Do you talk to your kids every day when they are with their dad? Why? Or why not? How does this fit into your co-parenting rules and boundaries? Is it harder to co-parent with a difficult ex?
My kids are halfway through a 2.5 week trip to Europe with their dad, visiting his family there. This is by far the longest we've been away from each other, and I was worried they would miss me — and me them. So far, so good. It sounds like a lot of days at the beach with their little cousins and family dinners of chicken, potatoes and other Greek food. I can easily envision them in the home I visited many times during my marriage, eating the awesome home Greek cooking of my ex's stepmom and enjoying the Mediterranean sun.
Despite my initial plans to call every few days, we have spoken only twice. On Thursday I had fun telling them that our cat caught a mouse (and laid it at the foot of my chair in the dining room), hearing from Lucas about the airplane ride, and getting silly with Helena, surmising what kind of bathing suit our cat would wear at the beach (Would it be a bikini, or a tankini? Duh – a CATkini!). But — true parenting confession here — I only really started to miss them when I hung up the phone. Until then — and mostly since — I have been enjoying my kid-free time, meeting up with friends, accomplishing work and household tasks that otherwise went unattended to, and spending time with someone new I'm dating (more on that later this week, ladies).
I realized: If frequent calls and check-ins make me miss my kids, it probably makes them miss me and home. So if they're having a great time focused on their environs in Greece, why would I want to refocus them to their mom and New York life — especially if they're not asking for me?
Setting healthy co-parenting guidelines
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Which, I will admit, they are not. And that hurts. But that is my problem. So I told my ex that unless they ask to call, we will keep calls infrequent.
As with any relationship, it is healthy that the kids and I get a break from each other and miss one another. Missing and longing are a healthy part of life. If we deny our kids that, we rob them of the ability to learn patience, memory (which studies find is collectively challenged thanks to Google), story telling and the satisfaction of seeing someone after missing them.
Communication guidelines for different co-parenting schedules
A divorced friend shares 50-50 custody with her ex who expects pictures and updates every few hours when the kids are with her — and nightly Facetime. She enjoys the occasional cute pic in return, but sees no point in the dozens of mundane images of her offspring the dad sends every week — especially since there is rarely a time when the kids go more than two or three days without seeing either parent. “It feels intrusive and controlling, but he says he misses them so much — so how can I deny him?” she complained.
That's the thing: he misses them. No one asked what is good for the kids. These parents make it about them, and what they are missing out on. The kids just want to live their lives, be engaged in the people and activities around them and not be interrupted by forced reportage to the absent parent – especially if they can get that parent up-to-date on their shenanigans within 48 hours.
I understand that a lot is lost when you do not see your kids every day. But that is the price that is paid for the luxury of divorce. You don't have to be married to the other party, but you also get to spend less time with your children.
But I do not think that loss is so horrific. If it were, people would stop getting divorced in such high numbers. In fact, the idea that you do not know your kids or otherwise are an inferior parent because they do not hear your voice every single day before they turn 18 is a product of the over-parenting trend that stems from the elevation of mother to saint-like status. It puts too much pressure on parents to be intimately involved in every aspect of their kids' lives. Every day.
Which is where a caveat is in order: In instances when one parent lives afar, or is on an extended trip that requires they be apart from the kid for weeks on end, well then of course calls and video chats are wonderful tools for staying connected. In fact, we rely on video chat to stay close some family and friends who live in other parts of the country.
Co-parenting tips and successful co-parenting strategies
While the amazing technology that allows us connect with the world via stream-of-conscious sharing of tweets and posts, researchers increasingly find that technology that connects us also makes us anxious and depressed. In fact, I suggest that the same mentality that compels us to share our every thought on Facebook and Twitter is the same one that drives us to be in constant contact with our kids.
All this connectivity has proven to shorten our attention spans, heighten anxiety and weaken relationships. Even a few years ago phone calls were expensive (who remembers a mass of relatives piling on a single phone line to talk over each other to a far-away relative in effort to save on long distant charges?) and the idea of instant sharing of pictures and video chats was the stuff of fantasy.
