What’s more important, a parenting schedule or the needs of the kids?

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m a single co-parenting divorced Dad to three children, a 12yo girl, a 9yo boy and a 5yo girl. My ex and I are blessed to live within about a mile of each other and each of us has a place with sufficient room for all of the children to stay with either of us.
Linda has stayed in the house bought in 2002, almost seven years ago, when we came to Colorado, and I have the smaller place that we’ve had for about fifteen months, since we first separated.
That’s the back story.
Here’s the dilemma we face: while I think it’s pretty darn important for the children to feel that both houses are their homes and move smoothly from place to place, the fact is that each of them, in different ways, have made it pretty clear that the never ending transitions of our four-nights with Mom, three nights with Dad parenting schedule is driving them bonkers.

In fact, it’s more complicated than that because both Linda and I agree that our boy needs special solo time and special extra time with Dad, so he’s currently at three nights/week at my house, while the girls are scheduled for two nights/week, giving them a night off from his boyish chaos and him a solo “dude night”.
I expect that I don’t need to say this, but I adore my children and have a very good relationship with each of them. But I admit, single parent to three children at these very different developmental ages is a tough, tough task and it taxes all my patience and calm at times.
You can imagine, then, my emotions this evening when I had the following conversation with my son:
me: “So, what’s it like having two houses?”
he: “Well, it kinda drives me crazy, actually. I just want to be in one place.”
me: “I can understand that. Switching back and forth’s gotta suck.”
he: “Yeah, it sucks.”
me: “So which house feels more like home at this point?”
he: “I dunno… (pause while he thinks)… I think Mommy’s house, probably.”
me: “Yeah, that’s the house you’ve grown up in and that’s where all your friends are, huh?”
he: “Yeah, that’s it.”
me: “So what would it be like if you stayed one week at my place, one week at Momma’s, so you didn’t have to switch so often?”
he: “I dunno. What about me being at Mommy’s house and having special nights with you sometimes?”
me: “so you’d just live at Mommy’s house?”
he: “Yeah.”
me: “Hmmm… we could make that work, perhaps. I’ll talk with Mommy about it if that’s what you’re thinking would help you settle down more and be more happy.”
he: “Yeah, I’ve been saying that switching back and forth drives me crazy for months, but no-one listens to me.”
me: “That’s gotta be frustrating. I’ll talk with Mommy and we’ll make a decision about it and let you know.”
he: “Okay. Oh, and maybe I can just stay with you until we leave on vacation?”
(aside: Linda’s taking all three kids on a two week trip that’s been long planned, and they’re leaving in nine days)
me: “That could be cool. I’ll talk with Mommy about that too if you want.”
he: “Lemme think about it, ‘k?”
me: “You bet.”
It’s a very interesting situation because I can feel that the competitive part of me wants to insist on 50/50 custody and wants to insist that they just “get used to it”, but I’m also very aware that neither my 12yo or 9yo are very happy with the arrangement, and emotionally I’m also aware that if I were in their shoes, I’d want to be in the big house, the house I’d grown up in, the house with rabbits, guinea pigs, mice, and a big crazy dog, not to mention lots of other kids on the street to play with, rather than “the new place” where there’s considerably less space and none of their animals are around.
And therein lies my dilemma: will I have a gradually decaying relationship with my children if they live full time or just about full time with their Mom, my ex, and see me less frequently, perhaps not at all for a week at a time, and certainly only rarely share my space and life, or do I just need to relax and focus on their needs, trusting in our love and bond, and trusting that it’s just as likely in six months that any of them might want to live with me 90% of the time and just visit Mom on occasion?
Advice, suggestions, ideas? Thanks!

18 comments on “What’s more important, a parenting schedule or the needs of the kids?

  1. I would definitely listen to what your kids are telling you. And like you said, things can & will change over time, so what they decide now will not necessarily be how it is in the future. Their needs ebb & flow and I feel it’s so important to follow their needs (within reason). If more parents would put their kids needs ahead of theirs we’d have much happier, confident children.

