Real Life: Gender Conscious Parenting + Tips for How to Share the Workload with Your Former Spouse

An interview with Emily Rothrock Tate:

This blog started because I was looking for resources on equal and gender conscious parenting. When I couldn’t find what I was after, it occurred to me I had the power to change that. I’ve never claimed to have all the answers — I certainly don’t — but I wanted to start a conversation about topics that desperately need a larger space on the internet… and, more importantly, in real life.

One of the ways I intend to do that is by featuring other parents’ stories. The first of this series is an interview with my former colleague and current friend, Emily Rothrock Tate. Emily is a single parent who works full time and gives tirelessly to her community. She and her ex-husband, Jerod, co-parent their 6-year-old, Heloha. The two of them work very hard to not only share the parenting workload, but also raise their son in a way that honors his culture and defies gender stereotypes. Read their story below:

The Back-Up Parent: Your son participates in many activities that defy gender norms, such as ballet and playing the French horn. Was this a conscious effort on your part? Why or why not?

Emily Rothrock Tate: Heloha began ballet classes at the OKC Ballet at age five, so he’s been dancing for over a year now. And yes, ballet lessons were a conscious effort on our part because ballet is very important to his father, Jerod. Jerod’s mother, Patricia Tate, who died in 2007, was life-long professional dancer, choreographer and past ballet professor at the University of Wyoming. While Jerod attended many ballet classes as a child, his real love is the classical music written for ballet. We had agreed, before Heloha was born, that we would explore ballet lessons while our son was young, and I’m so glad we did! 

Heloha’s father, Jerod, is a pianist and classical composer — he truly led the charge on our son’s horn lessons. Since birth, we’ve read our son children’s books about orchestra and music, and we’ve sang and played Jerod’s compositions for Heloha. We even made a game out of identifying which instrument makes what sound. There is one composition in particular, Spider Brings Fire, that has a French horn solo. Heloha just LOVES this piece and actually told us he wants to play that instrument because of it. So Jerod immediately bought a French horn and found an Oklahoma City University horn student to provide weekly horn lessons to our 6-year-old.

TBUP: Is H often one of the only boys in some of these activities? Does he ask questions about it? And, if so, how do you handle that?

ERT: Since French horn lessons are one-on-one, he doesn’t notice any gender disparity there. However, when Heloha first began ballet, he did notice that he was the only boy in his class. To ensure he felt comfortable, Jerod and I would make it a point to peek into other classes or rehearsals before or after his class, specifically to point out the male ballet dancers. I think it’s also helped that we’ve taken Heloha to the OKC Ballet’s annual Nutcracker performance every year since his birth — meaning he’s seen many male ballet dancers perform. To date, Heloha hasn’t expressed displeasure to me about being the only boy… but I keep holding my breath on this one. Still, we want to give a big kudos to the OKC Ballet staff for creating such an inclusive environment.

(Interview continued below photo gallery)

TBUP: Do you talk to H about gender stereotypes at all? If so, how do you simplify it so he can understand? 

ERT: Well, my son’s father is Chickasaw and has had a long braid of hair down to his waist for at least 20 years. At birth, we agreed not to cut our son’s hair – and we have endured many unsupportive statements from family and friends over the years because of it. If family ever joked about cutting our son’s hair while babysitting, we had firm conversations expressing how we don’t appreciate that humor, and what the consequences would be if our trust was ever broken. Our son now has a matching braid with his father. We have reinforced over the years that his hair is long like daddy’s because they are Chickasaw, and the braid is an outward symbol of their heritage. I may be biased, but I think our son is beautiful and, couple that with his long hair, he is often mistaken for a girl in public. When he is addressed as a girl, he simply responds, “No, I’m a boy and I have a braid because I’m Chickasaw Indian,” and keeps doing what he’s doing. 

But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been hard moments. In January, Heloha came home from school and told me he wanted a haircut. I asked why, and he said, “Because a couple of boys in the cafeteria called me a girl, even after I told them I was a boy and I’m a Chickasaw.” We then had a conversation about what a bully is, why those children tease, and what our Indian heritage means to us. After our conversation, we agreed that if he cut his hair, he’d let the bullies win. I know it sank in because of moments like this morning. We were watching Clifford the Big Red Dog. In it, there is a character called Jetta who is a constant conniving bully. Heloha said, “Momma, she is just like those boys in the cafeteria who call me a girl sometimes! She’s the worst!” and I said, “That’s right and Jetta never wins, either!” 

