One of the biggest questions that often accompanies the divorce process is who gets “custody” of the kid(s) and what that means in the day-to-day scheduling of which household they are in, and when. Is this a situation of primary custody with one parent, but every other weekend with the other? If the parents live in different states, is it summers and winter break at one household, school year at the other? Are there other arrangements and systems besides these “standard” ones that you should consider? (Yes, there are!)
Chances are, these are questions you've never had to think about before, or if you have, are based only on your own childhood experiences, something else you saw in someone else's parenting relationship, or a schedule some lawyer had in her templates file. Truth be told, you may feel like you simply have no idea – no idea what really would be best for the children, and very likely no idea what you yourself would even ideally want. Of course, having never done this before, it is very difficult to think through all the ramifications and consequences of any particular solution.
The good news is that hundreds of thousands of other families have faced these same questions over the years and have provided some ideas for systems that tend to work well and others that don't. While you may not yet have clarity, be assured that you don't have to reinvent the wheel.
The other good news is that, especially if you are approaching your divorce with an intent to come to agreement rather than litigate in court, you likely have a great amount of input into what the ultimate outcome will be. There is a careful balance to be struck on that front: it is important to decide what you truly feel is best for your situation and to advocate for that position, but at the same time realize that fighting too much and digging your heels in may ultimately mean that a judge or other disinterested third party ultimately makes the decisions, which may or may not resemble what you had in mind.
Here are just a few of the considerations that you will likely want to consider to be “ingredients” of these decisions:
- Age of the child(ren): Developmentally, older children are more able to go longer periods of time between transitions. They can understand and remember that even though you may not be there at that moment that you still exist and love them. Younger children have stronger needs for attachment.
- Geography: How far apart will the two households be?
- School: If the children are in school, they will need to maintain consistency in attendance. Similarly, if they are involved in extracurricular activities, those should be supported by the parenting time schedule as well (but not be used as an excuse or as leverage to manipulate the schedule).
- Other commitments: What is each parent's work schedule? Are there issues with being on call or having to travel out of state frequently that need to be dealt with?
- Burden: If you haven't learned this already, here is a quick pointer: not everything about parenting is enjoyable, glamorous, or fun. Some aspects are draining – in time, money, energy, and/or life-force. Are both parents sharing in the burdens associated with parenting in an equitable way?
- Benefits: There are many joys associated with parenting as well, of course. These should be divided fairly as well. For some families in which Christmas morning is important to both parents, that may mean alternating years that the children are in each household. For some families, Halloween is a big deal in one house but Valentine's is in the other, so there can be an appropriate recognition of that.
- You: It is important to be honest with yourself in regard to your kids. Are you so angry with your ex-spouse that you don't want him/her to get anything – including the kids? Some parents become so focused on the kids being “theirs” that they lose sight of what is best for the children. We want to avoid “splitting the baby in half.” At the same time, we don't suggest that you “give up” the children just to avoid some conflict. Be honest with yourself about how much time makes sense to you in your life to be “on duty” as an active parent, and that you want to be the case. You are much more likely to be an effective parent and fully present for you children if you are true to yourself in these regards.
It is not easy, but it is possible to work through these issues in a systematic way. Ultimately, your goal is to come up with a system that gives enough of a structure to be predictable for the children and to avoid as many future conflicts as possible, while also being flexible enough to account for the fact that life circumstances change over time.