The grown up child’s guide to make to making shared custody work

by Carolyn on August 13, 2009

Making it work...for children of divorce

Making it work...for children of divorce

A reader asked me a question today and as I was responding, I noticed that my answer was looking less like a comment and more like a post.  I had hoped to write lots of these ‘How To’s’, so with the opportunity to write one presenting itself so blatantly, I figured why not put one together one today?

If you are a regular reader here, you know that I’m not a fan of equal shared physical custody.  But in response to that post, a reader asked me what my proposed alternative was?

What a hard question to answer; which is so often the case.  It’s relatively easy to point out the shortcomings of things.  But thinking of creative solutions?  That’s hard.  It’s also difficult because every family and child is unique with it’s own set of needs, pitfalls and solutions.  There is no ‘one size fit’s all’ answer.

I thought for a while.  I thought about all the things I wish my parents had been able to do.  I thought about all custody arrangements I’ve seen and all the discussions I’ve had with people both here and in person.  And I came up with my own ideas for how to make it all work…for the kids of divorce.

Now I have to preface this by saying that none of these ideas can work without co-parenting.  Remember from this post how I define co-parenting?  Parenting together in the manner that a couple would had they remained married.  It’s a tall order.  It’s a lot to ask.  Looking past hurt and angry feelings isn’t something that’s easy to do.  But if divorced parents can’t find a way to co-parent, they will damage their children.  Their kids will turn into little adults; feeling like they need to be a mediator and not free to simply be themselves for fear of hurting or starting conflict between their parents.  Feeling torn between the two people they love most in the world.  They may even come to feel like their mere existence is an inconvenience.  And no parent wants that for their child.

I also realize that co-parenting takes two.  In a perfect world all mom’s and dad’s would find their children to be a high enough priority as to put their own feelings aside for the sake of them.  But we don’t live in a perfect world.  And I know there are lots of times when one parent is trying desperately to co-parent while another continues to be oppositional.  That leads me to the next ‘How To’ I’ll write; how to co-parent alone.

The points here in this post are for co-parents who are willing to put their best efforts forth in an attempt to provide their children with balance, peace, stability, love and the ability to simply be a kid.

How to make shared custody work….for your kids:

Live close to each other (if possible): You don’t have to be neighbors, but living within a short drive of each other will make it easier on everybody. I’m sure neither you or your ex want anything to make it more difficult to see and spend time with your little one.  And for the little one’s sake, if they forget something (like a toy or a school assignment) or decide they really want something from their other parent’s house, they won’t feel like they can’t ask or tell you about it. They won’t feel like it’s the end of the world, it’s all their fault or that they are a huge inconvenience.  And it’s important for a kid not to feel like that.

If equal physical custody is what you really want: I think the most important thing for the kids here is that they don’t feel like they never know if they’re coming or going. Kids like predictability. Don’t we all? Feeling like you are never quite sure where you’re going to be, and when you are going to be there can make you feel pretty helpless. I think of all the 50/50 arrangements I’ve heard, the week to week switch off (although I really hate that term) seems best. One week at mom’s house, one week at dad’s. The switch seems to work best on Fridays (the opposite parent picks up from school), or Sunday evenings (to start the school week off). Doing this, you can give your child a calendar for their room or a datebook if they’re old enough and together mark each week with a ‘D’ or an ‘M’ (or dad/mom if they’re old enough. This way the child can look at their calendar and know what’s coming and where they’ll be. If they are older and invited to do something with friends, they can look in their datebook and know where they’ll be. Flexibility is key here. If Father’s day falls on a mom week, consider dropping them off for the day or maybe a special overnight visit, and vice versa.

If you want to stay away from 50/50 physical custody: But you don’t want to be the every other weekend and one weeknight parent (understandable!)…consider splitting up your child’s waking hours 50/50 with them sleeping in the same house the majority of the time. This may look like: Kids live at dad’s but mom picks up from school three nights a week and then drops them off at dad’s right before bath or bed time. Every other weekend at mom’s, maybe longer stays at mom’s in the summer or during school breaks. Again, flexibility will be necessary but at least the kids have a solid sense of ‘home’.

