One of single moms’ most common frustrations — and by frustrations, I mean ENRAGEMENTS — is dads who don’t stick to visitation schedules. This might man they fail to show up for scheduled visits, cancel at the last minute — or show up unannounced, or ask for last-minute visits, messing up your life and plans.
So, what do you do when there is a change in visitation?
- Last-minute visitation changes
- What to do if a parent is late for visitation
- What if the non-custodial parent doesn’t show for visitation or shows up unannounced?
- What to do if you don't have a visitation agreement
Last-minute visitation changes
There are plenty of good, common reasons for last-minute visitation change: a medical emergency, parents who agree to be flexible with each other regarding work schedules, or other mutually respected explanations. However, mothers often complain that fathers keep canceling visits, and dads often say that primary-custody moms deny them visits.
What if a parent is late for visitation?
Ultimately, it is not your responsibility to teach him how to be a good dad or manipulate him into showing up. He is an adult, a parent, and that is his responsibility. But see what you can do to facilitate visits, even if it means doing more than you already are (which is no doubt a lot).
- Document everything. Keep a calendar and note all the times he is late, doesn’t show, cancels less than 3 days in advance, or cancels for reasons that are not reasonable — he has a date, is tired, not in the mood, had a fight with his boss, wants to go out, has a friend visiting.
- Go to court and get his visitations reduced. Bring your documentation, explain the effects this has on the kids and your own life, and ask the judge to reduce the number of times each week or month you have to be disappointed and your life upturned.
- You may need to call your lawyer — or find one via a friend. Online legal services are also affordable ways lots of people can get quality advice.
- In other words: If he wants to see his kids, it can work to make him fight for it (as it stands, he takes visits for granted. Switch it up). It might seem counterintuitive, or passive-aggressive, but as it stands, he takes his time with the kids for granted, and approaches it with a sense of entitlement. Change that up. I tried this, and it worked.
- Be open to or even ask the judge for therapeutic visits. This means the court orders the dad, the kids, and maybe even you go to therapy.
[Online therapy can be a great option for families — compared with face-to-face therapy, video, chat, text, and voice therapy is affordable, convenient and anonymous. Check out our top online therapy sites.]
While I work on my legacy of mandating that every custody discussion and hearing start with the presumption of 50-50 custody and visitation, we are stuck in a very sexist society that presumes that dads suck at parenting and moms are by default the superior parent. It can be hard for dads to see their value to their kids (especially since you likely make all or most of the money that supports the kids). It can also be hard for everyone to see through their anger, and focus on what is really best for the kids:
Two actively involved parents, both committed to a civilized relationship with each other.
What if the non-custodial parent doesn’t show for visitation or shows up unannounced?
If the non-custodial parent is often not showing up for visitation, sees the kids inconsistently, cancels last minute, or shows up unannounced, this is what you do:
- Make sure you have a visitation schedule, and have it authorized through family court. Even if you were never married, you need to get this legally formalized.
- Get honest with yourself: Do you contribute to the situation? You and I might make sure we see our kids, no matter what asshole tries to get involved. But, ask yourself:
- Do you help create drama at pick-up or drop-off that might discourage your ex from showing up?
- Do you try to micro-manage his time with the kids, creating a situation in which it’s very stressful for him to parent?
- Do you otherwise not support him in his parenting? Remember, especially if you have the kids the majority of the time, it can be really hard for even the best-intentioned dads to find a parenting groove, and confidence.
Use your court-ordered visitation agreement
Pull it out, make a copy, hand it to him, and tell him that that is the schedule. If he wants to change it, he is welcome to go to court and have it amended. Be polite, but firm. Say: “It is best for everyone if we all stick to a schedule. If it goes well for six months, we can start to be flexible when we need to be.”
Give him the benefit of doubt. Remember: You are changing the dynamic. Change is hard. He thought he could control you, but you are letting him know he can’t. He won’t like this. Give him an opportunity to step in line.
If he shows up on, say, Saturday evening and asks to take the kids for ice cream, even though his visit is not until Wednesday, answer the door. Try not to let the kids see, but accept that they might. Tell him that this is the last time you are opening the door for a time that outside of his visitation.
Let him leave. The end. See ya Wednesday!
If he doesn’t leave?
Be prepared to call the police. Then call your lawyer — or find one via a friend .
I do not say that lightly. Early in my divorce, I had to call the police. I think there are lots of times people call the police during divorces that is unwarranted. Just because you’re really angry doesn’t mean that the cops need to be called. However, sometimes the other party just doesn’t understand that because he used to live in the house that is now yours, that he can’t just be there when he wants — and will not leave your apartment. Or, just because children with whom he shares joint custody live in a building, that he isn’t allowed to have keys to that building. In my case, I couldn’t make the other person understand those basic concepts. But a couple of giant, burly officers’ presence did make him understand.
So: Be prepared to call the police, and file a report.
If you threaten to call the police, then you must call the police. He already doesn’t respect you. Empty threats will make that worse.
If things get to this point, then you do need to document this unstable behavior.
Police and courts will likely escalate things, at least temporarily. But they can and do get better. In my case, things got much, much better. But it took outside agencies to impose the rules. It is ugly and embarrassing. For me, a low point. But it had to happen.
