Americans are waiting longer to marry these days, with some deciding marriage is an antiquated institution that they want no part of according to a Pew Research Study. But that doesn’t stop couples from cohabiting and even having children together.
So, what does that mean for divorce and co-parenting?
Well, obviously, if they’ve never married, going through the legal process of divorce is eliminated, but these parents still face the rigors and questions of co-parenting in two homes and as a result, family law attorneys see plenty of cases with never-married couples who want to legally codify a parenting plan to guide their lifelong responsibilities and ensure financial security for their children.
The divorce rate in America has been steadily falling for some time, but the downward trend of marriage in America isn’t that significant – yet. The 2019 Pew study reported that 58 percent of Americans were married in 1995 and now, it’s 53 percent. The study also revealed that more than three-quarters of young adults today are comfortable with the idea of living with a partner outside of marriage; and it’s not surprising that views about marriage vary according to religious affiliation.
But even with all of these changes in how people are now viewing marriage and parenting, married adults show higher levels of happiness in their relationships, along with more trust, than unmarried cohabiting couples.
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Today, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the divorce rate is 2.3 per 1,000 people. And, more people were married in 2021 than in 1960 – perhaps due to a more robust nationwide population!
A lot of factors influence whether a person is likely to marry, cohabitate or stay single. Regardless, we are definitely in an age when the question of parenting exists outside of and separate from the question of marriage. If children are the future, then isn’t it wise for unmarried parents to commit to protecting their relationships with their children even when they themselves are no longer a couple.
Could this impact where we are in a decade or two from now? Who knows!
There are events in a child’s life that are important, and it doesn’t matter whose day it is. Like the first day of school.
So long as there isn’t a court order prohibiting it, both parents can and should be there to support their child, regardless of Parenting Time designations.
A Parenting Time schedule doesn’t exclude either parent from their child’s special events. It could be a soccer match, a choir concert, a dance recital, or the first day of school. If they want to be there, they can and should.
(The only exception to this would be in the event of a Personal Protection Order (PPO), or “no contact order,” that orders a parent to not be in the presence of the other parent or the child.)
But different parents have different perspectives.
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When it comes to back-to-school, it’s important that divorced parents be on the same page to best support their children. Even if one parent holds the bulk of planning!
What a lot of parents don’t think about is the costs involved in going back to school. New clothing, books, notebooks. School supplies can be quite expensive. Even in less privileged areas, there are resources parents need to be aware of to acquire the items their children need for school.
Children also need guidance to transition from the freedom of summer, often with later bedtimes and different daily schedules, back to the routine of the academic year. It’s important for parents to be on the same page to make all the back-to-school preparations go smoothly.
Who will acquire the school supplies?
Will you share costs?
Will you both honor a transitional model to ease bedtime earlier?
For school supplies, it varies as to how things get done – some parents go together, some alternate years of responsibility, and in other families, one parent acquires everything, and the other parent reimburses for half the expenses.
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The focus should always be on what do the kids need? And, not just materially but emotionally from their parents as well.
We can’t stress enough looking at your children’s needs and how you can make back-to-school smooth and easy for them.
Maybe you step back from something because it’s not worth the fight. If the child has anxiety about returning to school, make sure the other parent knows about it, so you can both support the child. Communicate that information. And if you are the parent receiving that information, respond to your co-parent. Show appreciation and share ideas for how to help them.
When you’re communicating with your co-parent, you know how they respond to you, so watch your wording so what you have to share really gets through for the benefit of the children.
Use questions instead of directives. You’ll get further for the benefit of your child.
It’s the hardest thing to sometimes step back and put your desires and feelings aside to benefit your child or meet your child’s needs.
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We always say, “I would do anything for my kids.” But would you? Do you?
When it comes to back-to-school, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed because there is so much to get done; it’s easy to feel angry or resentful because of your co-parent’s lack of involvement or assistance. It’s also easy to feel competitive with your co-parent, to want to edge them out and be the only one accompanying your son or daughter to school. You might feel you’re losing out if you’re not involved with something.
But all of these emotions are about you, not at all about your child.
“The best interests of my child” is not always where a parent’s heart leads. We are all human, and it’s natural to feel an array of emotions at the beginning of a new school year.
But be the mature one. Recognize your emotions, where you feel it in your body, and sit with it. Try to put it in a box, and make your child your priority. Deal with your feelings on an adult level in an adult way. It’s hard, but this is the proof of good parenting.
I’m not saying divorced parents should throw out the parameters they established for co-parenting. I’m saying that when kids are out of school, some attending camp, others at home during the day, it’s important to be “giving” with your ex so that Parenting Time can flow with your children’s schedule changes.
If we look at Parenting Time as “the kids’ time” and are not possessive of our children’s time, it can be easier to just let it flow with their schedules.
Think about if you were still married – you would take into account that your kids go to camp, or have a job, or have another out-of-the-ordinary schedule and you would try to balance the time that they’re home so that you can enjoy them as their schedules allow.
Summer is also a good time to try a different schedule. For instance, if you’re thinking of moving toward a more equal parenting time schedule, it’s better for your children if you and their co-parent can try it out during the summer months to see how your children adjust rather than doing so for the first time at the beginning of the school year.
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Just letting it flow in the summer means parents can plan some good down time when the kids are not bound by school and extracurricular demands. That doesn’t mean they have to go away on a vacation; it’s an opportunity to spend more time with them, if you can arrange it with work schedules, doing fun things, creating memories.