  2. As I have mentioned before, you are an excellent Daddy, so never doubt that.
    I was divorced when my kids were 12,10, 8 so not too different from your situation in that. We didn’t live a mile from each other, we lived 200 miles apart. The kids lived with me, and visited their dad one weekend a month. They always had the choice of living with whichever parent they wanted to. I was lucky that they preferred living with me. They also didn’t want to be separated from each other, so that prevented any of them from living with their dad.
    Although the kids loved their dad, he didn’t play a strong role in their lives when they were growing up, so he was more stranger to them than a dad. He chose to only keep them one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer. Other than school, he could have had them anytime he wanted them. He did end up a much better dad once we were divorced.
    Therein lies the difference. You genuinely care about your kids and you show your love for them all the time. They love you, and cherish the time they spend with you. Things are tough on kids when parents split up. They have torn loyalties between the parents. Maybe you need to get them a pet that they can enjoy when they are with you. Introduce them to the kids in your neighborhood. And never give up, even though it is discouraging. They will appreciate you more for it, and eventually they may want to live with you for longer periods of time than their mom. Be patient and respect their wishes. They will respect you for it.

  3. Yo Dave, long time no talk!
    First off, I want to commend U for sharing this slice of life with us, though not easy. Appreciate your transparency and honesty.
    From a dude’s perspective, attempting to walk in your flip flops, I would personally feel that tinge of hurt/pain that “my son” would rather stay longer at mom’s home than the current half/half arrangement.
    However, knowing U and the bond U have with Dave Jr (and your girls), I would encourage you with these:
    01. It’s temporary:
    Time will tell, situations can change, tides may change where they may want to stay with you longer down the road.
    02. Ebb & Flow:
    Just like in Tai Chi, I would suggest working with, instead of against, the flow of Dave Jr’s feelings/emotions of security and stability.
    Honestly, I’m very encouraged with the conversation you detailed above. Very mature, very enlightening of your relationship with him – and I’ve seen it in person so I know U are keepin’ it real.
    I believe that pushing back now with ‘what’s fair’ based on the existing living arrangements may be unnecessary and may cause more hassles and disruptions.
    It’s only temporary, and I suggest go with the flow.
    03. Make it homey:
    Not saying that you haven’t, but there are things/pets/peeps in the other neighborhood that may have a strong pull for them. You could consider what Deb shared about introductions to your neighborhood children and making it very attractive for them whenever they come over.
    All that said, I just prayed for you, Linda and your children, and will continue to pray for clarity, encouragement and sanity through this journey for all of you.
    Love you bro! Stay strong, keep it real & ROCK ON!

  4. I admire the strength it took to have that conversation. My daughter and I have conversations like this sometimes and it tears me apart. But the conclusion I come to every time is that what I want more than anything is for her to know that I am the kind of parent that will listen to what she is telling me, and take her needs seriously, and that I love her unconditionally. Thank god she doesn’t see the break downs I have sometimes after dropping her off at her fathers house. One of the things her father and I have done, or that I have tried to have us do are make our two houses more similar. Whether that means keeping an identical bedtime routine at both places or having two of the same snugglie, we do it. (Granted he also had this thing for a while that what he bought stayed there despite the anguish this caused in our dramatic daughter, but once he got over that, things were much easier.) We have also considered adopting a dog that would go with her to each house.
    In the end though, I think what really matters is that your son, and presumably your daughters, are comfortable and trust you enough to have these kinds of conversations with you. I think the home they feel like being in will wax and wane, and that you and your ex live so close will make that easier for them. I just recently found and have started reading your blog so I am not sure how long your ex and you have been separated, but it took our daughter the last four years to adjust to a somewhat comfortable routine. And there are still days where she just wants daddy and nothing else will do.
    Ok, this is wordy enough for a stranger’s comment. Good luck to you with all of this. I know how hard it is.

  5. Dave,
    I have been where you are, except I am the mom that the kids wanted to be with more than their father. My kids are 12, 10, 8, & 6 year old twins. I decided to be consistent in their visitation schedule, whether or not they liked it at the time.
    The best way to sustain behavior (good or bad) over time is random reinforcement. If you give in ‘sometimes’ and let the kids be where they want, when they want, I am afraid it will come back to bite you. They will continue to give you a hard time if they know you *might* give in.
    When my kids would cry and want to stay with me, it broke my heart to take them to their father’s house. It was hard for them to leave me, their home, their toys, their own beds, etc. I hated doing it, but I just thought that consistency in their traumatized little lives was a small gift that I could give them for their future.
    It was also difficult for me to put aside my personal differences with their father, but I didn’t want to do my children the disservice of robbing them of the opportunity to feel his love for them.
    Fast forward 3 years and things run pretty smoothly now. The kids rarely hassle me about going to their father’s house. He has stepped up and is a much better father now, too. The consistency was good for him, as well.
    I would think long and hard about sticking to the schedule because the pay off in the long run seems to be worth it.
    Hang in there, my friend. Your children are lucky to have such a caring father.

