July 1, 2013
Written by Lynne C. Halem
Parenting after divorce often presents challenges to divorcing couples that neither parent imagined.
During marriage, parents frequently divide roles; one may accept responsibility for the majority of child-related tasks. This parent makes the doctors’ appointments, buys the clothing, checks the homework, arranges the play dates, and covers on snow days and sick days. The other parent may not be responsible for the day-to-day management of childcare but is also involved in the child’s routines. Perhaps he or she attends sports’ practices and games, even coaches a team, goes to teacher conferences and attends school events. In effect, labor has been divided in the childcare arena, as well as for other household and family chores and responsibilities. The family functions as a team with assigned roles, albeit not always by choice or preference. At times, one parent may resent shouldering the majority of child-related responsibilities; he or she may feel that his or her role is to be the disciplinarian and caretaker, while the other parent is the “good” one, has the fun time.
In separation parents may agree to continue in the pattern set during the marriage. The “in-charge” parent becomes the primary custodian; the other parent continues as before except now he or she may request or even demand more week day time, asking for overnights during the week and on weekends, even leaving work early to pick the children up.
The other parent is thrilled, right? He or she wanted this kind of involvement all along, wanted an active partner in child rearing, right? Yes, right, but not now. The” primary” parent may express anger and feel that the other parent is trying to usurp his or her role, even to take the children away, challenging custodial primacy.
Indeed the irony is inescapable. The parent who is no longer living with the children may feel a terrible, painful loss. Suddenly time with their children becomes a critical need. When the family was intact, this parent may have wished for more involvement with the children, but he or she accepted the divvying up of tasks without feeling a loss. Now the physical separation from the children calls for a re-ordering of roles, a shifting of priorities. The dilemma presented here may well lead to a custodial battle. In the extreme situations, guardians ad litem are appointed, parenting coordinators are hired. Parents struggle to gain rights or exert supremacy.
For couples in mediation, the situation described here may also present itself, so commonplace is this scenario and its accompanying emotions of loss and fear of loss by both parents. However, mediation offers parents the unique opportunity to work together in structuring a parenting plan that guarantees a child’s right to have two parents, each involved in his and her life. Feelings of loss on the part of the nonresidential parent need to be recognized and understood. Fear of loss on the part of the residential parent also needs to be recognized and understood. But then the parents need to move ahead; they need to capitalize on each parent’s availability and skills; they need to structure a parenting plan that is in the best interests of their children, customized, if you will, for their family. And most of all they need to recognize, as a couple, that each parent needs to contribute to the children’s growth and development, that a shared effort may well provide the optimal arrangement for all family members, regardless of how the couple elects to structure their division of labor.
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