As a working mom, I found summers stressful because I had to find activities for my daughters when they were young, schedule camps they would enjoy and find caregivers. There were hours during the day I needed to be at work and my husband’s schedule was not flexible, so it was important to plan ahead and to be organized because my job doesn’t take a summer vacation!
Imagine how much harder that can be when you’re divorced!
A good child therapist or family law attorney might have ideas and resources to help you through this. In my role as a divorce attorney, I don’t limit myself to the law. If I can help parents with ideas for summer camps based on my own experiences, I do so! Sometimes working parents don’t have resources to help them navigate the summer months, and we as attorneys and professionals can be that resource because we’ve had experiences, both professionally and personally.
Either way, if you can be looser in the summer to allow some flexibility for your children, do it. You won’t be sorry!
It’s like a pendulum swinging from one extreme to the other, and I hope to eventually see it settle in some middle ground with the focus solely on what is best for the children.
This change began when I started my career in family law in the early 1990s. I cannot remember a case where it was an automatic win for the mom. Yes, moms were still favored, but it wasn’t automatic.
Over the last 20 years, it’s really intensified, as newly-elected judges brought their perspectives on the idea of parenting time to the bench. Sometimes it feels like it doesn’t matter what the law says.
You can walk into one judge’s courtroom and know that they are a “50/50 judge,” which means they start from an assumption of equal parenting time and if you want it to be something different, you better show a good reason why. It is really difficult to get them to move.
Litigation in such a courtroom is quite challenging when you know there is a good reason to skew the amount of time children spend with one parent or another, or even just where they will lay their heads at night. Sometimes it’s as simple as the roles parents played while they were married. You can’t draw a sharp line in the sand when you split, making everything change immediately.
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When one parent has been the primary caregiver, it’s uncomfortable not only for the parent but for the children, to suddenly be ousted from their job or role and the whole family thrown into a very different routine.
It’s challenging, too, for the non-primary caregiver, who may have no idea about a lot of what goes into taking care of a toddler or school schedules or carpooling and they’re forced to step into a very different role without guidance or transition. They may be too proud to ask for help.
A divorce is often not the most collegial of processes, which means parents on both sides may feel uncomfortable asking the other for guidance in their new role. Which is exactly what they need.
When you get into court, you’re positioned against each other so instead of recognizing these natural human elements, it becomes a fight, where they won’t talk about or look at options.
If we want to move towards promoting more equal parenting time, then depending on the real life situation, it may be best to move toward that point in stages.
That way, it’s less disruptive for the children, while giving time for both parents to transition into new roles.
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Depending on the ages of the kids, I recommend giving six months or a year to make a change, giving both parents space to learn about their new role. The kids also can gradually transition into the changes.
In the divorce world, most attorneys fail to and some even refuse to talk about the impact of all of this. The focus is instead on the outcome . I wish we recognized how kids bear the brunt of adult decisions. For instance, they’re the ones shuffling back and forth between two homes – not the adults who initiated the divorce!
I yearn for a time when divorcing parents can put their hurt and anger aside in exchange for a focus on their children, who didn’t ask for any of this. This means not just talking the talk, but showing it by the compromises and agreements they make. Parenting time must be about the children – not about the parents!!
I prefer to look at parenting time as the parent’s opportunity to spend time with that child, on the child’s schedule. Whether you’re a mom or a dad, you can and should be more involved in school, spend more time with your children doing things of interest to them, and cherish this time, even if it’s not an overnight.
It takes humility on both parents’ parts to recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and cooperation to work together, but in this model the focus is completely on the children. Which is how it should be.
When people divorce, they are often so muddled, they can’t figure out how to succeed at coparenting. But here are some tips for how to set yourself – and your ex – on the path for success because your kids deserve it.
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Take 24 hours to cool down before you react to something that pisses you off.
Close your eyes and consider how you want to experience your child’s wedding, graduation or other significant event in the future – how do you want that to feel and look, for your child?
Do you think they want to remember parents fighting or sitting on opposite sides of the auditorium? Or would they want you to be sitting together in the same section?
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At the same time, respect each other’s boundaries. Don’t take your co-parent’s desire to be friendly as an invitation to be friends.
Friendly means you can work together – it doesn’t mean I want to have family dinner all the time, or when you drop off the kids, I’m inviting you in.
Enjoy your down time, your time away from your kids. Don’t see it as a punishment. Don’t call them all the time to check up on them. See it as a gift you’re giving to your kids.
And to yourself.
Accept that your coparent isn’t going to do everything the same way you do. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong or bad.
Obviously, there are cases where it is wrong AND bad, but that should not be your first assumption.
Newly divorced moms especially have a hard time when they’re not seeing their kids everyday. It’s helpful in those cases, and can lead to a good coparenting relationship, if the parent who’s not feeling that way can understand their ex’s emotions, and gives them time to ease into the new routine.
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Be as gracious to your ex as you want them to be to you.
There are no universal rules for good coparenting, for a parenting schedule, for how to coparent. Nothing is black and white.
Coparenting success is particular to every situation, life experience, emotion and family. That’s why a law that dictates automatic 50/50 parenting time is a terrible idea. It doesn’t take into account the human side of what you’re going through.
It’s nice when you acknowledge the other side. Remind the kinds of their other parent’s birthday or their other family’s special occasions. Even spring for a gift so your child doesn’t have to count their pennies to buy a gift. It’s not only gracious – it’s a teaching moment for your kids, too.
Don’t fret the little things. If money has been an issue between the two of you, paying bills and expenses for the kids, and you have a $3 copay at the pediatrician’s office, do you really have to ask for that $1.50?
Be comfortable with what you want to do. Don’t expect there to be equity on the other side.