Besides being a family law attorney, I am a divorced mother of a teenager. My daughter was 9 when her dad and I separated. Parenting is not for the faint of heart, even with a great kid. I cherish the fact that I have a strong co-parenting relationship with my daughter’s father as we celebrate the successes and face the challenges of launching a young woman into independence. So it bothers me when I see divorced women torpedoing the co-parenting relationship. I don’t seem to attract these kind of women as my clients, but I meet them socially or hear the stories from others (None of the moms below were my clients). The following is my advice to those women, because I have lived it.
1.  Stop calling yourself a “single mother.”   Unless your child’s father died or has no involvement in your child’s life, your child still has a dad. Calling yourself a single mom marginalizes dad. I know of a mom who sent dad a copy of the registration form for summer camp, since dad was paying half the cost of extra-curricular activities.  Mom put her name and contact information on the form and drew a line through the section for the other parent. Even if you have sole custody, respect the fact that your child has two parents. 2.  Communicate, communicate, communicate. Dads need to know what is going on with kids when they are at mom’s home, and vice versa. I know of a dad who reached out to mom to discuss how to handle a power struggle.  Mom responded by saying, “That’s between you and [daughter]. You have to figure it out on your own.” I wonder if mom would have said the same thing to a teacher asking for input. This isn’t a test where comparing answers is cheating. This is your kid’s life. And don’t forget there will likely be a time in the future where you are struggling to find the answer to a parenting dilemma. It is a relief and a blessing to have a co-parent when that happens. 3.  Communicate doesn’t mean micro-manage. The flip side is the mom who is hyper-vigilant and second-guesses every decision, monitoring every meal and activity. I know a mom who was critical because dad ate out at restaurants too much. Give yourself permission to let go of the small stuff.
When my daughter was younger, she was on a soccer team but was tired of going to practices. She was at my house and was supposed to be picked up in the carpool.  What I didn’t realize is that she texted her friend and said she wasn’t going to practice, and then she left the house and re-entered through the egress window in the basement. I found her hiding out in the basement. It was a relief to be able to call her dad and have a unified approach to dealing with honesty, and to also re-assess soccer as an activity for her. Unless there are domestic violence issues, do whatever you can to nurture a parent partnership. Let go of competition with dad.  Let go of anger towards dad. Let go of perfection. Trust me, life is so much better, for your kids and for you, when you have a co-parent.
hugDivorce is never truly good. But a bad divorce can create many years of devastation.  If you have a friend or family member approaching divorce it can be difficult to watch the economic and emotional turmoil unfold, particularly if there are children involved.  As a friend, or a family member, you want to help; but can you? In my 30 years as a divorce lawyer, I have seen how friends and family members can provide much needed support and comfort that has helped my divorce clients get through this process in a much healthier way. At the same time, I have often watched well meaning friends and family members give my clients advice that actually made the divorce more adversarial. If you know someone who is going through divorce and want to help, here are five things to consider.
  1. Encourage them to seek counseling, if appropriate. Whether they are trying to save the marriage or simply manage the emotional turmoil and grief during this difficult time, a good counselor can be even more important than a divorce attorney. They will soon be making some of the most important decisions in their lives during a time in which their sense of reason and judgment may be impaired by emotions. Getting help with the emotional and psychological aspect of divorce is crucial.
  2. Give them support and encouragement; but not legal advice. If you have been through a divorce, or have experienced the divorce of close friends, you may be tempted to advise others based on your observed experience. This advice, though well intended, can often be quite harmful.
  3.  Encourage them to truly research their options. Most people rush into divorce without truly understanding their choices.  As  result they often choose a method that is not the best alternative for their family.
  4.  Help them understand that civility is not weakness.  Divorce can create fear and anger that tempt people to seek “a pound of flesh.” Few families can emerge from an adversarial divorce unscathed. Help them understand that resolving their divorce in a civil and respectful manner can actually get them a better outcome.
  5.  Avoid demonizing the spouse. Divorce often creates a delusional reality that causes people to see their spouse in a very negative light. Accepting  your friend’s emotionally impacted negative view off their spouse can even seem like the “supportive thing to do.” Usually it simply adds to the misperceptions that make future co-parenting more difficult.
