The color “gray” is commonly defined as a color between black and white having a neutral hue.
A recent mediation I did illustrates the similarity between this color and success in mediation.
Not long ago, a young couple came to me for help in creating a parenting plan for their 2 year old son. The parents are not married. Both are well-educated and have promising careers. Mom moved to Maryland for Dad’s job. They separated a short time ago and desire to move forward amicably.
What seemed like a relatively simple situation actually was not. It was simple in the sense that the parents held no assets or other property jointly. They had little money to argue over. Their toddler was developing normally. They had good communication with each other and their arrangement for primary physical custody with Mom and shared decision-making was working out, so far. However, substantial complications lay below the surface. While each parent desired to build a loving and enduring relationship with the child, and wanted the other parent to be able to do the same, each parent had a very different vision for what that would look like in the future.
They began to negotiate, often in voices choked with sadness, or muffled by tears, sometimes with anger, and mostly with empathy. Most of their questions began “what if.”
What if, they asked each other, and I occasionally asked them, Mom moved with the child to the state where she had a strong support system of family and friends and many work connections? Would their present parenting arrangement remain amicable? How would Dad continue to parent and bond with his son under those circumstances? When did Mom contemplate moving? What if, after such a move, Dad lost his academic position in Maryland and had to move elsewhere for work? Or chose to do so for a better job? Would he consider work in the state where Mom planned to relocate? What if his family wouldn’t, or couldn’t, help him with occasional child care when the child visited him wherever he lived? How would he manage? What if he couldn’t afford to travel regularly to another state to visit his child? What if, at some point, Mom could no longer afford to, or chose not to, bring the child to Maryland to visit Dad? How would Dad maintain a close relationship with the child? How often did they think they should re-evaluate provisions of their parenting plan as their son grew older and the parents’ situations changed? What if they decided not to file an agreed custody action and their parenting plan with a Maryland court now? How could they enforce their agreement later, if necessary? If Mom relocates, under what circumstances would that state obtain jurisdiction over the child?
The couple struggled to answer these questions. They understood that some of their concerns would require legal advice from separate counsel, an expense they sought to avoid or at least minimize. And, in more than one instance, they would have been relieved to have me provide answers--a role I resisted. Instead, they strove impressively throughout the mediation process to remain true to themselves, while bargaining from a place of love for their child. As they considered carefully the risks attendant to their many options and future uncertainties, they came to understand that the commonality of their underlying interests and those of their son far outweighed their initial, more rigid, positions about who had the superior plan for moving forward. In short, Mom and Dad taught each other that one was not “right” and the other was not “wrong.”
Ultimately, they arrived at a mutually agreeable parenting plan.
Their struggle was a vivid reminder of what a great privilege it is for a mediator to sit alongside parties and serve as a facilitator while they navigate risks and uncertainties that will resonate in their parent-child relationships long after mediation concludes. Creating a safe space in which parties like this couple can exercise self-determination requires patience, curiosity, and, above all, neutrality, on the part of the mediator.
That’s why gray is my favorite color.
Nancy B. Shuger is based in Maryland. After retiring as a trial judge in 2011, she launched her mediation business. Her practice is multicultural, focusing primarily on family, small business, workplace, and congregational matters. She is experienced in, and enjoys, working with self-represented parties.