If you and your child’s father are committed to co-parenting your children even after your final divorce decree is entered, you’re going to have to make a commitment to each other to continually and consistently put the children’s needs ahead of your own.
It may sound easy, but it’s not, especially if you’ve spent the last year (or more) involved in a heated (or even not so heated) divorce or custody case. Getting a divorce is difficult in every way, and it can be hard both to maintain focus on the things outside of the divorce that truly matter (like parenting your children) and also to forgive your ex husband for everything that he did during that time (not to mention everything he did beforehand to bring you to divorce).
Whether you’ve reached an agreement regarding how you plan to co parent your children or whether the judge decided custody and visitation for you, you’re both going to see a lot of each other. Until your children are 18 and become legal adults, the two of you will be responsible for collaborating to make important decisions on behalf of your children and sharing parenting time with each other.
When the court makes a decision regarding custody, it is looking at the 10 best interests of the child factors, as provided by the Virginia Code Section 20-124.3. Here they are:
1. The age and physical and mental condition of the child, giving due consideration to the child's changing developmental needs;
2. The age and physical and mental condition of each parent;
3. The relationship existing between each parent and each child, giving due consideration to the positive involvement with the child's life, the ability to accurately assess and meet the emotional, intellectual and physical needs of the child;
4. The needs of the child, giving due consideration to other important relationships of the child, including but not limited to siblings, peers and extended family members;
5. The role that each parent has played and will play in the future, in the upbringing and care of the child;
6. The propensity of each parent to actively support the child's contact and relationship with the other parent, including whether a parent has unreasonably denied the other parent access to or visitation with the child;
7. The relative willingness and demonstrated ability of each parent to maintain a close and continuing relationship with the child, and the ability of each parent to cooperate in and resolve disputes regarding matters affecting the child;
8. The reasonable preference of the child, if the court deems the child to be of reasonable intelligence, understanding, age and experience to express such a preference;
9. Any history of family abuse as that term is defined in § 16.1-228 or sexual abuse. If the court finds such a history, the court may disregard the factors in subdivision 6; and
10. Such other factors as the court deems necessary and proper to the determination.
These days, more and more parents have shared custody arrangements, which means that the non-custodial parent (the parent who has the child less) spends more than 90 days with the child per calendar year. That doesn’t mean that shared custody is automatically a 50/50 custodial arrangement; shared custody just means more than 90 days per year.
If you and your child’s father live nearby, that means that you’ll have to see each other relatively often. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that you’re the custodial parent and your child’s father is the non custodial parent. It could be the other way around, but that tends to be rare. Obviously, you’ll have to exchange the child for each other’s scheduled visitation times, which is something you can either do at each other’s homes, or in an agreed upon public meeting place.
In relationships where abuse is an issue, we often see parents agreeing to meet each other in public places for visitation exchanges. Otherwise, most parents just do the exchanges in their own homes. Here’s a list of tips you can use to help make sure your visitation exchanges go as smoothly as possible.
1. Always pick up your child on time, or have her available on time.
Nothing is as frustrating as waiting for a perpetually late other parent, whether you’re dropping the child off or picking her up. Just because your child’s father is continually late doesn’t mean that you’re justified in picking up his lazy, disrespectful behavior. Ultimately, this kind of behavior could lead to a change in custody, and you definitely don’t want to go into court and tell the judge, “Well, yeah, I did, but he did it too!” It sounds immature and childish, and will make the judge think that you’re using the child as a pawn to get what you want or get revenge for his obnoxious behavior.
Plan ahead of time for these visitation exchanges, and take any possible traffic or other unforeseen circumstances into account. If you know full well the HRBT is going to be backed up for Friday night exchanges, you should leave earlier. Be polite and respectful, and chances are your child’s father will be nicer, too.
2. Don’t change the plan at the last minute.
Last minute changes are really stressful for everyone involved. If you’ve agreed to meet your child’s father in a certain place at a certain time for the exchange, be there. You wouldn’t want him changing things around on you, so it’s probably best if you don’t do it to him, either.
3. Don’t talk about private issues like co parenting or child support.
If you’re doing a visitation exchange, your child is present. It is definitely inappropriate to talk about adult issues, especially issues relating to custody, in front of your children.
Bringing it up will stress you both out, and put your child in an awkward and uncomfortable position. She will feel like she’s the reason for your discord, and it certainly won’t help promote her relationship with either of you. You should save the adult conversations for a separate time and place when the child isn’t present.
4. Help your child be prepared for the visit.
If your child has a special toy, make sure it’s packed for visitation so that she doesn’t have a bedtime meltdown in your child’s father’s care. If she has a soccer game or a ballet class during the time that she’s in dad’s care, her soccer cleats and ballet shoes should be packed in her bag with the rest of her stuff.
So many parents I talk to complain that the other parent has toys or shoes that must stay at that parent’s house. It’s stressful and upsetting for the children to move between two completely separate lives and feel like taking their toys to the other parent’s house is forbidden. Prepare your child for the visit, and set her up with her favorite things. Make sure she’s comfortable and happy, and that the visit runs as smoothly as possible. Everyone will appreciate the pre-planning and lack of stress. And hopefully your child’s father will return the favor.
5. Don’t bring your new boyfriend with you.
Most judges feel that it is inappropriate to introduce the children to your new love interest too soon. Not only that, but your behavior will help show your children (and your child’s father) how to behave in awkward and uncomfortable situations.
If you wouldn’t like your child’s father to have his new girlfriend there at visitation exchange, you shouldn’t either. Be polite and respectful, and show everyone (your child’s father and your children) what a mature, confident, appropriate person you are.
Whether you choose to introduce your new boyfriend at another time is up to you, but I encourage you to think carefully about it first. After all, it never hurts to keep quiet about something until its serious, but speaking up too quickly and introducing the children too soon can do damage.
6. Don't shoot the messenger.
Your children shouldn’t act as messengers between the two of you. It’s really not fair. If you have something you need to say to your child’s father, say it at a time when the children aren’t present. Find a way to do it that doesn’t involve using the children to do your dirty work.
Don’t talk badly about your child’s other parent in front of the children. It can be difficult, but it’s unfair of you to impose your opinions on the children. After all, he is their father and, no matter what he’s done to you, they love him. And they should. It’s not fair of you to involve them in things that don’t concern them, or make them worried for you. Let your kids be kids, and don’t involve them in grown up affairs. These things rarely work out well for the messengers.
7. Be flexible.
If you expect your child’s father to be flexible with you, you’ll have to demonstrate your ability to be flexible with him. Be the bigger person, and use each opportunity to demonstrate to your children the kind of people you want them to grow up to be.
If your ex is stuck in traffic, meet him halfway. If he brings his girlfriend with him, smile graciously. Take the time to teach your children valuable lessons about being kind, gracious, and poised. Teach them about what is appropriate behavior, using your own as a guide.
You’ll have to exchange the children over and over again until the children start driving themselves, or until they turn 18. Either way, you’re in this for the long haul, and you’ll want to be sure that the way you behave shows respectfulness, compassion, and understanding towards your child’s father. After all, it’s not just about this weekend or this Christmas holiday, it’s about the lives you want to share with your children (and, consequently, their father) today and all the rest of the days of your life. It’s about the graduations, the weddings, the baptisms, and the funerals. It’s about coming together and being a family, and part of that means being the best parent you can be, at visitation exchanges and every other time.