Excellent suggestions on how to keep children out of the divorce turmoil as well as ways to help minimize the friction between parents.
When a couple with children file for divorce in Iowa, both parties are required by the court to attend a seminar called 'Children in the Middle'. This is an informative and useful class about the effects of divorce on children meant to aid parents in keeping children out of adult issues. However, the instruction does not go far enough. It needs to be followed up with 'How to be a Custodial Parent' and 'How to be a Noncustodial Parent', to prepare each parent to fulfill these new roles.
Some divorces are amicable enough (or perhaps the parties are mature enough) that custody is decided by the parents, not the court. These people often stipulate to joint legal custody, and sometimes joint physical custody, whereby both parents have legal rights and responsibilities with regard to their children, and the children may spend nearly equal time with both parents. While joint legal custody is presumed, Iowa courts do not favor joint physical custody, and will not order it if custody is contested, since it requires the cooperation of both parents to make it work. Except in cases where one parent is clearly a danger to the children and is ordered to have no contact, the norm is to name one parent as primary custodian and grant visitation to the other. Typical visitation is every other weekend from Friday evening to Sunday evening, one evening during the week, alternating holidays and breaks, and 2-4 weeks in the summer.
It is just human nature that the person named as noncustodial parent (usually the father) is going to have problems with this turn of events. Loss of daily contact with one's children is enormously hurtful, and the resulting emotions on top of the grief and anger experienced by divorcing couples can lead to terrible conflict. To avoid some of the pitfalls, here are a few tips for parents in both positions:
A lot of grief will be avoided from the outset if the custodial parent will embrace the concept that the children are not their exclusive property. Sometimes a custodial parent wields this court-granted 'power' inappropriately, and the children are used as pawns to punish the other parent. They may refuse to allow the children time with the other parent, or try to micro-manage the time that is allowed. The responses from the noncustodial parent can vary from refusing to play that game at one end of the spectrum all the way to one with deadly consequences at the other end. To be fair, noncustodial parents can also be the instigators of bad behavior, refusing to return the children at the agreed time, harassing the other parent, or refusing to cooperate even when the custodial parent is fair and reasonable.
Parents residences should be as close to each other as possible. They do not have to live next door, but picking up and moving halfway across the country is not a Good Idea. Children need to spend as much time as possible with both parents, in the most normal parenting situations possible.
Your children do not live with one parent and 'visit' the other. They have two homes and live with both parents. Children should have toys and clothing at both homes sufficient for their needs (more about this later). Although they may have possessions they bring back and forth, they should NOT be traveling between the two homes with a suitcase. Luggage can only undermine the idea of two equal homes, and the transition between residences is made more burdensome than necessary.
The court order regarding visitation is NOT meant to be written in stone. The purpose of the order is to prevent a custodial parent from denying the ex-spouse at least a minimum of time with the children. Unless the distance between residences is too far for a parent to take a child to school the next day, then the midweek 'visit' should be overnight instead of just a few hours in the evening. Similarly, weekends should be extended through Monday morning, with the noncustodial parent bringing the child to school or daycare. This 'extra' time allows more opportunity to provide routine care, including meal time and bedtime rituals that can offer comfort and security to the children. It can help alleviate the 'Disneyland Dad' (or Mom) scenario whereby short weekends and evenings are spent entertaining the children rather than in normal parenting. Unless a child is too sick to travel, simple illness is not an excuse to withhold parenting time. The child can be sick just as well with one parent as the other, and care of an ill child is another means of bonding.
Parents must NOT enroll the children in activities that will take place during the other parent's time without discussion and agreement. While it is hoped that both parents will support a child's participation in sports and other activities, this is a control issue that will cause needless conflict if decided unilaterally. Any cost associated with such activities should be paid out of the support typically provided by one parent to the other. If it is not something you could afford before the divorce, then you can't afford it now.
Time with the noncustodial parent needs to be as regular and frequent as possible, but both parents need to be flexible in this matter. Occasionally, weekends will need to be switched so that children can attend events such as birthday parties or family celebrations with one or the other parent. While the ties children have with friends and extended family need to be supported, this should not be used to reduce the noncustodial parent's time. Noncustodial parents should use all the available time and not just come and go from the children's lives as they please. It is not acceptable to stand up your own children, or to expect the other parent to be on call because you can't make it this weekend. The very least you can offer your children is dependability.
If a child suffers from a chronic illness, both parents need to be diligent in providing required care and medication. There is no excuse for not acknowledging a child's medical condition, although this is a common occurrence in disrupted families. Returning an asthmatic child gasping for breath is a sure way to end up with a modified court order for reduced or supervised parenting time. If a custodial parent will not deal with a child's illness, this is grounds to modify custody. Meet with the child's doctor or take the child for a second opinion if you do not believe your child is ill. If the diagnosis is confirmed, then educate yourself about your child's condition and do what is necessary to maintain his health.
Parents should participate equally in choosing a physician, dentist, and other caregivers for a child. If one parent does not care, or trusts the other parent to make these decisions, then the person deciding must be prompt in providing information to the other parent. No appointments should be scheduled without the knowledge of the other parent, and if possible, both parents should attend. Just handing a child's prescription to the other party during exchange of custody is not a good idea. It is nice to see your child's picture on the 'Zero Cavity Club' bulletin board, but not if you were unaware she had been to see the dentist. If insurance is provided by one parent, the other parent should use care providers covered by that insurance.
