Most co-parenting families with school-aged children have two basic parenting time schedules: one for school vacations and holidays and the other for the school year. If you and your former spouse separated or divorced over the summer, this month may be a crucial turning point as the two of you test out the "school year" portion of your child custody agreement for the first time. What can you expect from this new schedule, and how can you tell if changes are needed in order to help your children truly thrive in the coming months? Here are three ways to tell if the custody agreement you have in place is the best fit for your child, and for you.
Does Your Parenting Time Plan Reflect Realistic Expectations?
It's natural for emotions to run high during a separation or divorce, especially when it comes to critical matters such as deciding child custody. Parents may initially make unrealistic custody grabs based on fear or insecurity, demanding full custody or the vast majority of parenting time, even if their work schedule or living arrangement makes this kind of plan impossible or even detrimental to their children.
If you veered at first towards making bold custody claims out of your hurt or angry feelings, hopefully you had an attorney by your side who was able to steer you towards making sound decisions for the sake of your children. If you were not so lucky, you may have a parenting time plan in place that might work in the short term, but down the road is at risk of imploding when schedules clash and you start showing up late for pick-ups (or not at all), or put your kids in situations in which they lack proper care and supervision.
Yes, it can take time for any co-parenting family to settle into a new school year routine. Still, take some time this month to give your parenting time plan an honest assessment. Does it reflect your need to punish your former spouse or your child's needs to have a calm, stable school year with love and support from both parents? If your self-assessment reveals a parenting time plan that could use some tweaks, check in with an attorney to learn more about child custody modification, which you and your former spouse may be able to renegotiate on your own terms.
Does Your Parenting Time Plan Reflect Your Children's Ages, Activities & Needs?
When you decided on a child custody arrangement, you probably took into consideration a number of factors such as your children's ages, personalities and developmental needs; your careers and outside commitments; child care and the geographical distance between parents' homes; and your children's academic and extracurricular activities.
What is important to remember is that children can change, sometimes dramatically, in only the space of a few months. For example, maybe your child will discover their passion for soccer this year and now have practice and home and away games most of the week. Or perhaps your child will unfortunately hit a stumbling block in math and benefit from after school tutoring. Or maybe you will get a promotion at work with more pay -- and more hours. On the other hand, perhaps your child is now in preschool or kindergarten and can handle more frequent transitions between parental homes. Or your child recently developed a health or medical need that makes staying in one home preferable.
As inevitable changes occur for your child (or for you or your former spouse), keep track of how they may affect your parenting time plan. For example, if your child has back-to-back tutoring and then sports practice after school, does it still make sense to schedule a dinner together on the same night? Or could a different plan benefit your child?
Parenting time plans are binding, so if you and your former spouse mutually agree to make permanent changes to the schedule that you believe are your child's best interests, you will need to submit these changes to the courts. Also be aware that if you informally cede parenting time to your former spouse on a regular basis, your former spouse could go to court seeking to have these changes incorporated, with or without your consent.
Are You and Your Former Spouse Able to Maintain Communication?
Finally, a make or break issue for many parenting time plans is how well co-parents can communicate with each other to keep their schedule on track and workable for all involved. Something as simple as arranging to text each other with neutral comments to confirm pick ups and drops offs (i.e., "Will be at bus stop at 4 pm on Friday") can go a long ways towards creating a positive co-parenting relationship. There are even divorce apps to help co-parents stay on the same page. All you need to do is upload your current parenting time plan and the app will send you both reminders of who needs to be where and when. Or go low-tech by using a notebook that you pass back and forth during custody swaps with notes on how your child is doing and other messages.
The bottom line? Consider it your ongoing homework assignment this year to gauge how well your parenting time plan is working, and whether you are doing your part to make it work. One last point to keep in mind? The old "dog ate my homework" excuse doesn't apply when it comes to parenting your kids.