Shared custody, or co-parenting, can range from a hot mess of terribleness to peaceful and collaborative. Here's how to do co-parenting well.
Acrimony is expensive financially (a divorce trial, on average, costs each party more than $10,000, but that figure can go up to $100,000 or more) but also emotionally, particularly for your children. According to a report for the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family, kids who’ve lived through an ugly split are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and self-esteem issues, and are more likely to drop out of school. Court-imposed outcomes also tend to be more short-lived than amicable settlements and can actually increase conflict in the long-term. “When you go to court, the winner goes yahoo, and the loser goes boo-hoo,” says Gary Direnfeld of Dundas, Ont., a social worker who specializes in family mediation and counselling. That means the "losing" parent will be less likely to follow the court order and will try to undermine the other parent in hopes of having it overturned. More collaborative processes force co-parents to achieve a mutually agreeable settlement. “Though you might have to plug your nose a bit,” says Direnfeld, “you’re likely to have a more durable agreement.”
"Treat your co-parent as a colleague,” says Cameron Shouldice, a collaborative lawyer in Toronto. Would you blow off an appointment with a co-worker? No way. Deborah Moskovitch, author of The Smart Divorce, remembers rushing home to meet her children, only to have her ex show up an hour late. “That escalates the tension,” she says.
Sit down with your co-parent (and, if necessary, a third party, such as a mediator or parenting coordinator) to set out the rules and routines of your child-rearing partnership. The more acrimonious the divorce, the more detailed your plan should be, says Moskovitch, whose own high-conflict split dragged on for seven years. How will you share birthdays and holidays? Where and when will you pick up the kids on transition days? How long will you wait before introducing a new significant other? Is it OK to post pictures of your child on Instagram? Revisit the plan every couple of years to ensure it’s still relevant, given your child’s age.
In the aftermath of a split, many parents get caught up in the notion that “fair” means sharing access 50/50. “But what makes sense for the child might not look like that,” says Nancy Cameron, a family lawyer and parenting co-ordinator in Vancouver. If Mom travels often for work, it might make sense for the kids to spend more time with Dad. If your ex has always taken your child to hockey practice, try working that into the schedule—even if it means giving up some of “your” weekend. And get your kids’ input before making any decisions. “They don’t want to be in control, but they do want what’s important to them to be taken into consideration,” says Cameron.
“Generally, ineffective communication is one of the primary causes of the break-up in the first place,” says Shouldice. That doesn’t magically change because you’re no longer a couple. If necessary, work with a coach or therapist to ensure that what you’re communicating to your co-parent is being received in the manner you intended. “This stuff is way more of an important investment than trying to outfit the second bedroom to help the kid transition to two new houses,” says Shouldice.
Email and texting lets co-parents to discuss schedules and air grievances without having to pick up the phone, chat in person or stress your child out by turning them into a messenger. That said, it's way too easy for a text or email conversation to turn ugly, cautions Moskovitch. A few rules: If you receive a message that triggers you, don't reply immediately. Take time to cool off and to objectively consider your words and tone. Try to only deal with one issue per email or text conversation. And since this is how you'd want to be treated, show respect by responding to your co-parent’s missives within 24 hours (or set specific guidelines depending on the urgency of the situation).
This one can be tough, but if you’ve got a beef, deal with it when you’re sure little ears can’t hear. Never vent your frustrations about your ex to your kids—never. “Kids are terribly conflicted if they feel they have to align with one parent or the other,” says Cameron.
Clear your schedule monthly to talk to your co-parent about your children's progress. If possible, have regular family meetings with the kids to discuss school, activities and whether the schedule is working.
You might have a few immutable rules in your house: a strict 8 p.m. bedtime, no fast food, one hour of screen time per day. Your ex, conversely, might take the kids to McDonald’s and let them stay up late watching movies. You can’t expect your co-parent to enforce the same rules you do, so try to let it go. But do sit down together and try to come to an agreement on critical values—say, religious observance or a ban on TV violence.
Empower your child to take their belongings to your ex’s place—yes, even that expensive new toy. “If it doesn’t come back, that’s OK,” says Shouldice. “It’s the kids’ stuff, and it belongs in both households. That gives them a sense of security.”
To help keep track of pickups, appointments and school events, use an online program or an app—even Google Calendar does the trick. It also helps to have both parents on the school or daycare email list.