The thing about divorce is that for most people, it shakes them to the core. Everything they thought their life was going to be has suddenly changed. It feels as if the carpet has been pulled out from under them and, as a result, everyone feels a real loss of control – about their entire life! Your financial future has uncertainty, you might be facing a move, a change in jobs or re-entering the work force after years of being home caring for children. It’s no wonder people grasp to regain ‘control’.
Children and parenting are areas where control tends to become a huge issue. It’s natural to be afraid of losing connection with your children. Transitioning from naturally being a part of their everyday lives – to having to schedule time spent with them and sharing that time with your former spouse can feel like an extreme loss of control. However, the mistake often made, is looking at the schedule as ‘fair must mean equal’ and ‘equal means exact sharing of time’. The problem is this: THERE ARE SEVEN DAYS IN A WEEK! Which means sharing doesn’t and can’t always be exactly 50-50.
It’s easy to make the children’s schedule into another fight for control. Perhaps you’ve found yourself angrily thinking; “They are my children too, I have the right to half time with them”, or fearfully worrying, “I won’t stay connected to them if I don’t have them 50/50. I want shared custody”.
Ok – let’s demystify this explosive and destructive word ‘custody’. Custody doesn’t mean possession – it means decision-making, as in care, safe keeping, guardianship. Period. It doesn’t have anything to do with who sleeps where, when. That’s what a schedule is for. Custody is about how the parents see working together to make decisions about schooling, medical care, childcare, extra-curricular activities – all of those decisions that parents make when raising children.
When I ask parents “what’s most important to you?”, they almost universally answer with something like: “I want to be a part of my child’s life. I don’t want to lose the connection I have with them”. So let me ask you this: think back to your own childhood – what percentage of your childhood did you spend with your father vs your mother? Was it 70-30, 60-40, 50-50?
If you think back to what percentage of time you spent with your mother vs the time spent with your father when you were growing up, you likely can’t answer that accurately. Why? Because as humans, we measure time by the experiences we’ve had, or the memories we recall – not by the calendar or the clock. Children retell: “remember when dad would…’ or ‘remember when we went with mom to…”
This doesn’t mean that some families aren’t able to work out a plan that shares time fairly equally. Studies have clearly shown that parents should work hard to ensure children have the opportunity to spend lots of quality time with both parents. But what it does mean is that measuring success as equal 50/50 time split will likely set up the battlegrounds of a difficult transition. You are measuring the wrong thing. Quality time is what’s important – not quantity.
Let’s remember – you are getting a divorce from your spouse, you are not divorcing your children. So working out a schedule really can be as individual as each family’s circumstances and needs. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, nor ‘one way’ to do it. What’s key is that parents work together to figure out what’s best for the children in order to minimize the impact of divorce on their children. There is no greater way to shake your children’s sense of security than putting them in the middle of your tug-for-control.
Forget about 50/50. Rather, look at it through the eyes of your children. Also, consider what is reasonable and doable from your work schedules as well. If you set up a schedule that doesn’t make for the best you, how can you be at your best for your children? Look for the opportunity to spend time with your children in a way that has the minimum disruption for them and that allows you the maximum quality time together.
And unfortunately, there are some parents who have the misconception that if they can have the children half the time, they won’t be required to pay as much in child support. Maybe so, maybe not. It really depends on several factors, including your spouse’s situation, the standard of living in each home, incomes etc. So if you set the stage of shared parenting based solely around money – you could be disappointed at the outcome.
So when entering into discussion about parenting and your children’s schedules, remember that if it isn’t doable to have exactly shared time (and if someone could figure out how to cut seven in half without fracturing up our children’s lives, please let me know) – that’s not going to make or break your relationship with your children. They will remember the things you did together, the experiences you’ve shared; not the number of nights they slept at your house. Spend your energy creating quality, not fighting over quantity. Focus on ‘whole’ solutions, not the fractions.