And yet we survived. Even thrived. And kids of divorce still bonded with both parents, and divorce wasn't so bad that it deterred people from divorcing en masse. Not to romanticize divorce of years of yore, but we stand to learn from ways our parents messed that up, but also see what worked. Which is that kids don't need their parents as much as we may think they do.
Instead of impulsively jumping on text or a call to your kids or their other parent when you are apart, here are some guidelines for healthy co-parenting — and parenting!
Set a time sharing or custody schedule and stick to it. Whether you are on a 50-50 shared parenting schedule, or the old-fashioned every-other-weekend-with-dad routine, get it in writing, submit it to the courts if you must, create a shared Google calendar, print out that calendar so everyone in your household can see and follow it — then stick to it!
Create a co-parenting agreement, which outlines not just the schedule, but how to manage schedule changes, medical, education and religious decisions, modes of communication, and financial matters.
Include a clause about contact with the other parent during parenting time. Limit this to once daily for very young children, and less frequently as children get older.
This should also include a clause that each parent makes the day-to-day decisions for the child during their parenting time.
If Google Calendar does not work for you, consider one of the many co-parenting apps. These include:
- Our Family Wizard
Many judges now require both parenting and co-parenting classes for families making their way through the court system. Almost all local courts will connect you with a local, in-person co-parenting class, or you can find an online co-parenting course to take by yourself, or in collaboration with your kids' other parent.
Typically these classes are affordable and last a few hours.
Just as there is couples therapy, many divorced or separated parents chose to go to ongoing therapy to ensure open communication about the children and the whole family's wellbeing. You may chose to go to co-parenting counseling weekly for six months during and after a breakup, or ongoing monthly until the children are grown.
A local therapist may be found through your attorney, or a referral from a trusted friend or health care worker. Or, online therapy may be more convenient, affordable, and allow you to enjoy the benefits of counseling by conducting the text, phone or video sessions in a different location from your ex!
Time apart as a divorced family makes for better conversations and stories
I pick my kids up at the airport in a few days after three weeks apart — them in Crete with their dad, me in Copenhagen where I've been hanging out, working and having a pretty amazing time. I was so sad for the first days apart, and have missed them so much. As I wrote here, their dad and I agreed that I wouldn't speak to them often since I realized last year that constant communication only makes us all miss each other, and prevents them and their dad from getting into their own groove.
We did chat on the phone a couple of times, and I was struck by what interested, curious children I have. When I told Lucas, 5, that I had spent the day touring my city by bike, exploring the neighborhoods and many canals, he asked: “Did you go over any draw bridges?” Is that a great question or what?
And after I told Helena, 7, about my day full of museums, food shopping and dinner with a new friend, she asked: “But what are you doing TECHNICALLY?” which, it turns out, meant, What kind of coffee pot did I use to make my morning brew? What did the restaurant look like? What did I wear that day? What do Danish people wear? What did my friend do for work? What did we eat?
I am so proud at what the curious minds of my kids, and appreciate how this time apart can bring us closer, since we will have so much to talk about when we see each other Friday, and how good it will feel to squeeze the crap out of them when I see them, and wake up in the morning when they will cuddle into me in the bed, and we fall into our old routines again.
But in the long view of divorced families, we are constantly re-discovering each other and stitching together two lives that our kids must straddle. It is often an exhausting exercise to re-acquaint ourselves with our children (and vice versa) and constantly re-establish routines — one of the struggles of single motherhood.
The upside is that I see this creating children who are fantastic conversationalists. Through the details of my life outside of mothering them, my kids see me as a person with a full life, and not just a mom. While there is indeed a sweet and deep intimacy that comes with the constant (unrelenting, grinding) care of children, a life of fulltime motherhood simply is not mine. This is my life, and it is your life too. And the details of it can be pretty sweet.
Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, noted blogger, and bestselling author. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.