If you are a parent and you are facing divorce, one of the first things you probably thought about was, "What is going to happen with the kids?" You have visions of having to spend weekends and holidays without them. You worry about what will happen to the kids when they are not with you. You know that, now that you are getting divorced, you will need to make some sort of a parenting schedule, but doing that just seems so strange!
Why Do You Need a Parenting Schedule?
Lots of people wonder why they have to take the time to actually make a formal schedule for when their kids will be with them, and when the kids will be with their ex. Especially if you have the good fortune to have a decent relationship with your spouse, and you can work well together as co-parents, writing down a detailed parenting schedule seems like overkill.
It is not.
No one has a crystal ball. You and your ex may be getting along great now. Hopefully, you will continue to get along, at least until your children are all 18. But, as you know only too well, relationships change. You or your spouse may remarry. One of you may move. Your job schedules may change. In short, there are a lot of things that can affect when and how much each of you sees the kids. If you don't sit down and map out a schedule now, dealing with changes in the future will be infinitely more difficult.
A Parenting Schedule is a Blue Print
Some people are hesitant to make a parenting schedule because they don't want to be locked into a fixed schedule for the rest of their children's minority. What you have to realize, though, is that a parenting schedule is more like a blue print than it is a finished house.
Your parenting schedule is the "default" mode for when you see your kids. If you and your ex have a good relationship, and if you can work together as parents and be flexible in your scheduling, you can each see your kids on whatever schedule you want. You can follow the parenting plan, or bury it in a box in the basement. It doesn't matter.
If you and your ex don't get along, though, that is when your parenting plan becomes critical. If you can't agree on anything else, then each of you will each see the kids according to the parenting schedule that is part of your divorce judgment.
Who Needs a Parenting Schedule?
In some states, like Illinois, courts require parents to make a parenting schedule before the court will grant them a divorce. Other states encourage, but don't require, parents to make a parenting schedule. Either way, the answer to the question, "Who needs a parenting schedule?" is the same: anyone who is a parent!
While making a parenting schedule may seem like a lot of legal mumbo jumbo, if, six months after you divorce, you and your ex start having issues surrounding when you will see the kids, your parenting schedule will wind up being the most important document you ever made.
What Makes a Good Parenting Schedule?
Making a parenting schedule seems like it should be an easy enough task. You just sit down with your spouse and a calendar and decide when the kids will be with you, and when they will be with your ex.
As anyone who has ever tried to make a parenting schedule knows, it is not that easy. The worst part is that by the time you figure out that the parenting schedule that you thought was going to work doesn't work, it has already been incorporated into a court order and is difficult to change. That is why creating a parenting schedule that works -- before you get divorced -- is so important.
Here are SEVEN TIPS to create a parenting schedule that works from the start:
1. Put your kids FIRST. Putting your kids first means creating a parenting schedule that allows them to spend enough time with you and your ex so that they can have a meaningful relationship with both of you. It also means that you don't "keep score" of who gets five minutes more time with your kids.
Putting your kids first means that sometimes you're going to have to suck it up and be alone on certain holidays when you would really rather be surrounded by your children. Putting your kids first means being an adult.
2. Think logistically. If you and your ex live two hours away from each other, then mid-week overnight parenting time is not going to work (unless you and the kids don't mind getting up two hours earlier to get to school in the morning.)
Thinking logistically also means figuring out how you are going to manage your kids "stuff" as they go back and forth between houses. Your kids are probably not going to want to cart a suitcase to school with them. So, if you and your ex exchange the kids at school (i.e. on days your ex is going to have the kids s/he picks them up from school after you dropped them off there in the morning) how are you going to deal with their clothes, toys, and other "stuff" that they carry with them from house to house?
3. Be realistic about the holidays. Deciding who gets the kids during holidays is often one of the most difficult parts of making a parenting schedule. Not only do you have to deal with your ex, but you have to deal with your ex's extended family as well. If your ex's extended family (or yours) lives far away, crafting a workable holiday schedule becomes even more challenging.
If making a holiday schedule has you tied up in knots, start by taking a good, hard look at your family's traditions. If you and your kids have spent every Christmas out of town at your ex's parent's house, chances are your ex is going to want them to continue that tradition. Meanwhile, your ex is going to have to realize that your kids are not going to spend every Christmas with his/her folks. You are both going to have to share. You will make new traditions. Like it or not, everyone will adjust.
4. Don't forget about vacations. Both parents are entitled to take vacations with the kids - even if they don't "go" anywhere! Your parenting schedule should give both you and your ex vacation time with your kids. It should also address how many weeks of vacation time each of you gets, and whether that time can be taken all at once, or can only be taken in one week blocks.
The other challenge with vacation time is scheduling it. Your parenting schedule should clearly state which of you gets first pick of vacation time in any given year.
5. Work with a calendar - preferably one with all of the major holidays on it. One of the biggest mistakes parents make when creating a parenting schedule is figuring it out in their head, without ever looking at how it works on paper. You may create a schedule that, in theory, will work fine. But, when you write it on a calendar, it turns out to be a disaster! If you work with an actual calendar from the start, you will see any scheduling problems immediately.
Using a calendar will also remind you to deal with some of the lesser holidays, and school holidays, you would otherwise forget. While you don't have to divvy up every conceivable holiday (although some parents do), you also don't want to overlook a holiday that is important to you, or a school holiday when someone has to watch the kids.
6. Don't get caught up in "One Size Fits All" thinking. Not all parents work traditional 9 to 5 jobs. Not all families are going to be okay with a parenting schedule that allows one parent to only see the kids every other weekend and one evening a week. Your parenting schedule needs to fit your family.
Every parenting schedule is unique (or, it can be). Do not allow your lawyer, your neighbor, or anyone else to convince you that you have to make a certain parenting schedule because "that is just the way it is done." This is YOUR family. You need to do what is best for all of you.
7. Be flexible and specific. Life changes. Parenting schedules need to be flexible to accommodate those changes. But, flexibility only works if you and your ex can maintain a reasonably civil relationship after you are divorced. Not everyone can do that.
If you know that working with your ex in the future is going to be difficult, then you need to very detailed and specific about your parenting schedule. Specifically list the days and times each of you gets the kids - especially on holidays. While writing a lot of detail can make you crazy, it can also save you a lot of grief later on.