Written by: Toni Foot
Divorce (or separation) is never pleasant, but when children are involved the situation can become much more complex and emotionally charged. It is difficult to set aside personal feelings and decide upon a schedule that meets the needs of all involved, but that is what MUST happen for the benefit of your children. Although it might feel like the best thing for your children would be for the other parent to disappear, in reality your children have the right to spend time with both of their parents. Keep in mind that shared parenting schedules should be created with the children’s best interests at heart, not the personal feelings of the parents. With this in mind, a ‘fair’ share of time between parents would be 50% with each parent (and this might be just what the children need too). However, what seems fair to the parents might not, in truth, be best for the children so parents may have to accept a less ‘fair’ but more realistic schedule if that benefits the children.
Consider the needs of those involved:
Age of the children
For particularly young children (such as new babies) a long period of time away from their primary carer may not be good for them (especially if they are breastfed as this may affect their feeding patterns). Similarly, long periods of time between visits with their other parent could be detrimental as they need regular contact to form attachments with both parents. If you have a new baby when you separate (or afterwards) then consider short, regular contact arrangements (such as an hour or two every day or alternate days). You may also have to consider tolerating each other’s company during visiting times to ensure your child does not become distressed whilst they are very little.
On the other hand, if your children are older (particularly as they approach teenage) then they should have the opportunity to have some input into planning a schedule. There may be particular routines or events that they want to be involved in with one or other parent. Ultimately, visits are for the benefit of the children, not the parents, so children’s views should be considered carefully.
If both parents can be available to offer care around school times then a schedule involving weekdays could be considered. However, if one parent works long days while the other is at home, then a ‘50/50’ share of time may not be good for the children as they will probably not see much of the working parent during the week. In this case, try to decide on when the children would benefit from being with the working parent most (weekends, holidays, or when the parent can take time off).
It may be more sensible to have less frequent, longer visits if parents live a long distance apart. In this case, other forms of communication should be encouraged to maintain relationships with the absent parent. Letters, e-mail, phone calls or other digital interfaces (skype or facetime for example) can all help to continue relationships over distances.
Separation is unsettling and emotional for children. Try to establish a routine that is consistent so that they know what is happening and when they can expect to see both parents.
• Alternate weekends. This is a popular arrangement as the children spend weekdays with parent A, then spend alternating weekends with parent A and parent B. This gives the children regular contact with parent B whilst limiting the impact of staying away from home during weekdays. This is a good arrangement if one parent works and would struggle to care for the children around their working hours. It can lead to the children feeling as though parent B is ‘just for visits’ as parent B will inevitably (and understandably) want to make their limited time with the children fun rather than normal daily life.
• Alternating weekends with a midweek visit. This has the same benefits as above, but adds in a midweek visit (usually after school but not overnight) to make sure they don’t have to go a whole week without seeing one of their parents.
• Alternating weeks (for example, Sunday evening to the next Sunday evening). This arrangement allows extended time with both parents so that the children get the same time with each one. This has huge benefits for the children as both parents can take a true parenting role, rather than one becoming viewed as ‘just for visits’. However, it does depend upon both parents being able to offer care outside of school, and both parents being able to get the children to school each day. It also relies upon significant communication between parents to ensure continuity for the children.
• Alternating weeks with a midweek visit. This has the additional benefit of allowing extended time with both parents whilst maintaining contact throughout the week with both parents. The midweek visit could be an overnight stay, or could be just an evening.
• Alternating days or groups of days (such as 3 days with each parent). This is a great way to maintain really regular contact with both parents and allow both parents to be part of every day life for the children. The alternating nature will mean that the children spend both weekdays and weekends with both parents so it works out a ‘fair’ split of time. The downside to arrangements like this though, is that they can become disruptive as the children may not be able to follow the schedule if they are quite young, leading to them feeling unsettled.