Dear Divorce Coach:My ex and I are in the process of finalizing our divorce and have started to tackle custody of our 3 kids (11, 9, 5). We’re trying to figure out what will work best for our situation; right now, it’s not necessarily 50/50, but close. They’ll typically spend a few more days with me than with him. We’re concerned though that it feels like a lot of back and forth and would prefer to find something more stable, but when we start to discuss other options, we’re quickly overwhelmed. We’d love some suggestions or advice on how to figure this out together.

– Balancing Act

Dear Balancing Act,

It’s wonderful to hear that you and your ex-husband have arrived at a general agreement on how you’re going to handle custody of your children. That is an extremely important step. And you’re right, there’s a lot to consider and weigh as you or anyone enters this phase of your divorce. I’ll answer your question as well as provide additional context and support for others who may be in a slightly different place in their custody plan.

In most divorces involving children, how your kids will spend time with you and your co-parent is a critically important element. In many jurisdictions, a Parenting Plan is actually required as part of the Divorce Agreement.

If a co-parenting plan is required in your jurisdiction, you and your spouse can authorize a temporary custody and visitation agreement before your divorce is finalized.

The divorce process can take months, and sometimes longer.  Having a temporary custody and visitation agreement in place helps you formalize the co-parenting plan in advance, and ensures there is no disruption in the time the kids spend with both parents.

Ensure your kids stay the number one priority during the divorce process with an agreement designed to help you through issues such as:

  • Outlining the days and times your children will be with you and your spouse
  • Create a joint decision-making system you can both live with
  • Set parameters for when it’s appropriate for the children to meet a new partner of yours or your spouse’s
  • Establish child support guidelines
  • Shield your kids from the nitty gritty of your divorce communications
  • Add custom provisions for your unique situation

In other jurisdictions, there is no formal requirement, but I strongly advise you to consider creating one as it is one of the most important pieces of your divorce because it involves your child(ren)’s well-being.

Your offspring had both of you in their daily lives before the divorce and you should think rationally about what’s best for them and what is possible for you post-divorce.

Divorce through a Child’s Eyes

If you have conflict, based on the divorce, it can be difficult to think clearly about how this looks to your children.

It’s critical, however, to approach the divorce’s impact on your children with a clear head, even when other aspects of the divorce may have you reeling. There are some studies that show kids and parents ultimately benefit from some form of shared custody.

However, while shared custody has been shown to positively impact a child’s well-being, it is important to consider how co-parents manage their conflicts as that has a big influence on the child(ren) too.

It’s not the divorce that hurts kids but the conflict between their parents which means if you cannot co-parent cooperatively you should think about a custody schedule that minimizes parental interaction so your child doesn’t feel stuck in the middle whether you intend this result or not. It doesn’t have to be “your fault” to be true to the child so think about their actual experience and not what you imagine it to be.

So, in addition to sharing parenting time, it’s important to manage the entire process from scheduling to drop-offs and pick-ups so that your children do not feel the conflict that may exist between you and your ex.

Legal Custody vs. Physical Custody

When we talk about custody, it’s important to remember there are two types: physical custody and legal custody.

In general, physical custody refers to the location of the child on the various days of the week; legal custody refers to the responsibilities of making major decisions that affect the child’s welfare, including decisions regarding the health, education and religious upbringing of the child.

When thinking about a schedule for the kids, you should decide whether you will share physical custody 50/50 or whether there is another shared percentage, per parent, that works for both of you.

It is true that while 50/50 physical custody is more common now than a decade ago, it may not be the right schedule for you and your co-parent. The percentage of time you have the child may impact the child support you receive or pay.

Parenting Time (A.K.A. Visitation Schedule) Considerations:

1. Child custody schedules by age:

Infants and Toddlers: Generally, this age requires more frequent transitions to maintain a relationship with both parents as primary caregivers if that is your goal.

An important consideration is whether one parent is breastfeeding or is not working outside of the home to care for the child.

Young children: It’s a good idea to have a consistent routine for young children as they rely on stability and regularity.