People facing divorce need emotional support and friendship as much as they need professional help. If you can provide that support, without giving into the temptations to do more, you will be doing your friend or family member a great service.
I recently viewed a TED video about the impact of divorce on children. Professor Tamara Afifi, a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, presented the results of her research. Here are some of her findings: CONFLICT BETWEEN PARENTS, NOT DIVORCE, HARMS KIDS Conflict between parents during marriage can be more harmful to children than a divorce. The differences between children of divorced parents and parents who are still married are not that great. What makes a difference is whether the conflict between parents continues, whether they are divorced or still married. Children are hurt most by parents in conflict. DIFFERENCES IN DECADES The impact on children of divorce in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s has been different. In the 1970’s, there was a higher impact on children, which she attributes to the fact that divorces then were the result of bad marriages and more conflict. In the 1980’s, the impact was lower because people were divorcing for reasons having more to do with personal growth and self actualization. There may have been less conflict and better communication. In the 1990’s, the impact has been higher which she suggests was due to the closer relationship children had with their parents, communicating daily, and more involved in each other’s lives. Children became more involved in the divorce because they were generally more involved in their parents’ lives. NEED BOUNDARIES WITH YOUR CHILDREN There is a danger with this closer, more involved relationship between parents and their children. Children should not be burdened with their parents’ hurt or anger at the other parent or put into the role of messenger. One child described her mother as her “best friend” who asked her daughter for advice about an affair. Kids shouldn’t have to deal with this. A child shouldn’t be asked to “remind your mom” or asked “why doesn’t your dad tell me” about something. This puts them in the middle of the conflict or forces them to align with one parent. Establish boundaries about what is the adult conversation and what is the conversation with children about the divorce. AVOID HURTING YOUR CHILDREN DURING DIVORCE What can divorcing parents do to lessen the impact on their children? Work together on a co-parenting plan which redefines your roles following the divorce, work with a child specialist to establish the boundaries between adult and child issues in the divorce, improve your communication with each other, defuse emotions, and refuse to engage in bad mouthing the other parent. In the collaborative divorce process, child specialists and coaches can help you in all of these areas.
MTI Automotive Egypt | JLR Family Day Event | Cars & CigarsNo matter when a divorce commences, it is practically inevitable that there will be at least one special event—a child’s birthday, a graduation, a holiday, a family reunion—that occurs during the divorce process. Determining how to celebrate such events can add stress to an already difficult situation. It is understandably the case that many divorcing parents are not ready, willing or able to jointly plan or celebrate a family event, and they should not feel pressured to do so.  Children will feel supported by parents who succeed in keeping them at the center and out of the middle, and that alone is a huge accomplishment.  Despite how parents feel about each other, their children should experience freedom to enjoy special events and celebrations planned by each parent. Parents should be supported and encouraged to coordinate and alternate the hosting of special events for their children with as much courtesy and good will as possible. But what about divorcing parents who are not in high conflict and are generally co-parenting well?  Sometimes parents can feel pressured by cultural expectations about what should happen in a divorce, e.g. divorcing parents should have separate birthday celebrations for their kids; divorcing parents should not jointly host a graduation party; soon to be ex-in-laws should not be invited to an extended family gathering at the other parent’s home. Many parents opt to redefine cultural expectations regarding divorce, especially those that would limit their ability to jointly and positively celebrate milestones, holidays and birthdays with and for their children.  These parents are able to create an environment in which their kids can relax and enjoy jointly celebrated events.  As a neutral child specialist in Collaborative Practice, I have learned that many children value whole family celebrations despite parents getting unmarried. Some parents have asked me if their kids may misperceive joint celebrations as a sign their parents are reuniting, but that is unlikely to happen if parents explain the situation clearly.  “We have always enjoyed celebrating special times together with you, and we will continue to do this once in a while.  This doesn’t mean we’re going to get married again, but it does mean we love being your mom and dad.” I will never forget the little boy who told me, “You know the twinkle in their eyes that parents get when their son comes down the stairs on Christmas morning?  I’m sad that both my parents won’t get to have that this year.”  When his divorcing parents heard their son’s words, it was an easy decision for them to celebrate Christmas morning together that year.
