that we want it to purposefully look different than I think what sometimes people assume about our family, which is two couples sharing custody, for example, maybe between two households — and we now all live together in one big house. And instead of the parenting roles being attached to romantic couples —sort of a mom and a dad kind of role — at the core of our family unit is actually a really deep friendship between my partner, whose name is Scout, and one of my co-parents, whose name is Linden. And many years ago, they committed to co-parenting together as friends because they kept dating people who didn't want to have kids, and they really wanted to very deeply. So they became the lead parents in our family formation, and then my other co-parent and me came up with a title that I invented, which was — we became vice-parents. And basically what that means is we kind of have slightly different roles in practice, with the lead parents shouldering more of the intense work of parenting, but with all of us really showing up in big ways, especially now, because we have a 4-year-old and we also have five-week-old twins. So this has been a really interesting moment of transition for our family.

Omisade Burney-Scott
How did things change in terms of your family structure, and who's doing what when the the twins came into the scene?

Zena Sharman
I think we're all getting used to saying we have three children and we're a family of seven. So that's definitely a really exciting, and sometimes kind of mind-bending transition for all of us. And one of the things I think that's been amazingly helpful in our family is we've got not one, but two parents actually that are able to chestfeed the babies. So one of my co-parents carried the twins, and then another co-parent actually was able to induce lactation to be able to also nurse the twins. I mention that because it's actually an immensely helpful thing in our family right now is that we have our two lead parents that are really doing intensive work of caring for infants, which means feeding and being up lots of the nights, and just really that beautiful and hard hands-on work of caring for small babies. And so, simultaneously, me and my other co-parent, I feel like we're just really running the household and taking care of our 4-year-old and giving her as much security and stability as she can find in a time when her own family dynamic is shifting in really big ways after four years of being an only-child.

So yeah, I feel like it's a time where we're being tested, of course, because of the intensity of this moment. But I just keep feeling immensely grateful for the family structure that we have, especially having been raised by a single mom, and being really isolated from my family of origin in a lot of ways. I feel super grateful for the really robust and resilient kind of care webs that we're able to co-create together in our family.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Coordination for a family of seven requires structure and intention. Zena and her family sit down together every Sunday to figure out meals, daycare pickup and drop-off, who's doing bedtime and everything else they need to sort out and stay organized. And if disagreements arise, they are intentional about addressing that as well.

Zena Sharman
I feel like, often, the models I've seen for conflict resolution or dealing with conflict and relationships, they often, in my experience, really center either a romantic partnership or like how to have a difficult conversation with a co-worker. And I don't feel like there's necessarily that set of practices and vocabulary that we can apply to other intimate relationships in our lives, our friendships, other aspects of the family formations that we have or that we co-create together. And I do feel like that conflict intimacy is a piece of work that's ongoing for us in our family, and some of that is just kind of being in the grind of the busy-ness of parenting all day, every day.

And one thing we have gotten into a practice of is just intentionally doing, around once a week, a feelings check-in, just among the adults, and seeing how everybody's doing. And I think also trying to be more in an ongoing practice of giving each other honest feedback, but also giving each other a lot of grace. And so when moments are hard, or things don't go exactly how you might want them to, that doesn't necessarily always mean it has to be an opportunity to criticize or judge, but still really holding space to say: Oh, hey, that didn't feel good, or I don't like how this is going, can we shift it? So I feel like that's an ongoing practice for us. But I think just creating intentional structures and practices around it, like those kinds of check-ins, have definitely made a difference. And I feel like the other piece is just, we just have to keep doing it. Because that's how you get better. You kind of gotta build it like a muscle.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Parenting is building and working on muscle strength, and confidence comes with time and practice, which is something Michael has noticed as well.

Michael Scott
I had no confidence as a parent until Che. And Che kind — not even kind of — Che taught me how to be dad. I saw that: Wow, I'm not too bad at this. And I was honestly scared to be a dad. And we've had this conversation years ago, I didn't want kids. But now I couldn't imagine not having Che, Taj and Kylie in my life. And again, I think that stepping in with Big Che as Che's co-parent let me know that there's nothing to be afraid of. You can be a good parent.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Yeah, I agree. Zena, I want to bring you back in here. Your kids are still very young. But your 4-year-old's concept of family is already being shaped by the outside world like daycare, so how do you think those outside influences about family will shape your parenting as all of your children get older so they have the autonomy to feel confident about the way your family moves in the world in such a beautiful way?

Zena Sharman
It's a question we think about in different ways in our family, recognizing of course, I think for all of us, there's the world-building we can do in the spaces of our home or our intimate environments as families, and then there's what happens when our kids go out into the wider world and community. Certainly we've had moments, even though our kids have gone to good daycares that tried to be inclusive. But we'll come home and say: Well, all kids have a mom. And we'll have these conversations and it becomes an opening to say: Well, all kids grew in someone's body. And also, you know, some kids have a mom, some kids don't, some kids have two parents, some kids have more than one parents — and I think just really creating space to recognize that there's so many ways to create family and to be family to one another. And I think the reality is so many of us, in our own ways, are living outside of the dominant norm of what a family can be. And so, I think in different kinds of ways, I want to be able to hopefully raise kids who have that capacity to feel solid in their sense of belonging and the family they're a part of. But that also can really be in recognition of the many ways people create family and relate to one another, and like, hopefully can grow up more equipped to practice interdependence and like really show up in their communities in ways where they don't just assume you only care for the people who you define as family — but hopefully can really be in that rich and broader web of relationships.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Michael, what are you most grateful for when it comes to your co-parenting relationships that you've made?