  6. Do you think that maybe, if you changed the schedule for a while, they’d miss you enough and want to move it back? I dunno, just a thought. But those are some tough questions…

  7. Hey Dave,
    First and foremost as someone that knows you personally, I know what a good, fair man you are. I know how much you love your kids.
    And…. in full disclosure, I’m not a Dad, but I have been a kid that grew up in a broken home, the big difference. My parents would not admit it was broken, and we all suffered from that.
    But… I think you need to give the kids some latitude here. If you are the strict parent and Linda is the fun parent, that would be one thing. I know as a kid I always wanted to be where I could get away with murder. But, if your son really just wants to feel like he has a home and roots, that’s another thing.
    (I know what it’s like to live somewhere that doesn’t feel like your home. I’ve been doing that for years now. It sucks!)
    Maybe you can see, if he decides that he wants to go that direction, to do it as a test.
    You can tell him that you want him to always feel welcome and that you’re afraid you’ll miss him too much. But try it as a test for 90 days.
    It may just be a case of his perception that the grass is always greener in the other yard, and he may find as Erma Bombeck taught us that “the grass is always greener over the septic tank”!
    I know this is tough for you and this whole situation is tough for the whole family, as the Dad, I guess you just have to watch out for him more than you.
    Kids are the very unfortunate collateral damage of a divorce and your responsibility is to shelter them from that damage, even when it hurts a lot to do.
    I love ya Dave. My thought sand prayers atre with you and your family, I KNOW you’ll do what’s best for the family!
    John Jaworski

  8. Thanks for all the comments, everyone. A few clarifications, then some additional thoughts:
    I do have a pet, actually, a cat (you can see him on the layout of this page, actually). Newton is a cat we’ve had for years and he’s super social and the kids all love him. He’s also very tolerant of kids harassing him and toying with him, which is a definite benefit.
    For reasons that I don’t really understand, while my greater neighborhood has a lot of kids, there are no children within a dozen houses of my place so when my kids are outside skateboarding, playing frisbee, or whatever, no other kids appear to join them. Just suboptimal.
    That’s it for now. More as things settle a bit. No additional thoughts for now. 🙂

  9. There’s no “good” solution for the kids of divorced parents – there’s just “the best you can do”.
    As someone who’s parents split up when I was not quite 12 and divorced when I was 15, I can tell you that I have a very strong relationship with my Dad as an adult because he has always been there.
    There wasn’t any “forced” back & forth – there was just time that we could, if we wanted to, go be at our Dad’s place… and a lot of weekends spent with him.
    Until he moved downtown, his place was w/in walking distance of my junior high and high school, so we spent a lot of random nights over there. When he moved further away from our school? We spent a lot more weekend time with him and vacations.
    You know what? Because my parents made it about us, and not about them, I’m much closer with my Dad than I would’ve been if I had felt like my home life had to be disturbed b/c of an agreement he and my mom had made without my input. I stayed mostly in the home I grew up in – went to the mountains and stayed in the condo that I grew up in with my Dad, and generally didn’t have to feel rootless until I was much older.
    He’s 9 Dave… Don’t rule out the possibility that as a teenager he’d rather live with Dad. But for now, if they don’t want to live in 2 places? (Seriously, would you want to?) Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate.
    I know – it would kill me too – but remember that in a kid’s eyes, “live with” is not the same as “love” – it’s just a matter of where ‘home’ seems to be.

  10. Hey Dave,
    The kids, your son…are expressing the needs that they know how to express, but make no mistake about it, they all need a great relationship with their father. But instead of having them make a lot of the sacrifice, you can make some yourself (and I’m not saying that you haven’t) that can make this a bit easier.
    One example might be, they stay where they wanna stay, and if they happen to be at their Mom’s place, then you offer to take them to lunch/dinner and go on a walk as well or something. So you are not making them feel “pressured” about their living situation, but you are still very present in their lives despite it.

