The decision to divorce is an adult decision made by the two spouses in the relationship. It is rarely an easy or uncomplicated decision. There are many questions to be answered, many disagreements to be settled. Yet as complex a situation as is a divorce between two adults, it is far more involved when the couple has children. Now the decision-making must be focused outward. The couple will always be parents; they will always have to interact in some way. The central question is how will this interaction be structured? How will this couple decide to parent their children both individually and jointly? No matter how a couple may approach questions involving parenting after divorce, the answers are never easily derived.
This article hopes to shed some light on the hard questions that need to be asked and the fact gathering to be undertaken in order to help couples reach decisions that will enable them to reach custody agreements with reason and not rancor.
Actively Involved Parents
Let’s start with two parents who participated actively in their children’s lives. Each one is a great parent, albeit in different ways. Now at the cusp of divorce they both proclaim that, as a parent, “for the stability of the children, for the continuity of care,” each one should be named as the primary residential parent. One parent boasts of having provided the bulk of the daily oversight—the carpooling, the school visits, the doctor appointments, and on and on. The other parent also has a list—the homework help and the project oversight, the coaching of teams, the bandaging of the cuts and bruises and on and on.
Without further argument, let’s admit that each one is a great parent; each one has different roles, each one is loved by the children and each one loves them. Why debate the obvious? Yet what happens now? Where do we go with this information? Clearly a court battle will not be helpful or even productive. Clearly a battle between partisan attorneys will not be helpful and maybe not even productive. If one parent emerges from either fight as victorious, the other will always feel victimized. This is hardly a formula for future parenting.
Here’s where mediation is, without question, the vehicle of choice. The most important questions to be tackled are:
- What kind of custodial arrangement can be structured to provide the children with two loving, actively involved parents?
- How do we design the parenting plan without enshrining one parent and denigrating the other? In short, how do we capitalize on what each parent has to offer?
- What limitations in time and money have to be considered as we structure our plan? Most couples recognize that it is not only more expensive to have two homes, but also that the post-divorce family is dependent on existing sources of financing and may even need to generate new revenue sources. Ignoring the practical aspect of custodial arrangements serves nobody, least of all the children.
Thus, as we approach custodial decision making, we need to focus first on the positive, not on which parent is better or needed more or loved more—this kind of narrow posturing only leads to more problems and more complications. We need to capitalize on what each parent can and will do to complement the other. And second, we need to incorporate reality—time constraints and financial constraints into shaping the custodial paradigm. Let’s look at some hard questions:
- Where does each parent live? How close are the homes to the children’s school? How close to each other? If weekday time with both parents is part of the custodial schedule, then the parents must commit to residing within an easy commute from each other. A decision made today to live in close proximity cannot change if a parent enters a new relationship—at least not if the custodial design is to remain intact.
- Decisions on where each parent lives are not limited to their distance from each other. Each parent’s home has to be considered from other perspectives as well. For example, where will the children sleep or play or study? What kind of “stuff” needs to be in the home? How can parents offer the children two different environments without making one the “better” place? Can each home be inviting in a different way— perhaps one in the suburbs and one in city or one near the school and one near the playground?
- What kind of time constraints and outside commitments does each parent have? If both parents are working outside the home, what are their working hours? Can their work schedule be modified? Can custodial schedules be complimentary to outside commitments and requirements? For example if one parent has to travel for work, can the other parent be available to take care of the children, and what kind of juggling and notifications are needed to make such “switches” as seamless as is possible?
- What are the family’s budgetary needs? Can they reduced or redirected in order to accommodate the increased cost of two homes? Can additional income be generated to cover new costs?
Custodial Agreements & Parenting Plans
The creation of a custodial agreement and parenting plan is hard work; it requires separating each parent’s individual wants and needs from the central question of what will work best for the children. How do we, as a parenting couple, provide our children with the best we can give to them? How do we, as parents, work together to demonstrate, in word and in deed, that we will always be parents together, even after divorce? Mediation offers couples the opportunity to problem solve together, to create a plan which rewards flexibility but also provides the necessary predictability and structure for all family members to move forward—separately and together.
Dr. Lynne C. Halem is the director at the Centre for Mediation & Dispute Resolution in Wellesley, MA. Dr. Halem has worked in the mediation field since 1982. She is on the Family Dispute Service Panel of the American Arbitration Association and a past board member of the Divorce Center, Inc. Dr. Halem served two terms as President of the Massachusetts Council of Family Mediation. She has been featured in Boston Globe and Boston Herald articles on divorce mediation and has appeared on television and radio programs as an expert in the field of mediation and alternative dispute resolution.
Dr. Halem is a recognized specialist in family policy and family law with a masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate from Harvard University. She is the author of two scholarly books on divorce: Divorce Reform: Changing Legal and Social Perspectives (Free Press of Macmillan, 1980), a featured selection of the Lawyers' Literary Club, and Separated and Divorced Women (Greenwood Press, 1982), a Choice book of the year selection for academic excellence. She has served as a consultant to corporations in the public and private sectors and taught at various colleges and universities.