Although custody arrangements are finalized, smooth sailing from that point on isn't.
With primary custody comes the dilemma of keeping the parent living outside the home involved in the children's lives. The parent who lives outside the home may be battling feelings of loneliness. She may wonder how to remain a part of her child's life without day to day visits. This can be further complicated if miles lie between a parent and her child.
Parents who have a joint custody arrangement face the challenge of creating balance and similar rules between two households. They attempt this while trying to maintain a strong sense of security in both homes.
Unfortunately, there are no written guidelines to make these arrangements easier. Following are some ideas to help you. Not all of them will be applicable to your family form. Try the ideas that make the most sense for you.
Sole Custody - Keeping The Other Parent Involved It is a difficult task to not let your feelings for your ex influence his visiting arrangements. Many times a parent is angry, hurt and resentful. Visitation can become a means of getting back at your ex-partner. Sometimes this is a conscious choice, but most often it occurs subconsciously.
Your feelings aren't necessarily your child's. Your child has the right to form his own decisions and the right to see and love both of his parents. You can help by encouraging the other parent to remain in your child's life. Doing this isn't easy. It requires you to put your feelings aside and to focus on your child's needs.
Your encouragement is important. The non-custodial parent may be feeling cast aside, unneeded or unimportant. These feelings may cause him to not pursue a relationship with his children. Instead of waiting on him, try to encourage his visitation. Remember, you are focusing on your children now.
Ways to promote the non-custody parent/child relationship Don't ridicule. Children will often keep different hours or eat different things when away for a weekend. Don't ridicule the other parent because their style of parenting is different. Instead, bite your tongue. Will staying up a couple of hours late on a weekend night do any permanent damage? No. If you ridicule the other parent, she may feel she is parenting "wrong" and eventually visits may begin to decrease.
Try being flexible. If visits are rare, try to be a little more flexible in your visitation schedule to encourage increased visiting.
Discuss issues together. If your child is facing a problem in school, social life, or at home, let the other parent know. Think it through together. The other parent will be pleased to know that you value his opinion in parenting issues.
Keep the other parent posted. Send copies of report cards, drawings and graded papers on a regular basis. Kids often won't share all these things if they have limited time with the other parent. It is up to you to keep the other parent informed. Purchase a dozen or so 9x12 envelopes and a book of stamps. Let your child write the parent's address on the envelope and decorate them with stickers or crayons. Then have her place items from school or home in the envelope and mail one envelope a week. It may help to keep a pad of post-it-notes near the envelope for writing quick messages. This gives your child a way to feel connected with the other parent throughout the week.
Say thanks. Even if the kids are a little late getting home, or didn't take a full nap... say thank you.
The Non-Custodial Parent There may be a sense of relief when leaving a bad relationship. That sense of relief can quickly be replaced by guilt, frustration or anger as you try to understand your role in your child's life.
Your role remains the same as a mother or father. You still need to provide the same guidance and love. The only difference- you will not be doing it in person each day- but on a visitation basis. Don't underestimate your importance to your children. Though you are not living with them day to day, they need you as much as always.
Here are some ideas for staying actively involved in your child's life:
Call the school to get on the mailing list. Ask that copies of your child's report cards, achievements, problems, etc. be sent to both you and the other parent. (Or ask the other parent to supply you with these.)
Set up a visitation schedule and keep it. Buy your child a pocket calendar and highlight the days she will spend with you. This way she can look at the calendar and know when she will see you next.
Encourage your child to bring homework or school projects with her on visits. This will keep you up to date on what your child is learning and allow you to help her study or do research.
Have a set of "necessities" at your house for your child. Have a toothbrush, favorite stuffed animal, socks, extra clothing, etc. This will make your house feel more like "home" versus going away for a weekend.
If you have more than one child, schedule some one on one time with each during visitation periods.
Stay positive. Picking up and delivering your children may be a difficult task. The custodial parent may always have a few words of wisdom for you. Be polite and listen-- but don't let anyone take away from the relationship that you are maintaining with your children.
Long Distance Parenting Long distance parenting can work successfully with a little effort from both parents. Here are some ideas to try....
Purchase large envelopes and write little notes on a daily or bi-daily basis to your child.
Pick up little mementos that you see. These need not be expensive items, just little things to let your child know about your location.
Take photographs monthly. Your child will be more comfortable being able to "see" where you are.
Provide your child with envelopes with your address and postage. He can collect school papers, projects and notes to send your way.
Consider getting your child a SPARC Card. This way your child can call you at any time from anywhere without having to explain to anyone who he is calling and why.
Budget for visits. No matter what the reason for the distance-- it is the parents' responsibility to make sure enough money is allotted for plane, bus or train fares.
For younger children, tape record a new bedtime story once a week. If your child has a computer, consider getting "on-line" and communicating through e-mail and chat rooms. This can be a lot less costly than phone bills and it provides a way for sending letters instantly.
Find out what your child is studying in school. Try to find items that he may want to share with his class or incorporate in a school project.
With a young child, start a round robin story or letter. You write 1/2 of a page and then send it to your child. She writes 1/2 a page and sends it back to you. This can help younger children feel comfortable writing.
(For more ideas on long distance parenting consult Long Distance Parenting by Miriam Galper Cohen, 1989, NAL/Signet.)
Joint Custody Vicki Lansky reports in her Divorce Book For Parents that joint custody is becoming a more common form of parenting. In 1980 only three states accepted joint custody. Now it's the presumption or preference in every state-- 38 states through legislation and the other through Supreme Court case precedent or attorney general rulings. In a study of New York metropolitan parents after a year of shared custody, 80 percent said they would recommend it, even though only 7 percent reported no problems with the arrangement.
Joint custody seems to work best with older children who can handle moving between homes. Younger children need a sense of security which can be hard to create in a joint custody arrangement. The starting point is to create open communication between both parents.
Decide on house rules. Keep house rules as consistent as possible between homes.
Decide on allowance.
Get out your calendars and sort through extra-curricular activities. If your child signs up for swimming-- can you both work picking him up into your schedules?
Go through your child's events day by day. Try to sort out any rules or scheduling conflicts that might arise in advance.
Focus on a pick up/drop off ritual. What time can you expect one another? (It is a good idea to give the kids a little warning, too. Let them know 30-45 minutes before hand to get ready to go to Mom or Dad's.)
Know that if a child seems distant towards the end of a visit he is probably preparing for the transition to go to the other parent's home.
Meet regularly. Be open to meeting each month and discussing how the kids are doing. Do this in a "businesslike" manner when the children are not present. If you sense problems or difficulties with the arrangement or a difference in household rules, bring them up! Letting them sit and stir will only cause an uproar later.
For more ideas on Joint Custody refer to: Joint Custody and Co-Parenting: Sharing Your Child Equal by Miram Galper Cohen (1991, Running Press.)