I’ve been a divorced, single parent for almost a decade now, something that’s a bit hard to wrap my head around, but when I review our divorce papers and parenting plan, my 12yo daughter is listed as being 3 years old. Three! It’s hard to imagine that much time has passed and that my oldest is now 19 and on a trek through New Zealand, while my youngest is a vivacious tween in middle school.
Time is definitely relative, and while there are some hours that have dragged along, oh so slowly, there have also been entire weeks and months that seem to have just vanished entirely in the mists of history.
In all those years, however, we’ve tried to really stick to a consistent parenting schedule as best we could, a schedule that had our children moving back and forth between houses so that, in essence, they were with me Wed-Sun and with their Mom the other days. Travel schedules and other exigencies changed that at times, but as someone who has to plan events weeks, or months in advance, it’s always been essential for me to be able to know my parenting schedule ahead of time. Rather surprisingly, that’s proven a difficult task to accomplish.
I remember years ago I’d actually print out calendars for the children so they could see in advance where they’d be on any given day (easily done in Excel, of all things) but as time passed, that became more difficult as my ex’s life become more and more fluid with family illnesses and her travel schedule. I gave up on printing calendars at least two years ago.
2016 marks the first major change to our parenting schedule, intestingly: now that our oldest is out of the house for a few months on her Far East trip and my almost-16yo son is away for a bit: We’ve moved to a week on/week off schedule for K-, our 12yo. It’s something I’ve resisted for a long time as it’s hard to be a film critic when you can’t actually attend evening screenings every week, but it was time to try something different, and it’s reduced the psychic shock of transitions for K- by 50%. Hopefully that’ll be helpful to all of us, and when G- returns we’re hoping he’ll be good with the schedule too. We shall see.
All of this reflection on parenting schedules and parenting plans been triggered by a comment in a dad’s group I’m in on Facebook wherein a newly divorced father posted a note about how his young son has been telling him about how Mom’s mean and he’d rather spend more time at Dad’s house. Should the Dad act on the request and try to change their custody arrangement? Should Dad ignore the issue, or just probe to find out how Mom is being “mean” and judge whether it’s legit (“you didn’t do your homework, you don’t get to watch TV”) or not?
After almost ten years of hearing pretty much a non-stop stream of complaints about the other house, household and parent, my advice as a single father was to essentially ignore the boy’s complaints and request, something I think rather surprised the other dads in the group. Fact is, most children of divorce try to exploit the situation, consciously or unconsciously, to create more control and freedom in each house by playing the parents against each other. It is incredibly common for Mom to hear about Dad’s slovenly lifestyle and Dad to hear about Mom’s strict rules, with the child asking to spend more time with whichever parent is their favorite that day. Or, of course, vice versa.
Since it’s essentially impossible to perfectly synchronize two households, it’s inevitable that one will be more strict than the other, one have healthier food options than the other, one be bigger, more comfortable, cleaner and well furnished than the other, etc., and the vast majority of children — and people in general — seek less rules, not more, so the lax household is always going to seem more fun and desirable. Because it is.
It’s the “Disney Dad” problem of spending just a few days each month with your children, so you can make those days glorious vacations with cake and ice cream for dinner, late night video games, and even visits to Disneyland in the mix. Leaving the other parent has to do the actual heavy lifting of parenting, of saying “no”, creating and enforcing rules and boundaries, etc.
Caveat: I say “Disney Dad” even though I do sometimes hear about a dad who has the lion’s share of the custody, but it’s still the case in modern society that it’s much more commonly the mom who picks up the burden of being the full time parent with all the challenges that implies, while the dad’s the one who has a tiny presence in the children’s lives. But that’s another big topic.
With all that in mind, when I hear a newly single parent saying their child is asking for more time with them, I think that it’s worth a conversation (I don’t literally mean “ignore them”, of course: every child deserves a voice and to be heard) but if what’s happening at the other house isn’t endangering their life and limb, well, it might well be best to teach your child to rise to the occasion, to learn “how to deal with mom’s quirks” or “how to be successful at mom’s house like you are at my house” rather than call a lawyer and petition for a change in the parenting plan and schedule ASAP.
One thing I’ll also add, in case Dad wants to tell Mom how to fix things so the child likes being at both houses: one parent telling the other what’s not working in their house is a recipe for a big fight and a lot of resentment, because, rumor to the contrary, there are no perfect parents and there’s no “right” way to do it. We parents all just do the best we can, try to remember to have a sense of humor about things, and endeavor to make each day just a bit better than the previous for our children.
That’s how you try to help your child learn how to survive the inherently crummy situation of bouncing between two households. Not by constantly changing their schedule based on their childish or adolescent desire to establish favorites or put a wedge between their parents that are already likely having a difficult time of things anyway, but by teaching them to work things out.
But, hey, that’s just my perspective. What’s your take on the situation of a child asking for more time with one parent over the other?