The gender identity conversation is an ongoing conversation, and his father and I are constantly touching base about it. As soon as Heloha told me about the cafeteria bullies, I texted Jerod. We also try to stay on the same page about reproduction and privacy as well. But that’s a whole other blog!

TBUP: You are divorced and have a very successful co-parenting relationship with H’s dad. How do you share the parenting workload from separate houses?

ERT: Thank you for the compliment. Our current relationship is because of a lot of hard work, therapy, vulnerability, forgiveness and trust. Our ultimate guiding thought is that this relationship isn’t about me and him — it’s about our son, who is the most important person in both of our lives.

Here are the keys to making our relationship work:

  • We use a google calendar titled “Team Tate Calendar.” In it, we get specific about who is picking Heloha up each day, etc.
  • We screenshot and text each other about the schools communications that arrive in Heloha’s backpack.
  • We attend parent/teacher conferences together.
  • We encourage FaceTime every day, and allow the other parent to stop by for 15 minutes to give hugs and kisses before the bedtime routine.
  • We constantly communicate discipline issues with each other and brainstorm solutions.
  • We compromise and agree about how to react to discipline and teaching situations.
  • The three of us have dinner together at least once a week, and during that time we discuss the next two weeks of children and family activities.
  • We give each other first right of refusal when we need childcare.
  • We communicate where our child is at all times. For example, we text each other when we drop off and pick up our son from school. The peace of mind, knowing where your baby is, is priceless. 
  • We are open and honest about our workloads and ask for help from each other when needed. Example: Jerod may need an additional four hours to complete a score for a client, or I may need to work late for a fundraising event, so we share time, despite what the custody schedule may be.

TBUP: What tips do you have for newly divorced parents who both have careers? 

ERT: Put your hurt feelings aside and remember that your relationship with your former spouse is NOT your child’s relationship with your former spouse. Your child is half you and half your former spouse, so when you say negative things about your former spouse, you are also insulting your child.

You WANT your former spouse to be successful, so that your child has resources to thrive and so that there is a shared financial burden through college. And yes, I mean successful in mental and physical health, career and future relationships. 

Greet your former spouse with smiles and kindness in front of your child. Fake it until you make it.

You are teaching your child how to treat future partners based on how you treat your former spouse. Therefore, take your child shopping for their other parent’s birthdays and holidays. Dads, teach your children how to send flowers on Mother’s day. Moms, teach your children how to create birthday cards and give them a spending limit at Target for Father’s day.

Understand that as your child gets older, he will have additional questions about why he has two houses and why can’t we all live together. Two years ago, Jerod and I worked with a therapist on how to answer these questions. Now, I am the director of development and communications for central Oklahoma’s only grief and divorce support center, Calm Waters Center for Children and Families, and I am around these conversations every day. Resources like these help to make these situations much less scary.

Have the conversation about how to introduce new partners to your child in person. For us, we agreed to not introduce a special someone to our child until we’d introduced them to the former spouse, and then the three of us have a sit-down conversation about behavioral expectations and boundaries. These include things like no foul or racist language, no drinking, discipline techniques and preferences, cultural competencies, bedtime routine, approved screen time, etc. 

Assume NOTHING via text. If you get offended, call the other parent to clarify their intent ASAP.

Treat the raising of your children like a business, where the other parent is your business partner. Treat your business partner with respect and honesty. Communicate with them like you would your colleagues and supervisor. This includes answering when they call and respecting boundaries. Don’t call after 9 p.m. or during the workday.

Agree to discuss children’s activity purchases over $100. For example, a French horn is well over $100. When Jerod told me he was buying it, we clarified who would be paying for it. We also LOVE Venmo. Such a life saver! 

TBUP: That’s really great advice, thank you. Do you have any final thoughts?

ERT: I do realize that not everyone can get to the point where Jerod and I are. I give a lot of credit to Jerod in the stewarding of our relationship and setting the example for our son. It has taken time and distance to be able to be vulnerable and trusting, but the reward definitely outweighs the risk, because the reward is our child’s stability. We are laying the groundwork now for our son’s future. We still have to get through the re-election, puberty, learning how to drive, dating, the college conversation and marriage, but if we tackle these issues as a team, everyone wins. Even though our marriage didn’t succeed, we can still have a successful parenting partnership and take pride in Team Tate.

Ps – If you’d like to be featured in this series, drop a line below or email me.

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