Prof Mnookin at the CMR No.103F“I am so glad we came in together, this has been so helpful.” This is a comment I hear so often from couples after they come in to meet with me together to talk about their divorce process options. Not all attorneys offer the opportunity to come in together but it is becoming a more frequent offering by attorneys who practice Collaborative divorce. Who each of you meet with before you make any decision about how to move forward when there is a decision to divorce, can make all the difference in how things play out during and after a divorce for you, your spouse and children. Imagine, if one person meets with an attorney that focuses on gathering information (how much your spouse earns, nature and amount of assets, whether you want custody of the children, etc.) and assessing the outcome before you have decided how you will more forward with process (Mediation, traditional court process, Collaborative, etc.). It sets the tone for everything that follows, often times setting up a win-lose dynamic. But is that what you want? Most people want as healthy and positive co-parenting relationship going forward that they can have and want to achieve a win-win outcome. On the other hand, if a couple meets together with an attorney to learn about process options before getting into the details of the assets, cash flow/support, etc., you are focusing on the tone and manner in which you move forward, rather than the positions that can be formulated. Couples can then make a mutually informed decision about how to move forward. And the hidden benefit is that, if that attorney is hired by one of you, you already know the philosophy of the other key person in the negotiation; your spouses attorney. Imagine what a difference that can make in creating a more positive divorce experience. It can be an invaluable decision.
Wedding GiftHave you ever attended a wedding where the groom’s parents refused to be in the same photograph? Do you know a bride who had to keep her divorced parents separated during the reception? The resulting tension can be palpable to everyone and can taint what should be a joyous occasion for the loving couple. A recent New York Times article describes the additional stress felt by children of divorced parents both before and during their weddings. When exes have difficulty communicating with each other, planning the event is more complicated and stressful for their child, who may be forced to consult with each parent individually. If either parent carries lingering resentment about financial issues, conversations about wedding expenses can trigger unresolved anger. Questions about who will participate in (or even attend) the ceremony may arise if the child’s relationship with either parent was damaged by the parents’ split. All of this unresolved anxiety shifts the focus away from the bride and groom and the happy occasion. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Divorcing parents who choose the Collaborative divorce process are asked to articulate their dreams for the future. These goals typically include aspirations for a healthy co-parenting relationship and financial security for both parents. Setting goals empowers them to co-write the ending to their own unique divorce story. Doing so restores some sense of control during a turbulent time. Less resentment means a more peaceful future for the entire family. How a couple divorces has a ripple effect, impacting a wide circle of family and friends, with their children in the center. How they divorce will affect each and every future family event. What better wedding gift can any parents give their children than a day filled with loving support?
Almost every potential client I meet with wants to minimize the negative effects of divorce on the children.  So many couples want to consciously have a healthy co-parenting relationship. And as parents, we know our kids better than anyone and should be able to make decisions about what our children need. Over my years of practicing family law, I have also learned that children benefit from having a voice in the process and an opportunity to feel heard. And they need a safe place to talk about what they are struggling with during the divorce.  Not surprisingly, kids do not want to tell mom or dad things they think will hurt their feelings yet, they can feel torn, even with the best of intentions by both parents.  What we know is that kids have undivided loyalty to both parents.  They can say very conflicting things to each parent (if the parents compared notes between them) yet, it was their truth each time they said it. They are afraid sometimes to speak about what they need, because they don’t want to “make waves” or cause sadness. When I went through my divorce, my former spouse and I worked with a Neutral Child Specialist in the Collaborative process.  After meeting with the specialist and talking about our kids’ temperaments, developmental needs, sibling dynamics and our concerns, the specialist met with our kids once together and then individually.  We then had a feedback session that provided us with some great insights by and about our kids that we used to create our parenting plan.  We learned what we were doing well, where our kids were struggling, what they worried about and how we could better help them.  We knew some things already, but also learned a lot while hearing things framed in a positive and constructive manner from the neutral. Then, about a year and a half later, my son (then almost 10) asked when he could go back and talk to that woman who helped us with our divorce.  Rather than pressing him about what prompted the request, his dad and I set up an appointment with him to check in with the Neutral Child Specialist. Low and behold, he was feeling a lot of stress each week because there were too many transitions between houses. We thought that our kids needed to see us each regularly but learned that the number of transitions was really hard on him.  So when we met together with the specialist, we created a new plan that kept us regularly involved in the kids’ lives, but decreased the number of transitions from 7  to 4 every two weeks.  Our son was worried that one of us would think that he didn’t like spending time with us if the time changed and that he was choosing one parent over the other despite having a great relationship with each of us. We were so glad that he had someone he felt safe with in voicing what wasn’t working for him and he could ask for help.  It was so much easier for him to talk to a neutral person, rather than worrying about how we might take what he was saying wrong. It was so helpful to hear from the specialist and have a safe place for us to problem solve. This is how the collaborative process helps keep children in the center, but not in the middle.