  11. Don’t sweat the relationship. Your relationship with your kids is going to wax and wane naturally. My parents were divorced literally before I was born. I went to my dad’s house every other weekend and four weeks during the summer.
    When I was old enough to make the decision (driving age), I slowed down the visits. It got to the point where I only saw my dad one weekend every couple of months, or one weekend a semester near the end of college.
    When I graduated college, I moved to a place about five minutes from my dad’s house. My wedding was held in his backyard. My husband and I now go over there for dinner at least once a month (often once a week), my dad and I meet for lunch at work from time to time, and when my step-kids are here in the summer, we spend loads of time with them, visiting science museums and playing in the pool.
    While your relationship with your kids may seem to decay from time to time, I wouldn’t at all suggest that there will be a “gradual decay” because of them not half-living with you. If anything, they will appreciate and respect the flexibility you give them.
    And if some level of decay does come, just stay strong – it will reverse itself as they mature.

  12. I think you are doing really well…your children will remember you for that…giving them choices.
    Your son is still young…hey in the near future you might end up with him full time as he will probably want to hang with you more often “man to man” kind of thing.
    I agree with an above comment… even if they are at Mum’s house you could still have time with them but they still have the house which is their rock to go back too at nights…and their Mum time.
    I say keep listening and your kids will love you for it…and your relationship will never erode.

  13. Only one problem I see… you’ve asked his opinion.. and said how that could work.. well.. to him you’ve promised for it to be that way.. it’s funny how we know in the business world to “under promise and over deliver”
    Giving him that choice may be unfair to him.. it’s a tough choice for you at whatever age you are.. he probably has a tough time deciding between chocolate chip and strawberry ice cream.
    So.. your question really is what do you do now that you’ve given him an adult role in this.

  14. Wow, sounds like a real tough situation, but treating with respect and making him feel his feelings matter are the most important and you are doing that. Can you and your ex arrange that he will sleep at her house the 3rd night he sleeps at yours but you take him out for dinner? That may still give him face to face time with you but he is sleeping at the house he prefers … I dunno I am not a mama yet (6-8 weeks to go), but it might work.

  15. Hi Dave.
    My parents separated when I was 12 and my brother and I lived with my mother. My dad lived on the other side of the country for a couple of years, then he moved back to our city. We stayed with him for a couple of summers when he was far away, and then we would visit with him every couple of weeks. He usually saw my brother and I on different days because he only had room for one of us to comfortably stay over. My dad always made it clear to me that I was a priority in his life and that the time we did spend together was very special. He wrote me letters when he was away and when we stayed with him he made sure that he didn’t have to do anything other than be with us. When I was 25 I moved to the city he was living in and we shared an apartment for a year. We still live near each other and I am very close to my dad, actually much closer than I am to my mom. I think this would have been the case even if they had stayed together, but I guess my point is that the quality of the time you spend with your kids, and their experience of being valued and listened to, is the most important thing. Good luck with everything, you sound like a great dad!

  16. My parents were divorced and I saw my dad on Fridays and Sundays.
    From my experience, the amount of time you spend with them isn’t nearly as important as the quality. If you get them just “sometimes”, make sure you make the most of those times. Take advantage of every second.
    The 80% of the time I spent with my mother was just day-to-day co-existing whereas the 20% with my father was fun, and unforgettable. Baseball games, BBQs, the movies, the arcade, driving around and letting us decide which way to turn…it’s the little things that mean the most.
    Jam as much of those little things you can into the time you get.

  17. Hi Dave,
    Sometimes we need to do the transitions ourselves and not put them on the kids. I know of some families where the kids always live in one home and the parents transition back and forth between the alternate home. If you can get along with your ex well enough to do this, it can give a lot of comfort to the kids.

  18. Dave,
    I’m new here and just wanted to say thanks for having this blog. Its great to see a dad talking candidly about raising kids.
    Now to the topic. You are in an unenviable position, I do hear you on the battle cry to keep the 50/50 custody. I’ve fostered children(ages 5 – 11) who have all been adopted into good homes and I currently parent my 2 yr old and the common thread I’ve found is finding a win-win negotiation strategy. What does your kid want, what do you want and then trying to be creative about both of you getting that. In this case it seems, you want to see your kid more and he doesn’t want to go back and forth as much, “be in one place” as he puts it(i could be way off base off course). If the above is the case its a great starting point to think beyond how much time he’s at your house vs momma’s house, especially since you live only a mile apart. The good news is based on the snippet of conversation provided it seems he still very much wants to see you so you’re not having a decaying relationship to my mind.
    Well that’s my 2c. I hope it doesn’t seem “too much” from the new guy.

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