Parenting after divorce is a challenge to all families. The roles that each parent held in the family when all parties lived in the same house no longer apply. Daily interaction patterns between parents and between each parent and each child no longer apply. In point of fact many things of old no longer apply. This should not be surprising. The family constellation has changed and all the players in the drama called family life have to reorient themselves and adjust to change. It is indeed possible that life will be easier and even better. Change does not necessarily signal trouble ; it only means that things will be different—for better or worse.
Perhaps no where is change more dramatic and requires more adjustment then in families where the divorce results in a long distance move for one parent. Here the challenges are the greatest. Weekly parenting schedules do not work; pop-in visits or pick-ups for ice cream or carpooling to a sports’ event are not possible. In short the parents are faced with planning for on-going interaction between the “away” parent and children,. Yet this is not your typical scheduling subject to adjustment and assisted by flexibility. For this is a schedule which is no longer based on weekday , weekend, and holiday/vacation time, each part of the overall yearly schedule. Instead lomg distance parenting involves not only collaboration and organization, but also ajustment to change and the willingness to relinquish, where necessary, attachments to former patterns of parenting and “fondness” for specific times of the years and in particular holiday favorites.
Consider for the moment the long distance moves of the following mediation clients:
Ruth and Alex Tamin divorced after 12 years of marriage and the raising of two children, Tom, who is 10 and in grade 5 and Marcia, who is 4, and in preschool. For reasons related to employment, Alex moved to Georgia right before the divorce was finalized. It was Alex’s thought that Ruth would move with him and thereby keep the children near both parents. While that might have been Alex’s wish, it certainly wasn’t what Ruth had in mind. Without equivocation, Ruth was absolutely clear that she intended to stay in Wayland, where they had lived together, keep the children in the Wayland Schools, and remain near family and friends as she had her whole life. Georgia was not on her horizon no matter that the children’s father would be there.
And so, the challege faced by the Tamins was to structure a parenting plan that maintained Alex’s close and loving relationship with his children despite the over 1000 miles that separated them. In effect th is was their plan
Alex would return to Mass once a month to be with the children; Ruth agreed for no less than one year, to leave the house when Alex was home(it was always for a long weekend) to give Alex time alone with the children. In addition, Ruth agreed to travel with the children to Georgia 4 times a year until Marcia was old enough to travel alone with her brother. Alex agreed to arrange for a place for Ruth to stay while the children were with him.
The parental traveling plans formed the framework of the Tamins’ parenting plan. Interspersed with scheduled trips were special plans for holidays(e.g. Thanksgiving, Christmas) and special days(e.g., children’s birthdays) Depending on circumstances, parenting was scheduled to take place in different locations. For example Alex’s family lived in Florida and as such Thanksgiving, according to family tradition, continued for the children and dad in Florida. Not to be forgotten, the children spent 3-4 weeks every summer with their father and at least one of the school vacation weeks, depending on his and Ruth’s work schedule . Obviously the travel arrangements and places to stay posed the greatest obstacles to the Tamin’s objective of on-going parental interaction. Then too the cost was not inconsequential, a cost they agreed to share.
To supplement the trips, Alex arranged for video conversations for the children on a weekly basis, did daily emails to Tom and daily telephone calls to both children. Pictures of Alex were hung in each child’s room and Ruth worked hard to encourage daily contact between father and children.
Overtime the Tamins refinded their parenting schedule and naturally as the children got older, things became easier. Each of the Tamins remarried which provided a helping hand on each parental side for transporting the children, a development that , although initially uncomfortable, helped ease the burden on each parent.
Couples who do not live as far apart have less difficulty in parenting from afar, especially if airplane travel is not involved. Then, too, as children become older even long distance air flights becomes easier when the children can travel without an adult companion. The key to effective parenting, near or far, is dependent on the parents’ joint dedication to ensuring that they will each remain parents to their children. This dedication is the core of their collaborative effort to parent together whether they live. Mediation provides the ideal environment for grappling with the complexity of long distance parenting. There is never a win/lose ethos; there is a children focus and that is the key ingredient to successful parenting.