Written by it's over easy Founder & C.E.O. Laura Wasser, Esq.
Without question, one of the biggest hurdles in a divorce is how to deal with shared custody.
In many post-dissolution relationships, custody disputes are the gifts that just keep giving. And it’s not so much about physical custody or shared time, but, rather, the issues incident to legal custody: your children’s health, welfare, academics and the general topics that are sometimes tough to deal with, even when the parents are on the same page and under the same roof.
When parents split up, there are often shifts in thinking, with regard to many of the tacit agreements made during marriage. Your ex-wife’s agreement to immunize in the normal course falls by the wayside, when one of the members of her women’s group warns that vaccination equals autism. Your ex-husband’s agreement to raise the kids Jewish and get on the Bar/Bat Mitzvah track becomes a pipe dream. Decisions regarding which school your children will attend, in which extracurricular activities they will participate, whether or not they will go to sleep away summer camp, be allowed to use a cell phone, receive allowance or even pierce their ears, all become major debates that can open whole new channels of hatred between you and your co-parent.
As I have written in past articles, and told many a client and friend: pick your battles.
Although, it is true that there are few things more soul crushing than making it through a week of potty training, only to have your 2 ½ year old returned to you after a weekend in diapers.
I have a friend who tried to discipline her 15 year-old daughter by taking away her cell phone for a month, after my friend discovered a second, and far more salacious, Instagram account that her daughter had opened. Three days into the punishment, the teen arrived home from a weekend at Dad’s with a new phone, new number, new Instagram account(s). WTF?!
Why can’t parents get on the same page when it comes to raising their children? In some cases, it’s an intentionally passive aggressive (or massive aggressive) move to curry favor with the children and become the most loved parent. Sometimes, it’s a simple lack of consideration (the same kind of behavior that you loved so much when you were a couple). Or maybe it’s laziness about discipline and boundary setting. Whatever the reason, you cannot, in most instances, go running back to court for every infraction. Even if you could, many of the issues co-parents face are not enforceable by a court. (For better or worse, there are no pacifier police who will intervene after you have painstakingly weaned your toddler from the paci, and your ex pops one in his mouth because, during her custodial time, “He wouldn’t go to sleep without it and then….it looks so cute and seems to make him happy when he has it – what’s another couple of months?”)
Big-ticket items, however, like religion, academics and medical (the immunization debate goes on despite the laws enacted in many states that ALL children must be vaccinated in order to attend public and private schools) are within the Family Court’s jurisdiction to determine. But this is a costly endeavor. Not to mention, long after the gavel has banged, you are left to deal with a bitter parent who refuses to participate in church events, notwithstanding the court’s decision that your kids continue to attend Catholic school.
My office often advises parents to work with a co-parenting counselor who can help resolve difficult issues without the need for court intervention. Better communication tools, compromise and input from a neutral third party are all beneficial, in certain situations.
Many jurisdictions also give parties the ability to stipulate or agree to let the Court appoint a Special Master or Parenting Plan Coordinator, who has the discretion to make binding decisions on limited issues surrounding custody.
But really, this article is about the every day coping you do with someone who has equal power, but completely different ideologies about the most important beings in your universe.
A few things to keep in mind:
First, plenty of people were raised with only one good parent, and they turned out fine. Actually, some of the most accomplished people I know had little or no parental guidance. (I grew up in the 80’s.) Be the best parent YOU can be to your kids. Don’t spend so much time worrying about what is or isn’t going on over there.
Next, take the high road – no shit talking about your co-parent. Remember, the way your kids see it is that you bad-mouthing their other parent is you bad-mouthing a part of them. They can’t help that you chose someone with whom to share their DNA.
And hold strong. Be consistent. Set boundaries.
Kids crave consistency (even if they don’t know it), and psychologists tell us that boundaries make kids feel safe. Yeah, you will be the bad guy, the mean mom or uncool dad. But they will get it. They may already get it. While you may feel unappreciated for your efforts, believe me, your kids know. On some, perhaps even subconscious, level, they recognize. There is no need to shove it in their faces.
I have a friend from college, Molly. At her mom’s 60th, she made a toast. It was taken from an essay she wrote in college called, “Mom, I Always Knew.” It harkened back to when she was a kid. Her parents had split up, and she and her sister would spend Wednesdays and alternate weekends with their dad. He would let them wear make-up, stay up as late as they wanted, talking on their princess phone and watching TV in their room. He never made them cook or help clean up because they mostly went out to eat, and he had a housekeeper who came three days a week. At Molly’s mom’s house, there was only one phone line, and there was no TV in Molly’s room. She wasn’t allowed to watch TV on school nights. There were chores and a curfew and lots of yelling and eye rolling and door slamming. But Molly’s essay, and the toast she later shared with her mother and her 60th birthday party guests, spoke of the strength and sense of safety her “mean mom” imparted, simply by being the stronger parent: the parent who said no; the parent who made decisions and stuck to them, even when it wasn’t easy or popular; the parent who often cried herself to sleep because she was certain that her daughters hated her, loved their dad more and would ultimately love whomever he ended up with and want that person to be their mom. But, as Molly’s essay pointed out, she and her sister always knew her to be the stronger parent. Even if they didn’t show it at the time, they respected her for her resoluteness. Yes, they thoroughly manipulated and took advantage of their father’s laissez-faire parenting, but they knew who had the strength and power in their world – who made it all happen. Their mom was their rock, their safe place, and when they became parents, they wanted to be just like her.
Stay healthy. Try not to allow toxicity to infect your custodial time or your parenting experience. Roll with the punches, as much as is reasonably possible, and see whether you can turn negative experiences into opportunities to teach your child something valuable. If you sign up and pay for piano lessons, and your ex continuously fails (or refuses) to facilitate practice or to take your child to those lessons on his/her days, learn from the experience. When scheduling the next activity, see whether the class or instructor can be flexible and offer alternate weeks, so you can go on your days only and not have to depend on anyone else. At a certain point, your kids will be of an age where they can take some responsibility for their commitments. But for now, ask your kids, “Do you want to take piano?” If the answer is “Yes,” then make certain they understand the commitment involved with practicing and attending lessons.
My friend Cyrus’ ex was angry, and she co-parented with a vengeance. Despite that it made her son uncomfortable, she generally “forgot” to pack his pajamas or special blanket, when it was Cyrus’ custodial time. At the outset, Cyrus would get frustrated, text his ex about what an asshole she was and let her behavior set the course for his precious time with their son. Eventually, Cyrus figured out how to replicate the special blanket, stocked up on PJ’s and anything else necessary for peaceful overnights. Most importantly, he taught his son, at a relatively early age, how to go through and make a list of anything and everything he wanted to pack to bring to his dad’s house. Now, his 18-year-old has gone off to university a super well-adjusted college student who is organized, responsible and makes a mean checklist.
The definition of co (as in co-parenting) is “together, mutually in common.” Cooperation, compromise, co-exist, communication all start with co, and each lends itself to a successful co-parenting relationship. Navigating the obstacle course of parenting can be exhausting – particularly when your co-parent is not much of a co. But as they say, parenting is the best job you will ever have. If you cannot adjust and adapt to the daily trials and tribulations, you are short-changing your child and yourself. Remind yourself why you procreated with your ex in the first place and try to see the good in her/him – even when it’s tough. Then, think about how happy you are that your interactions with this person are limited to those that involve your offspring. Do your best to get through them with grace and strength of character.
You got this.