Along with your financial and legal agreements a parenting plan is one of the three building blocks needed to complete uncoupling with children, whether you were married or not. In my professional experience, by far the hardest part is the emotional divorce which runs through it all. Emotional resolution can take decades to work through and never get there unfortunately.
To achieve emotional closure with your ex, to truly let go of each other and reset to neutral, is wondrous. I am not saying a sound parenting plan can cure smoldering emotional issues, but at least it can help you know where the boundaries are and potentially help the children from being caught in the middle.
Sharing the children separately sounds like an oxymoron, or impossible conundrum to achieve because parenting occurs primarily on your own time after a split. There are few exceptions usually focused on the children's life cycle events such as graduations and recurring events such as birthdays, games and recitals, for example.
Just when the children turns 18, and you think child sharing is over -- which is true on some level -- guess again. Grandchildren add new players to the family crucible and new realities multiply. There may be more competing interests than ever to consider and serve. You could say the best time is now, while the children are still young, to set a course for co-operation that is viable, knowing strong winds and challenges lie ahead.
I am of the opinion that the more clarity and definition you have in your co-parenting plan the better. For many of you, the co-parenting plan will be put away in a drawer and rarely, if ever, looked at again. For all of you though, thinking these issues through and really taking them seriously will make a world of difference, and may even help you attain the closure you desperately want and need.
Most parenting plans start with cookie cutter boiler plate language. Joint legal custody is pretty much the law of the land, whereby both parents make decisions with regards to their children. It is not meant to address what you put in their lunch box, but certainly where they go to school and what extracurricular activities your kids will do.
Then there is physical custody which is a weekday and weekend plan to share your children's time on a regular basis. Holidays and vacations interrupt the regular schedule. Lastly, there is the 'other orders' section that spells out anything else that needs to be understood, such as what defines a long distance move, one of the more painful adjustments to any parenting plan as people's lives evolve post-separation.
If taken to heart, as I am suggesting, a sound parenting plan can be good medicine for now and later. The process may be messy even when intentions are for parties to commit to being thoughtful and child-focused. That said, with patience and recommitting to the will to do better, it is entirely possible to wind up with a tailor-made document to suit your children's changing emotional, developmental and temperamental needs as well as the family's schedule.
So why take your parenting plan seriously? Here are a few tips family law attorney/mediator, Diana Mercer, and I developed in the early 2000's that are worth repeating. Remember, the best predictor of the well-being of children involved in a divorce is the amount of conflict between parents. Anything you can do to reduce conflict is worth your time and effort.
1. By thinking through and discussing the parenting plan, possible problems can be identified and resolved before the court enters the final judgment.
2. A detailed parenting plan sends a message to others, including the children, new partners, and school and court personnel, that parenting is an important priority for both parents, even if one parent assumes more hands-on time with the children.
3. A detailed and thorough parenting plan pre-empts "He Said/She Said" arguments if differing views of the co-parenting history emerge.
4. Agreements, including modifications, create a written record of what was mutually agreed to when one or both parents were thinking more clearly about the issues involved in successful and co-operative co-parenting.
5. A detailed parenting plan provides a blueprint for resolving differences without having to go to court if circumstances change, or if new partners or reluctant children want to unilaterally modify the plan.
6. Although co-parents may deviate from the parenting plan and fall into disagreement, the parenting plan still serves as a useful back-up until they return to mediation, before thinking about entering child custody litigation.
In no way should this blog be construed as advice or therapy. If you, or someone you know, has concerns or issues dealing with co-parenting, meeting with a mental health professional could be useful.