Custody of Toddlers

Toddlers – like most children, really – are creatures of habit. Or, at least, they operate best when their routines are protected. As a parent, even under the best circumstances, the routine can be difficult. When you’re coparenting, maintaining a consistent routine is even more challenging, if not impossible, depending on your other coparent.

Even among happily married parents, there are a lot of disagreements about raising children. It is often exponentially more difficult for separated or divorced parents, especially if they’ve remarried and are operating under a different system in their own home.

That’s not to say that the other system – or the other parent – is bad, or deliberately making decisions to upset or frustrate the other parent. That can certainly sometimes be the case; I’ve seen plenty of parents who just can’t seem to coparent together, and continue to make decisions designed to screw up the other parent during their own parenting time.

Custody is challenging in any circumstances, but its especially challenging for children who aren’t yet school aged because a lot of different arrangements can be considered appropriate. When a child is in school, there are limitations to what each parent can do. Geographic distance between the parents, for example, can set one parent up to be a primary physical custodian just because the child’s other parent wouldn’t have the ability to get the child to and from school reliably.

That’s not the case with toddlers – which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because you can sometimes avoid a big knock down, drag out custody battle by allowing both parents to have a large amount of parenting time, but it’s a curse because you know that custody battle is coming when school enrollment comes up.

If you live close enough together, it may not be that big of an issue. But we do often see issues come up – even before school enrollment is an issue – about where the child’s principal residence will be for school purposes. And, if he’s fighting for equal time now, when the child is a toddler, he is putting himself in a good position to argue that his school district could be the primary one.
It’s not that I think he’ll automatically win, just because he’s been involved – far from it. But, these days, moms and dads are on much more even footing, and if he’s taking on an equal share of the childrearing responsibilities NOW, he’ll have just as good of a case as you will when things come to a head.

Will you have 50/50 custody of your toddler? Not necessarily; primary physical custody is possible. Heck, sole custody is possible, too, though considerably less likely than any other scenario. Logistics are still important, and the court will consider all of the best interests of the child factors as well. You’re going to want to think about whether and how much either or both of you travels for work, and the specific limitations of your jobs. Consider, too, what kind of arrangement you think would work best for your child – every other weekend, week on/week off, 3-4-4-3, or something else. It doesn’t have to be 50/50; custodial arrangements can take literally any shape or form needed to suit the circumstances.

In the meantime, how can you put yourself in the best possible position, custody wise?

1. Consider your school district.

Look at where you’re living and where your child’s father is living. Compare the schools. Familiarize yourself with the advantages of the school district, including what programs or services (if applicable) would be available to benefit your children.

If you’re considering a move in the near future, you’d do well to consider the school district as part and parcel of your decision.

Consider, too, how far that would put you from your child’s father, and what that means for custody and visitation. Could you exchange the child for a weekend dinner? If not, are you okay with your child’s father having longer periods of time (say, an entire week, or, if he’s really far away, even longer?) rather than the ability to go back and forth easily? Both have advantages and disadvantages.

I’m not suggesting that you move; if you do anything like that, other than a move that you already anticipated, it should be part of a carefully thought out strategy with your custody attorney, especially if it amounts to a relocation.

2. Remember factor #6 – the propensity of each parent to support the child’s relationship with the other parent.

(I know, I know – I paraphrased it a bit.)

Look, you have to support your child’s relationship with dad. You have to show that you can meet coparenting challenges head on, and put the children’s needs first. I’m not saying its easy – especially if he’s not playing nice. But it’s important.

I’ve heard and seen many cases where a judge gives one parent primary custody just because the parents can’t get along well enough to share. And while that may be fine if you’re the one getting primary physical custody (fine legally, I mean – I seriously doubt anything bad enough to warrant a decision like this in court would have a positive impact on the development of the children in those homes), it would be awful if you were the one LOSING it. The only way to be sure that doesn’t happen to you is to make sure you’re coparenting – communicating, being kind, avoiding talking badly about dad in front of the kids, and supporting his developing relationship with them.

3. Attend a parenting education seminar.

I know – it’s like driver’s improvement for parents. It’s totally not how you’d like to spend your time. But, in a lot of cases, judges require parents to complete it. It’ll only help your case to take it early – but be sure to check with the clerk’s office in your local juvenile and domestic relations district court to make sure that you’re attending one that is approved by the court. The last thing you want to do is take it twice!

And who knows? Maybe you’ll learn something. After all, coparenting is a different beast than just regular parenting, so if you’re finding that you need to recalibrate and reassess, that’s smart.

4. Follow the golden rule.

Dealing with dads can be really difficult. I have heard some really shocking stories, and I’m sure you could tell me a few, too.

Still, I maintain that it is difficult to fight with someone who is nothing but nice to you. So, treat him like you’d like to be treated. Inform him of doctor’s appointments, school pictures, report cards, and notes home. Discuss options for holidays, vacations, and other important events affecting the family. Be gracious and understanding when he needs to alternate days or switch weekends (hey, it could happen to you, too!) and support his attendance at events he thinks are important (again, next time, it could be you with an important event to attend).

It’s not easy, but it should help diffuse tension – and, anyway, it’ll help support your argument that, whatever he does, you’re being a good, effective coparent.

5. Check out Our Family Wizard.

Still struggling to communicate? You’re not alone. Our Family Wizard is a coparenting program that will help you manage calendars and share a group chat – you can even invite your attorneys, guardians ad litem, and others to participate.

It’s nice because it provides a way of gathering evidence, since the communication in it is written and stored. It also has a “tone meter” feature that will help you control how you speak to your child’s father, so you come off in a better light.

It’s not mandatory by any means, but if you’re struggling, it can help you provide a way forward. In agreements, we often see people agree to share the fee, or alternate paying for it by odd and even years.

Custody of children is hard, but toddlers are often even more challenging because of their own particular, unique needs, and also the upcoming challenge of school registration.

For more information, or to schedule an appointment, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.

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