Several years back, I was working on a case with another collaborative attorney and our clients were arguing about a parenting issue.  My client was trying to tell her soon-to-be former spouse how he should spend his time with their daughter.  Rather than being reactive and pushing back on my client, the other attorney pulled out a piece of paper and drew a rectangle and started talking about them sharing a back yard as a couple and that when they were together, they had a common vision or idea (not always void of conflict, mind you) about how they raised their daughter and spent their resources.  They let certain people enter their common back yard, decided how they would care for the back yard and how they wanted it to look. Then The other attorney took her pen and drew a line down the middle of the back yard and talked about how the back yard is now owned half by my client and half by her client.  And what was once a shared space is no longer shared, although they share a common fence.  They can look over the common fence and talk about things that are important to them about their common values and goals, but they each no longer had the same authority to decide what happened in the other’s yard or who the other let into that space.  She very gently and tactfully said that what we were talking about with regard to the daughter and how time was spent in the other person’s back yard, is no longer my client’s back yard to tend to.  And then she mentioned something that her client no longer had the right to tend to in my client’s back yard.  The couple paused and you could see the light bulb go on in their heads.  It was a great metaphor for what happens during a divorce. In a Collaborative Divorce, the team of professionals help the couple define their own back yards and identify what boundaries, ordinances, and communications are appropriate and necessary for their shared vision of parenting and a healthy divorce.   This can be a very difficult transition for many people.  And working with a divorce coach or neutral child specialist helps couples redefine their boundaries and expectations around parenting, communication and their newly defined relationship; all of which are part of creating a parenting plan/relationship plan.  Each couple has to learn what they continue to have a say over and what they no longer have a say over with their soon-to-be former spouse. During the next two meetings with this couple, they each commented on several occasions when they recognized they were entering the other’s back yard, and then stepped back and simply stated their concern or idea, but left it at that rather than forcing an issue.  It was a non-charged term they could use going forward as co-parents.  They learned where their common fence stood.  After all, good fences make good neighbors, right?
Image courtesy of photostock / When it comes to co-parenting after divorce, the best parenting plan is the one you never have to use. Creating the parenting plan is perhaps the most important part of your collaborative divorce process. But if you put the time and energy into creating a complete plan, you will lay the foundation for good communication and have the flexibility to work with your former spouse as your children’s needs change in the future. The habits of good co-parenting will be ingrained and will be second nature. Minnesota law permits parents to avoid the labels of legal and physical custody if they have a parenting plan that spells out the important aspects of parenting. In collaborative divorce, parents frequently choose to use a child specialist who can help them develop a thoughtful parenting plan that is tailored to their family. Parenting plans typically include:
  • the schedule of how the children will divide their time between the parents;
  • how the parents will communicate about their children;
  • how the parents will make important decisions related to their children, such as schools, activities, and religion;
  • how the parents will handle child care and medical care;
  • how the parents will handle contact with the extended family;
  • how the parents will introduce the children to new partners.
When you invest in having the discussions necessary to reach agreement on these topics, you create a comprehensive written plan.  But what’s even more valuable, you have experienced communicating as co-parents —  working through disagreements, reaching an understanding about how to approach the ever-changing future landscape of parenting.  The more you practice these skills, the better you become. As your children grow up, you will have the solid foundation of communication and the flexibility to adapt to your children’s changing needs.  You won’t need to pull out the document to look up how you are going to handle co-parenting.