A common complaint from both sides is in regard to clothing. A child comes in nice clothes and is returned in rags, and the good clothing is never seen again. Or a child is sent in rags or ill-fitting garments, and comes back in good clothing, which is never seen again. I do not know what is up with this, but please do not do this to your children. The parent receiving support should regularly provide suitable clothing in good condition to the other home. The parent paying support should not sabotage this effort, and should regularly communicate with the other parent when clothing is outgrown or worn out. In addition, children should be provided with seasonal items such as boots, mittens, and coats. Both parents need to make sure these items are gathered up and sent with the child each time.
Both parents need to be involved with a child's education. Homework must get done at both homes, and both parents need to attend conferences with a child's teacher. Copies of schoolwork and report cards must not be withheld from the one parent, and both parents need to have calendars of school events. Sometimes arrangements can be made with the school to provide two copies of information sent home with a child, but a custodial parent often must accept responsibility for keeping the noncustodial parent informed. This does not mean patronizing the other person with every little detail. It means confirming on a regular basis that the other parent is aware of a child's progress, problems, and activities at school.
Transition between homes is stressful for many children. Exchange of custody is not the time to raise issues with the other parent. Unless you are passing routine information, communication should be addressed through the mail, over the phone, or at meetings without the children. Children should never be asked to give the other parent messages or notes.
Young children may experience separation anxiety during transitions. They may fuss or cry or claim they do not want to go with the other parent. This is normal. Their distress may be unnerving, but in most cases, the child is fine a few minutes after leaving the driveway. This should be handled kindly, but firmly, with the parent saying "It is time to go with Dad/Mom now. I will see you soon." It is NOT helpful for a parent to start crying and wondering aloud whatever could be wrong that the child does not want to go.
Young children need to be properly prepared for the transition in a positive manner. It is just common sense to say '"You get to be with Dad/Mom today", and NOT "I will miss you too much" or "I wish you didn't have to go." Counseling may be advisable if a child is truly unable to adjust, but it may be the parents and not the child who need their coping skills tuned up.
A common complaint of custodial parents is that the children act out after returning from time with the noncustodial parent. They may be hyperactive, combative, crabby, or rude. The parent observing this behavior should not automatically assume that time spent with the other parent is bad for the child, or that the other parent somehow is encouraging this behavior. Divorce does not magically provide ex-spouses with ESP. If one parent is having this problem with a child, the other parent will not know about it if they are not told. Acting out is most likely a demonstration of the child's distress at being separated from the noncustodial parent again. A transition ritual carried out the same each time the child returns, such as a video or story time, with pizza for supper may help calm this insecurity. MORE TIME, not less, with the noncustodial parent may also result in improved behavior, since the child will become more secure if the interval between separations is reduced. In some cases, a child may genuinely wish to have custody reversed, and live the majority of the time with the other parent.
You can think whatever you want of the other parent, but you must NOT badmouth the other parent in the presence of the children. Children of divorce already have enough insecurity and loyalty conflicts. In extreme cases, this behavior can alienate a child from the other parent, and the damage may be irreparable. Children may share things with you about the other parent. Make a note of what they say, but don't overreact. Take it up with the other parent at the next opportunity, to make certain that the child is not attempting to play one of you against the other. Do not ask your child to keep secrets from the other parent. Do answer a child's questions as honestly as possible, in an age-appropriate way. Do not give more information than is necessary to satisfy them. They do not need to know about a parent's infidelity, or failure to pay support, or other adult issues.
If you remarry, do NOT instruct the children to call your new spouse "Daddy" or "Mommy". Children should call stepparents by their first name, a nickname, or perhaps "Daddy Jack" or "Mommy Kate" if the kids are very young. If your ex-spouse remarries, do NOT badmouth the new partner to your children. For better or worse, this person is now part of your child's life and presumably will be handling some of the parenting chores. You want your child to have as good as relationship as possible with this person. If the child is told he does not have to mind this adult, or translates your badmouthing into poor behavior toward the stepparent, the quality of everybody's life will go down. A child disrespecting a stepparent may even breach the child/parent relationship at that home. Your job is to treat stepparents at least as politely as you would any other stranger, and to encourage your child's relationship with him or her.
If you are not remarried, but dating, consider that a successive stream of strange adults may be unsettling for the children, particularly those who think mom and dad might still get back together. Until you are in a committed relationship, do not include dating partners during parenting time. Children do not need to become emotionally attached to people and then lose them when it doesn't work out. If they are antagonistic toward these partners, this just sets up a whole new set of stresses and frustrations for all parties involved. Children should be aware you are dating and perhaps even meet the person a time or two, but that is all they need to know unless that relationship prospers.
Nearly all courts assert that once custody is set, it should rarely be disturbed, but parents need to be more open-minded than this. Although the courts may not recognize the passage of time as a circumstance under which custody should be modified, the fact is that children have different needs at different times in their development, and may very well benefit from more time with one or the other parent as they mature. This is not permission for a parent at wits end to suddenly toss an unruly adolescent to the other parent, but a realization that a child who identifies more strongly with one parent should be in the custody of that parent, and that many children might prefer an equal-time arrangement between homes.
I could go on and on, but this should be enough to communicate the basic idea. It may be trite, but the Golden Rule is the bottom line here. Unreasonable people are a part of everybody's life, but you don't need to be one of them. If in spite of your best effort to keep on the high road, your ex-spouse is uncooperative, you need to have a thick skin and do your best to let the mind games roll off.
Do not react in anger or retaliate in kind. If you have been unfair or unkind or provocative, then apologize, but don't expect anything in return. It is never too late to turn to the next page and start over with your child's other parent. In other words, be an adult. At least you will know your children have ONE grown-up acting in their best interest.