They are often “fact based” at this age and can, often, adapt to more frequent transitions as long as they understand where they will be and when. They need contact with both parents too and more frequent transitions can help maintain that connection.

Tweens and Teens: Often, at this age, a child has more to manage outside the home, including schoolwork, friendships, sports and extracurricular activities.

This means it is often preferable to have a schedule that allows the child to stay for a longer period of time in one household to minimize disruption to their schedule and allow them to “settle in” one home for a period of time.

In addition, and based on feedback from families I work with, as kids get older, they want more information. Don’t drag them into the negotiations but do inform them of changes that impact their lives.

If the schedule is modified for travel or any other reason, let the child(ren) know. It helps them feel more in control of something they do not ultimately decide and builds trust into a system that asks for their heightened cooperation and organizational skills.

For teens, the resilience they can develop is invaluable.

2. The level of cooperation you and your co-parent can manage

If your relationship with your co-parent is already good, you can likely make almost any schedule work.

If it isn’t, and you do not anticipate improvement, you may need to have a schedule with some specificity, for example, choosing a neutral place like the school or an extra-curricular activity, so that picking up and dropping off does not require you to see your co-parent in person.

Remember that whatever your relationship with your former partner, and whatever your contribution to that relationship, it should not be your child(ren)’s problem at all. This means you don’t send messages through the child to your co-parent or use the child as a weapon against your co-parent. It may seem obvious but so many of us can forget, when we are upset, that it is our primary job to make sure the kids are ok. Kids are well-served when they have the love and attention of both parents. This is true even when your co-parent does things differently than you or has different beliefs. Of course, your child’s safety, physical and emotional, is a primary consideration.

If you feel unable to keep your emotions in check, away from your co-parent or child, make sure you have a coach and perhaps a therapist to help you with emotional regulation. You may be right about your co-parent but if you are upset and your child suffers too, this doesn’t help anyone at all. Begin by recognizing that differences will arise and develop a method to decide if it’s noise (unimportant to the long-term well-being of your child) or requires comment or intervention. It’s rarely the latter case and, when it does occur, it should be a conversation between co-parents and should not involve your child. They will naturally feel loyalty to both of you. That’s ok and you will not feel more secure in your relationship with your child by tearing down your co-parent.

Flexibility is always to diffuse any tension that may exist between you and your ex. Flexibility also helps to keep the child(ren) out of the conflict too.

3. Your commitment to keep the schedule, and your willingness and ability to be flexible about it will benefit your child(ren).

As you work on this, here are some questions to ask yourselves:

  • Do you or your co-parent travel for work or other reasons on an unpredictable schedule?
  • Can you or they accommodate the schedule you want without making it an issue for the kids?
  • If travel is an issue for one or both of you, it may be necessary to think through a plan before implementing a particular schedule.
  • Are you really focused on the schedule or are you thinking about your upset with your co-parent and using the schedule to escalate conflict with them?
  • Remind yourself, even if you don’t anticipate it now, you may also need flexibility and may come to appreciate the time you have for self-care too. How can you help each other be the best co-parents?

4. Right of First Refusal

Would you, or they, have the right of first refusal?

For example, if they or you can’t have the kids on one or more of the agreed upon days, would your co-parent have the option to take them?

Or, would both of you be expected to have child care in place for these instances? Thinking through the options and making them part of your Parenting Plan is a very good idea.

A joint custody solution that works for us

Once you’ve factored in all of these elements, it’s time to build a plan that works for you, your co-parent and your child(ren). The options are abundant and may be customized but, if you are sharing 50/50 custody, there are a few common practices that exist for rotating the schedule.

For examples of time sharing based on other common physical custody percentages schedules (e.g., 60/40, 70/30 and 80/20), visit www.custody exchange.com.

