Separation and divorce are a time of much confusion. Advice pours in from every corner of your universe. Family and friends are often the most vocal, prone to sharing in vivid detail lengthy descriptions of the pitfalls awaiting your every move. They provide advice on how you need to act, what you need to say, and most of all, what you need to do. Although much of their advice pertains to finances, replete with dire warnings of a bleak future of receiving too little or paying too much, the area of custody and parenting is by no means exempt from the opinions of these well-meaning doomsayers. Women, who were the primary caretakers in the family, may be urged to hold tight to the children, as they represent a card to be played when bargaining for money. If you are asking for sole custody, be willing to be more flexible for a good deal. Men, who were not the primary caretakers, are warned that they may well lose their children—a divorce resulting not only in the end of marriage but also of being a parent. If asking for joint custody, be willing to settle for a flexible and liberal arrangement.
Not to be forgotten in the midst of all this turmoil, with all the “good” advice keeping you up at night and rendering you incapable of making rational decisions, is the simple but elegant question of “What is the best parenting plan for your children?” How do you fashion a plan that is truly in the best interests of your children, not any one else’s children? Unfortunately, the answer is not simple; there is no boilerplate custodial plan that works best for every family. Parenting plans should be unique to each family. Therefore, you ask, how does a divorcing parent proceed? To whom do you listen for advice? Isn’t custody an area of negotiation, not really that different in concept and in practice from support and the division of assets? In a sense, custody is of course an area to be negotiated, as are all areas. Yet here, more than in any other aspect of divorce, you both, as parents, are responsible for caring for and protecting your children. You must, not should or could, design a parenting plan that is truly in your children’s best interests.
How, then, do truly committed parents go about fashioning a parenting plan that will be in their children’s best interests?
Here are some guidelines to consider:
Outline your children’s schedule—time in school, lessons and activities, and other commitments. Use a calendar to fill in their present schedule.
Outline each parent’s schedule, including work and personal commitments. Consider where schedules have flexibility. Could you, for example, work longer on one day and come home earlier on another day? Could you work from home? Are you returning to work or changing employment or will there be any other change that will affect your availability to be with the children?
Consider children’s routines, such as bedtimes, meal times, and the like.
Armed with this broad-stroke kind of information, discuss seriously what you think of different parenting schedules apart from any considerations of money, including child support. Forget labels, such as joint custody, in your discussions. It is important to recognize that although child support formulas in Massachusetts base child support on the amount of time each parent spends with the children, a time-based approach may not produce an optimal arrangement. If, for example, one parent earns significantly more than the other parent and has a more intensive and less flexible work schedule, the parents may still agree to structure a shared custodial arrangement, based on one parent assuming more of the afternoon and /or morning child care coverage.
This arrangement may well meet the needs of the children and fulfill the objective of having a parent be the childcare provider of choice, assuming that he or she has the time available. The arrangement, although clearly not a fifty/fifty division of time, may satisfy this family’s needs. One parent has more available time and wants to have more time with the children; the family has more disposable income since neither parent has to reduce his/her employment commitment to care for children or has to employ a third party as a child care provider. The parents agree to designate their commitment as a shared custodial arrangement and agree that if work commitments change, less for one and/or more for the other, they will modify their arrangement to accommodate the changes, including hiring of a babysitter to be available during the time that both parents are working. Their pledge to each other and to the children is for both parents to be available to the children, for the children always to have two parents who love and care for them.
Obviously any arrangement may undergo change in the future. The parent with the heavy work commitment may want to spend more time with the children, thereby negotiating at work for more flexibility in his/her schedule. At times a weekly division of time with each parent is helpful, allowing one parent to work longer hours on some days of the week in exchange for fewer hours on the days when the children are scheduled to be with him or her. And, too, children’s schedules change overtime, necessitating revisions of the parenting plan.
It is important not to get stuck in a fixed schedule. Parents need to and should periodically review their schedule with consideration of children’s needs and, too, parental needs. The message to parents is really quite simple:
Forget labels if they get in the way of structuring a parenting plan that meets the needs of all family members
Be flexible when tying support to custody; do not count minutes and hours with the intent of increasing or decreasing support. Support should reflect budgetary needs; custody should reflect children’s needs. Sometimes they overlap; other times they are contradictory to the well-being of the family.
Mediation offers a process for structuring a parenting plan that is based on children’s needs and safeguards each parent’s right to remain actively involved in his or her children’s lives. It is the mediator’s responsibility to help you plow through the confusion of different custodial arrangements, by focusing on the needs of your family and your family’s circumstances. In a confidential and nonjudgmental environment, couples learn to communicate openly, expressing their concerns as well as their priorities. There is no prize for winning, since there is no winner. Custody is all about the children. The parents should and must focus on how they can best care for their children, today and tomorrow.
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