Michael Scott
I think I'm most grateful for all of us being able to keep in mind the most important piece of all this which is the kids and putting them first. Making sure, again, all their needs are being met. And just seeing how strong the three of them — how strong their bond is. Kylie loves Che to death and is so excited to see him. She's so excited when Taj comes back to the house after being at your place for for a few days. So just seeing the relationship between the children and how it's grown, how the bond is there is one of the things that I'm most grateful for. And seeing how happy they are to have each other.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Zena, what advice would you give to folk who might be entering into an intentional co-parenting relationship?

Zena Sharman
Well, in terms of the gratitude, I want to echo something Michael touched into earlier, which is that feeling of being afraid to be a parent. For a long time, I did feel afraid to be a parent because I felt afraid of being needed too much. And what I feel so grateful for is that, through circumstance and community and queerness and creativity, I found my way into this opportunity to be a parent and be part of a family structure that feels really enlivening and spacious and supportive to me. Parenting is really hard work, but just the opportunity to be in relationship with our children and get to know who they are and see who they're becoming, and hopefully support them in that process of becoming — I feel so grateful for that all the time. And I think in terms of other folks looking for advice on what this can look like, I mean, part of the reason, with the consent of my family, that I wanted to tell our story a little bit more publicly was to offer one of myriad possibilities for doing family that weren't visible to me when I was younger. And considering my own parenting journey as as a queer person, and so I mean I think part of it is just being able to think expansively about what might be doable. Recognizing that that's going to look different depending on folks' circumstances and who they are and where they are. And I think also just to have a lot of conversation upfront about your dreams, your visions, your values, the logistical stuff, and also just to be open to what unfolds because I think there's a big difference between the planning and the imagining, and then the experience of becoming a parent. And so I think to be open to that unfolding, and the ways it's going to change you and shift what you might hope or imagine in practice.

Omisade Burney-Scott
When doing the work of parenting, it's important to have support and resources for finding that support. Someone I admire who's been thinking deeply about this for a long time is Trina Greene Brown.

Trina Greene Brown
When I think about Black folks, ancestrally, culturally — we've always adopted that African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. And so I think co-parenting is really expansive, and it's not just limited to two parents, right. It includes our kinship care. It includes our elders. It includes our community, our grandparents, our aunties and uncles. And sometimes it goes beyond biological. It includes those play cousins and play aunties and godparents, and the ways that we invite folks in to support us because we see community and we build community and that also is the community that we often parent our children with. My experience, I've had several co-parents. It's not just my child's biological father.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Trina is the founder of Parenting for Liberation, a virtual community for Black people raising Black children. Parenting for Liberation provides a variety of resources to help Black parents heal, learn and find community. They have a book and a podcast, and also host regular workshops. Trina is fueled to do this work in part from her own experiences as a parent.

Trina Greene Brown
My co-parenting journey is that — it is still a journey. It has beautiful moments where we can coalesce, and compromise, and negotiate, and all things are well. And there are times when it's hard and bumpy, and we don't see eye-to-eye and we disagree. For me, the journey is the compromise. Letting go of what I think should happen because my child becomes that. And I have to realize that this is our child, all of our child, and we all have something unique to contribute to this person's life. That I have to see the gifts that each of the co-parents bring, and not only focus on what I think are the shortcomings and actually focus on and reframe and be like: This child is blessed by this person in these ways. It might be different than the ways that I bless and gift things to this child. And so how do I honor and just appreciate the gifts? And that has been the journey.

Omisade Burney-Scott
I think that sometimes we feel like if we make a decision around how we're going to be structured and how things are going to be divided 50-50 — time, finances, resources. But I don't think that that's equitable. So I would love to explore with you like how you have come to terms with and negotiated or committed to a more equitable kind of division of responsibilities inside your co-parenting relationship.

Trina Greene Brown
Yes, it is not about equality, and it's not about fairness. And I definitely had to learn about that because I'm over here counting and calculating how much I do, and how many hours I spend, and how much money I spend. And what I realized, especially in my work in social justice — I realized that there's a huge difference between equality: for everybody getting the same, and equity: folks contributing based on what resources they have. And so based on what resources I have, I can contribute more things in one area. But that doesn't mean that this other person who might not have more — for example, they might have less financial resources, but maybe they have more time, or maybe they have more space to do more of the emotional labor, for example. And so I can't equate: Well, if I give more dollars that means more than you gave more time, right? And so I just think it's about honoring each person's contributions, and also acknowledging that each person is giving from what resources they have. And our resources that we start with may not be equal. I think that's what the systems want us to do is try to figure out a way for it to be 50-50. And in reality, we have to honor where people arrive and what resources they have, and honor their contributions based on what they have, as opposed to compare it to what I have.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Sure. And all of this happens while you're in motion, right? You're not figuring these things out in a separate container? They're happening while you're actually parenting your child, right? So the places that communication and figuring out equity happens while you're actively parenting and co-parenting. What can help parents do the work of building a healthy co-parenting relationship, while they're actually doing the labor of parenting? Is that the bookend part of this work?

