It should come as no surprise to any parent that, when it comes to parenthood and raising children, there is literally no instruction manual. Hospitals really do just let you take brand new babies home, with little more than a stern admonition to not shake the baby and a quick peek at your car seat to verify that it’s more or less properly installed.
I wasn’t too shocked by this when I left the hospital with my firstborn – oh, the youthful ignorance! – but I remember being shocked and overwhelmed as soon as I walked in the front door at my house. I immediately felt like it was ridiculous that any trained professionals would let absolute amateurs take a perfect, tiny, little baby like my son and bring him home to a literal death trap. So many sharp corners! The dogs! Just the undeniable fact that the house was not set up in any way, shape, or form to host an actual human child!
I had spent months choosing my nursery furniture, setting it up, organizing my burp cloths and onesies. I mean, obviously. But every other facet of newborn baby life, in that house, was a complete unknown to me, and I felt virtually certain that my child would not survive in this home.
But, of course, he did. As so many do. He was completely fine, and the home was perfectly well suited to the demands of raising a child – albeit with a few alterations as time went on and his needs grew and changed.
With my second, we walked in the door to the house and were like, “Well, here we go.” I don’t remember it, distinctly, like I did with my first. I don’t think I had any thoughts that the house wasn’t suitable, or that my daughter would be anything other than as happy as a creature who can’t distinguish days from nights can possibly be. We had adapted. We were pros. We knew this baby stuff, this time.
Whether you have one child or many, you’ve probably felt both those things – both the “I can’t possibly do this under these conditions!” and “Psh, I’m an old pro, nothing is daunting anymore!”
When it comes to a custody and visitation case, though, things can get challenging again. Just like a new baby was a complete shock to the system, setting up a parenting plan can be a game changer, too. It’s a question of assessing and reassessing children’s needs as time goes on, and adapting to suit. It’s often also a question of preparing a dad – often one who hasn’t been but so involved up to this point – to have time, alone, with the children. It can be a pretty daunting prospect for a mother who has seen to the children’s needs, almost exclusively, up to the point that there’s an actual custody case that is either negotiated or litigated.
Sometimes it’s a question of a Super Dad, and other times it’s a question of child support. Whether primary physical custody or shared physical custody is awarded, it affects the total amount of child support that you could potentially receive. Even though child support isn’t typically an area of law that is litigated – since it is established by formula – a dispute over child support can sometimes turn into a dispute over custody, since the more time the non custodial parent has with the children, the less support will be paid.
To top it off, of course, child support isn’t that generous. When it comes to extracurricular activities, they’re really supposed to be covered by the support calculation. Unreimbursed medical expenses under the statute are split pro rata (so, proportionally based on your incomes), but that’s hardly a boon to anyone. Childcare costs are included in the formula, but, again, those amounts are really just shared (though, of course, not necessarily 50/50).
So, what happens when custody is disputed?
If you can’t reach an agreement, you’ll litigate. Those are really the only two options. Though you can attend mediation or a settlement conference, those are really just methods to help you and your child’s father reach an agreement. No one can force you – or him – to agree to anything, but the only other way to resolve a legal dispute is to put the issues in front of the judge.
Custody cases are decided based on the “best interests of the child” factors, and anything related to the children – so child custody, visitation, and child support – is modifiable based on a material change in circumstances.
A lot of times, though, courts have different processes in place for when these cases come – or prepare to come – to court. Mediation is sometimes not just a method of alternative dispute resolution, it’s a required step before either a trial date can be set or a trial can occur. Every court is a little different, and there’s often local rules involved, so it’s definitely not a “one size fits all” proposition.
Many courts also require a parenting education seminar or class. Some courts even have a list of approved providers to choose from. Obviously, you know how to parent. You’ve been parenting your own children up until this point, and there’s no reason to think that you can’t continue to parent after this.
But it’s kind of like driver’s education when you get a speeding ticket. It’s not that you don’t know how to drive. It’s just that you have to fulfill this qualification to prove to the judge that you’ve made an effort to improve. And it’s not so much that your parenting needs improvement, or that you’ve done something “wrong” by having an ongoing custody case, like if you got a speeding ticket, but it’s a way of teaching you to learn to coparent, which is new, and to satisfy the judge that you’re willing to put in the effort moving forward.
I mean, of course you’re willing to put in the effort; these are your kids! I know, it sounds silly. But coparenting creates a unique landscape, and attending a coparenting class and/or parenting education class (whatever your jurisdiction calls it) can help show the court that you’re serious. And your child’s father, too – don’t forget him!
If he doesn’t do it, it shows something about him. And not something good, as I think you’re aware. But the court can’t just ask HIM to take the class, based on the assertion that he hasn’t parented alone before. That wouldn’t be “fair”. (I always hesitate to use the word fair, but, here I am, using it again.)
In a lot of these cases, restrictions or requirements are made mutual. A general prohibition against, say, drinking alcohol while the kids are in the care of either parent is more reasonable and less prejudicial than a prohibition against only one parent. Requiring both parents to submit to drug tests, for example, has a similar effect.
So, if your judge requires a parenting education or coparenting class, take the requirement seriously. Do it. Get the certificate. You can even do it before it’s formally required, if you like.
It’s an important part of showing commitment to the coparenting relationship.
For more information, or to schedule an appointment, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.