When you are married, making parenting decisions is more organic, more transparent, there’s more give and take, more compromise because you’re functioning within the container of your marriage and you want that to work. When a marriage is ending or has ended, that framework disappears but the need to make decisions is still present. You have to figure out how to make parenting decisions with your ex and decision-making must become more intentional.
We recently spoke to David, a father of 3 who was married for over 12 years and has been divorced now for 7 years. He has had many years of experience making decisions with his ex-wife. For David, making decisions together was certainly bumpy but over the years they’ve become much better at it. And they’ve come to the realization that they communicate with each other best over email. Here’s what David had to share:
“The thing that I really look at and I’m really careful about is respect, respecting authority, and teaching my children to do the same.
When they ask me something, I do my very best to say, ‘I’ll need to check in with your mom. I can’t make a comment right now.’ Then I do check in, then I come back and follow up. I don’t just blow them off and I don’t forget things, but I do feel like I don’t have the right — either legally or morally — to just make blanket decisions about, really, almost anything. Should they participate in this sport? Should they sign up for this camp? Can they get this new thing? Can they take this class? ‘Let me check with your mom.’”
“One of the things that we’ve learned over the years is that we just communicate via email because if we try to have an in-person conversation or even a phone conversation, it tends to go south really quickly. That’s OK. We both know that tends to happen. And yet, we’re certainly sociable enough. If it’s a school event, we can sit next to each other and share social chitchat. If you could see the thought balloons over our heads that would probably be a very different picture. Luckily no one can. So we can go to a school concert and sit next to each other and say, ‘Wow, that was really fun. I’ll see you tomorrow when I drop the kids off.’ ‘Okay, have a great night.’ And that’s fine and the kids see that.”
“We’ve never had to go to litigation, but we definitely had to go back to the mediator a couple of times and it’s been very difficult each time. I think the most difficult part about it is, from my perspective, the sense that two mature adults can’t figure this out, that we need help. Somehow we shouldn’t need that help. We should be able to just figure it out, but the situations where that’s arisen, we’ve just clearly gotten to the point where we’re just standing on different roads, going in different directions and each of us is scowling at the other saying, “You need to agree to my terms. Period.” That’s it. There’s no conversation, no discussion.
“Invoking the mediator I see as akin to detonating an atomic bomb and I just absolutely hate doing that. I actually really hate conflict, but I also feel very strongly that there are certain things as a parent that I just have to hold the line. Even if my kids get furious, even if they stomp out and I don’t see them for a couple of days. There are certain parts of being a parent where it’s not fun but, in my view at least, you’re not their friend and it’s not a popularity contest.
“I think that the mediator we work with is terrific. She was not either of our lawyers. She was the person who we used to help figure out our parenting plan by looking at different schedules and figure out what schedule would work for our family. There’s no drama. She doesn’t care about people’s emotional drama. She’s like, ‘What are the facts? What’s your agreement? How do you make this work?’ From my perspective, that’s how I look at things, so I like her and I think it goes really well. I think my ex really, really dislikes her, though, and part of that is because she does like drama.
“I appreciate having a court-appointed mediator, because there have been situations—and again it’s only every couple of years it comes up, there are situations where we just can’t come to a resolution. I think that’s it’s very counterproductive to think of winner-loser, so having a mediator helps us find a solution that doesn’t mean one person has to give up or lose.
After our discussion with David, we turned to our divorce coach Mandy to hear what she had to say:
“As a general guideline, when you have shared parenting time then you should avoid committing your child to any activity that would happen on their other parent’s time without that parent’s prior approval. Treat your ex as you would like to be treated. You wouldn’t like it if your ex booked activities for your child on your parenting time, so don’t do it to them.
“The same applies to expenses. If you are expecting your ex to cover a portion of expenses for extra-curricular activities then they have a right to know about the expense in advance and a right to decline it. If it’s an activity you would really like your child to do but your ex is not crazy about contributing to it, such as dance team or competitive soccer, you can always negotiate on the division of the expense even agreeing to cover the expense in its entirety but you still need to secure your ex’s agreement to the time commitment if it occurs on their parenting time.
“For activities that only occur on your parenting time, you are at liberty to commit your child subject to any other provision in your parenting agreement that may apply such as restrictions on religious education, riding on a motorcycle, or using firearms, for example.
“Yes, this does mean communicating with your ex so it is very helpful to figure out what form of communication works best for both of you. Since discussions around activities seem to be closely tied to school semesters, don’t be surprised if it takes you two or three semesters to get the hang of this. The first semester will probably be bumpy but most people do manage to negotiate a process around these things after a couple of semesters.
“Mediation is a good alternate to litigation. As a mediator, I don’t see it as the atomic bomb that David sees it but I do understand the thinking that reasonable, intelligent adults should be able to work these things out between themselves. One reason mediation helps is that the parties always come with their emotional history. It’s hard to set that aside and doubly hard if the parties are not communicating well. A good mediator will be able to identify the specific issue and then facilitate an agreement so that it is not a win/lose solution.
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