Trina Greene Brown
You're right. There is no like: Hold on, let me get figure this out. I don't know who's going to take care of this kid while I figure it out, but I'll be back. There's none of that. You have to be figuring it out. I do believe there's a lot of work that we have to do on ourselves as parents. Focusing on what does our self-care look like? What does our practices around our own mental health and wellness look like? How do we take care of our own emotional health so that we can be in these relationships? And I think that labor oftentimes gets kind of pushed because we want to be like: Our kids come first. We have to focus on our children. And we kind of put ourselves on the backburner, but I realized in my parenting journey that I can't show up for my child unless I'm doing my work as well.

Omisade Burney-Scott
I think the healing justice that you speak of makes me think about how we are in this space of continual learning and also unlearning because of our families of origin. And also the assumptions or even messages we receive around what family is, what parenting is or how you're supposed to parent. I'm curious about how do you encourage parents to embrace some of their own fears, and to be open to changing some of the assumptions or even mindsets they might have around family or parenting?

Trina Greene Brown
A lot of our work is rooted in how do we first see our fears? How do we actually kind of look in the mirror and be vulnerable, and acknowledge that we're afraid of raising children, afraid of raising Black children in the society? Afraid of getting it wrong? And I think it's creating safe spaces is one way that we do it. Our team, myself, we often lead with vulnerability for ourselves to normalize that we are afraid and that we don't know all the answers. And I think it's when we have these moments, such breakthroughs can happen because folks can release their cape that we tried to wear as parents. That we are superheroes and we know it all and we can fix it all, and actually, in our work working with Black parents, we also can spend some time locating or connecting those fears or doubts or worries, to either historical or ongoing traumas that we experienced as Black people. Having that information, at times, allows parents to kind of let go some of those fears or some of those practices that are rooted in fear. And it creates an opportunity and a space for folks to actually define and redefine what does it mean to be a Black parent and what choices and decisions and values they want to fuel their parenting. And in our work, we tried to choose liberation to be the fuel in our parenting to really see our work of raising Black children as towards our children's liberation, but also for our collective liberation. So it is about that vulnerability and finding the roots of some of the fears. And then once you find the roots of the fears, like how do we, like a gardener, uproot those fears from the soil and plant new seeds for the type of parents we want to be.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Parenting roots do go deep from watching our own parents to the early experiences we have of interacting with children. But I'm excited about the cultivating Trina is doing and the space she holds for Black families while on her own learning journey. And she always is working on a new thing like an innovation fund.

Trina Greene Brown
You're the first people to hear — we're in the works around this innovation fund. We're going to be seeding folks innovative ideas and giving folks resources to try them out and experiment.

Omisade Burney-Scott
At the heart of co-parenting is the commitment to co-creating a healthy and loving environment for our children to grow and flourish. We learn from our children as we grow and deepen our practice of parenting. It's about intentional communication; respecting what each parent brings to the co-parenting relationship; doing the individual, emotional and mental work; and learning and unlearning assumptions and old ways of thinking about what it means to co-parent. And I'll leave you with the insights from one other parent, Michelle Felder, founder of Parenting Pathfinders.

Michelle Felder
To me, co-parenting means raising children together while living the rest of your lives apart. The focus of your relationship is your children, and the goal of your relationship is to work together to manage all of the practical and emotional responsibilities that come along with raising a child. One of the most important lessons that I've learned through my experience of co-parenting is that just because I would do things one way, it doesn't mean that it's the right way. Co-parenting has been a masterclass in perspective-taking, and it is okay that what I think is best and what my kids' other mom thinks is best — it's okay if it's different. The most important thing that I encourage all co-parents to do is to keep the focus on the kids. Center the kids in everything you do. Another piece of advice that I have for co-parents is to heal. I think that practicing mindfulness and going to therapy are incredibly helpful tools in the healing process. But find what works for you so that you're able to let go of the hurt of the past.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Embodied as a production of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, a listener-supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand consider a contribution at WUNC. Incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you.

This episode was produced by Kaia Findlay, Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer and Quilla wrote our theme music.

This show is supported by Weaver Street Market, a worker- and consumer-owned cooperative selling organic and local food at four Triangle locations in North Carolina. Now featuring online shopping with next day pick up, WeaverStreetMarket.coop.

If you enjoyed the show, share about it on social media and tag us with the handle @embodiedWUNC on Twitter and Instagram. It helps new folks find the show and it means so much. I'm Omisade Burney-Scott, sitting in for Anita Rao. If you need something to listen to next, you can check out my podcast, "The Black Girl's Guide to Surviving Menopause." Until next time, thanks for listening to Embodied.

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