What to do if you don’t have a visitation agreement
Go to family court this week, and request a hearing to get one. I also recommend hiring an attorney if you can at all afford one. A DIY online divorce service can be a great, affordable tool to get you the documents and advice you need — whether you were married or not.
You are very vulnerable without a custody and visitation agreement, regardless of whether you were married to your kids’ ex, live in the same state or country, whether you seek/get child support, whether or not he ever sees those kids.
Caveats: OK, maybe you have one of those Gweth Paltrow dreamy divorces where you both blow in and out of each other’s homes unprompted, are BFFs with the other’s new significant other, and vacation together with your collective broods to the Maldives. Yay you.
This post is for everyone else.
Dads, if you don’t follow the visitation schedule, this is why this is totally, absolutely unacceptable:
- Your co-parent is not a 24-hour bodega. She and your kids are entitled to a schedule, the ability to plan, and to count on a routine.
- Parenting is not optional. You have a responsibility to your kids, and blowing them off is irresponsible, unethical, and just generally crappy.
- It breaks your children’s hearts when you don’t show. They will remember.
- Being lackadaisical about seeing your children sets a horrible example for your kids, and any other children in your life (e.g., your new girlfriend’s kids, or children you now have with another woman).
- Even last-minute cancelations are horrible. This lets down your children, and shows a total lack of respect for their mother, who is doing the majority of your work in raising them. You are 50 percent responsible for your kids. Every minute more than 50 percent that their mother takes is a favor to you, since you cannot or will not step up. Blowing off your time with your kids is so disrespectful of this service she is already providing for you. When you don’t show up, that means that she has to cancel her plans — including a quiet evening alone with a nice, uninterrupted meal, her shows, and the dog by her side. Or, a date, because she is an adult and she is no longer your wife or girlfriend. Or a workout, or work. Her time is valuable, and you are messing with it and that is wrong.
Question for you, dude: Are you trying to control your kid’s mom by creating chaos in her schedule? Are you jealous of her new man, or otherwise trying to punish her?
- Everyone needs a schedule. Kids thrive on schedules. Moms need schedules so they can organize their lives. You need a schedule. Dude, you need a schedule. I understand that your work may be unpredictable and harried. But work with your kids’ mom. She probably wants you to be involved.
- If you do have to miss a visit, IMMEDIATELY offer to reschedule. YOU suggest the new time. Your ex is not your secretary. Say: “I’m really sorry but work called me in this weekend and I can’t see the kids. What do you say that I take them Wednesday through Friday instead? Or, is there another time that works for you?” That shows her that you are serious about your children, that you recognize the value of your time with them — and the impact of missing a visit.
4 reasons you need to set co-parenting boundaries:
On the other side of the extreme is the dad who shows up, announced, whenever he feels like it — or asks for impromptu visits, with little regard for your time or plans.
Why you cannot let your ex show up happenstance at your house — or with unreasonably short notice, say, within less than a few days.
- This teaches children that it is OK for others to disrespect them. Not respecting one’s schedule and time is of one of the highest insults. You can regain most of anything you have in this world. But not time.
- This demonstrates to your children that you are not worthy of respect. Your life, schedule and time are upturned by your ex’s lack of decent behavior, and that is a huge deal. Don’t let your kids see you being treated like that.
- It does not teach your children appropriate behavior of stable adults. Face it: No one operates like that. Your kids have a schedule at school, with friends, activities. You have a work schedule. I don’t even talk to my mom on the phone without arranging it by text first. Showing up willy-nilly is a sign of instability.
- By playing victim to another person’s rude behavior, you give away your power. Your time, schedule, plans and LIFE are yours to make amazing. Crying that you can’t date/exercise/see your girlfriends/have alone time because of your ex’s nutty behavior isn’t a good look.
Is this you? Does your ex refuse to stick to a visitation schedule? Act like your requests for one are a way to control him? Blame you for keeping the kids from him?
I recently met the mom of a teenager who had been divorced for more than 10 years. She hadn’t dated since her divorce, she said, because she didn’t have a predictable schedule. Her kid’s dad would show up without warning — and rarely stick to any pre-determined schedule. She felt his impromptu visits and failure to show up when expected was an attempt to control her, since she could never make any plans — including with men. “I couldn’t bring myself to tell my son he couldn’t see his dad — especially when he was standing right there at the door,” she said, shaking her head, sadly. “He was so heart-broken that his dad never prioritized him. I didn’t want to be part of the problem.”
Here’s the thing: She was part of the problem.
If you don’t require your kids’ dad's respect everyone’s time with a reasonable schedule, you are perpetuating the problem.
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How about you? Does your ex do this? DID he do it? How did you manage it?
Ultimately, it is not your responsibility to teach him how to be a good dad or manipulate him into showing up. He is an adult, a parent, and that is his responsibility. But see what you can do to facilitate visits, even if it means doing more than you already are (which is no doubt a lot). And document everything.
If the non-custodial parent fails to see the kids consistently or cancels last minute, this is what you do: Make sure you have a visitation schedule, and have it authorized through family court.