Co-parenting shared custody plans explained:

  • The alternating weeks schedule: Your child(ren) spend(s) 1 week with one parent and the next week with the other parent.
  • 2 weeks schedule: Your child(ren) spend(s) 2 weeks with one parent and then 2 weeks with the other parent.
  • The 3-4-4-3 schedule: Your child(ren) spend(s) 3 days with one parent, 4 days with the other parent, 4 days with the first parent and then 3 days with the other parent
  • The 2-2-5-5 schedule: Your child(ren) spend(s) 2 days with each parent and then 5 days with each parent.
  • The 2-2-3 schedule: Your child(ren) spend(s) 2 days with one parent, 2 days with the other parent and 3 days with the first parent. Then, the next week it switches.
  • The alternating every 2 days schedule: Your child(ren) switches between the parents every 2 days.

As noted previously, it is generally better for only the youngest children to have schedules that rotate every 2 days (or more).  As children get older, it may work for them to stay with one parent for longer periods of time as referenced below.

One advantage of the 2-2-5-5 schedule is having your child(ren) consistent days of the week, that is, you will always have Mondays and Tuesdays or Wednesdays and Thursdays, for example, which allow you to schedule particular lessons or events for consistent days that they are with you.

The disadvantage is a relatively short time period between transition, so it may be more practical with younger children unless your tweens and teens don’t mind the shuttling around part very much. It is a practical reality that kids are generally able to spend longer periods of time away from one parent as they get older so it is often the case that tweens and teens move to a schedule with this in mind. If they express a preference, listen to what they are sharing. However, it is also important to help them understand that you and your co-parent, as the adults, will decide the schedule. This removes any burden they may feel to “take care of” one parent and will reduce the amount of potential manipulation a tween or teen may use when they  have two homes too.

Nesting is not just for birds

All of the schedules we’ve discussed relate to moving the kids from one household to another.

A less common but possible option is called “Nesting.” This requires the co-parents to move in and out of the household instead of the child(ren).

It requires that you and your co-parent have a particularly high level of regard, respect and trust for each other, even if you live in separate bedrooms of the house.

Some co-parents even manage to share one apartment or other dwelling outside of the family home where they live when not in the family home. It isn’t generally a long-term solution and some experts recommend ending the “Nesting” exercise before either parent begins dating.

If you think Nesting can work for you and your co-parent, it can be very good for the kids to allow them to stay in one place, at least for a period of time, for their adjustment to the new reality.

Co-parenting successfully take work and partnership

In addition to the normal schedule, you should also consider how holidays, vacations, and other days off from school will work. This can all be part of your Parenting Agreement.

Often, co-parents alternate holidays and days off from school annually or, and this is the important part, in the way that best works for them and their child(ren). Your goal is co-creating a plan that is workable and keeps conflict low(er).

The key to a good Parenting Plan is good communication. This doesn’t mean you and your co-parent do not have issues between you. It means you need to be able to discuss issues related to your kids, even when you disagree, and have a method to resolve the disagreement that doesn’t drag your kids into the middle of the conflict.

Often, email is a viable way to communicate, I just recommend you keep it brief and courteous. If, however, you start to find a situation where there are multiple back and forth emails and you sense the tone escalating on either side, I suggest you move away from it quickly as it is ripe for misinterpretation when tensions are high. For example, if  agreement cannot be achieved after say three rounds of back and forth by email, you can specify, in your Parenting Plan, that you see a Parenting Coordinator or Mediator specializing in parental conflict, to get help resolving your disagreements.

It’s rare that going to court gets you the kind of decision that is helpful to you and your children.

It’s much better and more productive in the long run to figure these things out yourselves. If that’s not possible, work with a professional who is educated about you and your family, who can help you and your co-parent strategize about finding a solution that works in your particular family.

After all, a family of divorce is still that: a family, even though it now has a different form. You and your co-parent will be connected, in some form, through your child(ren) forever. Figuring out how to best navigate that dynamic and build a schedule that works for all of you will set a tone that may help you and your child(ren) for many years to come.

*Special Thanks to my young adult children as well as my bonus child, 16, for contributing their thoughts about custody schedules for tweens and teens to this column.

–  Cherie Morris