Accommodating for children of divorced parents isn’t built into most communities, writes family lawyer Eric Letts. It takes a community to raise a child, especially one with divorced parents.
I am a family law lawyer and my wife, Dr. Lauren Donen is a physician (child psychiatrist). We each have two children from previous relationships. Perhaps we talk about the dynamics of separated parenting more than most families. About seven years ago, we saw in our respective legal and medical practices that separating parents were so overwhelmed at separation/divorce and their lives so in flux that they were rarely in a good position to commit to a long-term parenting plan. Unfortunately, the legal system forced a commitment to a parenting schedule as part of the comprehensive settlement of property, support and other issues.
To address this, we developed a “best practices” parenting plan that dealt with a lot of the scheduling problems and power struggles that separated parents and their children often encountered. The plan was based upon a split week schedule with:
1. The children residing with the one parent every Monday and Tuesday,
2. The children residing with the other parent every Wednesday andThursday,
3. The children alternating weekends at each of their homes from Friday through Monday morning, and
4. All exchanges take place at school, daycare or summer camp.
The benefits of the schedule were:
1. Parents ‘owned’ their days. Each parent controlled the programming for the days the children were at their house. If they wanted their child to play soccer, they could find a soccer league on their days; the other parent wanted Boy Scouts, they could do it on their days;
2. Parents could plan for the days when they did not have their children. They could join weekly classes (finish a degree etc.) or groups (bowling league, etc.) without fear of missing time with their children or having to hire a babysitter.
3. The children enjoyed regular time with their parents and because they were never away from either house for an extended period, they stayed connected to both of their families and communities. Having the exchanges at school normalized the children’s experiences because their was no extra-event in their week of, say, a meet-up at a donut store parking lot with a cold-war style exchange between one parent and the other with stressful interactions about splitting the cost of pizza-day and arguing over who has the children’s school photos.
4. Children had an easier time participating in community league sports and activities, letting them get away from both their parents and be exposed to other role models to help them develop social and life skills.
Unfortunately, even with our respective clients being happier less unhappy, many of the problems they experienced with their parenting schedules were beyond a solution that a child’s two homes could offer. Our communities were not designed with separated children in mind.
All of the local family law lawyers (in Ottawa) agreed to promote one particular parenting plan to their separating and divorced clients. Clients had the option of joining the schedule being aware that there was a likelihood that other children in their child’s class would be on the same schedule and the above benefits.
After a couple years, there were enough children on the same parenting plan, that the local school bus service will cater to the schedule, the municipal day care was selling ½ spots based upon the schedule and local sports teams were adjusting their schedules to offer activities on either the Monday/Tuesday parent’s days or the other parent’s days. We found that sports teams and daycares were already seeking a solution to the issue of “separated parents” already. They are tired of coaches and daycare staff having to act as ‘mini-mediators’, interpret court orders and settle scheduling disputes. We had a retired air traffic control engineer do a study and found that a service provider has to do more than 20x the communications for children with separated parents on random parenting schedules versus a children with one home or on a common schedule.
We have a model that provides a solution to children with separated parents. The model is not all things to all people, but it solves a lot of problems for a lot of people. Working on the solution is much more rewarding than practicing family law and I look forward to moving into doing this on a full time basis. We are experimenting with models to fund the project’s expansion with keeping the parenting plan free to any parents that want to opt-in.
Eric Letts is the Director of the Fair Parenting Project, which promotes a fair parenting schedule for children with parents who live separately. The schedule provides a framework for separated parents to nurture their children’s development and growth while facilitating each family member’s potential to pursue their own fulfilling, useful and autonomous life pursuits.
—photo by corsi photo/Flickr