Spend time as a family: I know this may sound impossible. Maybe the feelings seem too raw or unpleasant to be around each other, or explaining this to new boyfriends/girlfriends seems awkward. But think of what a gift it is to give to your child. Whether it’s a family dinner once a month, a trip to the zoo or local festival, or simply a group trip to the park. For your child to have some time in their lives when they don’t have to choose whether they are with mom or dad is about the nicest, most selfless thing you can give them (Deesha and Mike from co-parenting101 actually vacation together once a year. Amazing).

Make sure schools and day cares are completely ‘in the know’ regarding your custody arrangement: And to add to this, make sure they know that in no uncertain terms, questions regarding custody (even as simple as ‘Is your dad or mom picking you up this Friday?) are not to be directed to your child. They can call you or your ex and ask. This will require you and/or your ex calling or meeting with teachers every year, even when your kids are older and explaining how your custody arrangement works. Asking them to send home duplicates of newsletters and such (If the teacher is willing and organized enough, maybe one set one week and another set the other). I hated dealing with explaining my situation to a new teacher or administrator each school year. Please ensure that nobody puts that burden on your child.  Just because they are old enough to give the explanation themselves doesn’t mean that it’s their job or that they like doing it.

Buy doubles: duplicate the most loved or used possessions. Crayons, teddy’s, toys, charger cables (for phone or iPod), clothes, coats, shoes, etc; all those things that will make life easier for them if they don’t have to lug them back and forth instead of having them at each house. Imagine living out of a bag! No wonder most of these kids refer to their two homes as ‘mom’s house’ or ‘dad’s house’ instead of ‘my house’ or ‘our house’.  This one might seem expensive and you might feel like they have a bedroom at both houses and that should be enough, but think of it this way: Just because you buy a house furnished doesn’t make it feel like ‘home’.

Open Communication: Be prepared to continue communicating regularly about your child.  Discuss what they are up to, what friends they have, school projects or homework, extracurricular activities they want to participate in, upcoming events, etc.  Even if tension is high or there is conflict about issues such as support etc., be diligent in this communication.  If necessary, make a rule that the only discussion allowed is about your child.  If you can’t stand to talk in person or by phone, then do it by email.  Don’t expect your child to be the liason between you.  And don’t send them with notes to their other parent like they’re carrier pigeons.  Get used to talking or communicating in some way with each other.  Chances are you’ve got years of it ahead of you.

Communication continued: Make sure your children feel free to talk about anything with both of you.  Even your ex spouse.  Tell them directly that they can.  Say directly “You can tell me anything, I want to hear about all of your life, not just the parts that you’re with me”.  They might be excited to do something with their mom and they should be able to express that to their dad.  If a child of divorce says to one parent “Boy, I’m so excited to go to the zoo with dad next week!”, they shouldn’t hear in response “What, didn’t you like going to the beach with me last week?”, or even worse “I don’t want to hear about it”.  Bite your tongue if you have to and let them feel and express what they feel.  This goes for when they express something not so nice too.  If a child of divorce says “I’m really mad at you, I wish I was at mom’s”, or “I’m so mad at mom, I hate her (said to dad)”, don’t get caught up in defending yourself or your ex spouse.  Let your child feel what they feel and help them work through those feelings instead of trying to convince them they don’t really feel that way.

Communication (last one, I promise): Use of the phone should be free at all times.  The child of divorce should feel like they can call their other parent at any time.  Whether it’s to say goodnight, tell them some exciting news or just to say ‘hi’.  If your child is asking (once they can do it themselves, of course) permission to call, something is wrong.  They should feel free to simply pick up the phone and do so.  If they are still too young to use the phone themselves, then offer to call if they start talking about their other parent.  If they say something like “daddy really likes this ice cream too”, respond with something like “would you like to call him today?”.

Participate in your child’s extracurricular activities:  Don’t take the attitude that you only need to see their games,watch their practices or participate in their activities while your kids are staying with you.  Why would you?  All kids love having the support of both parents instead of feeling like their own fun activities are just one more thing that gets split up.

The kit and caboodle: Be honest.  All around, it’s just a good thing to be.  But in particular, when you are feeling something consider why?  Be honest about your feelings to yourself.  Try to see things from your ex partners perspective as well.  If tensions are high, think of things you both can do to reduce them and talk about it.  Don’t let fear rule you.  Fear that your child likes being with your ex more, that you aren’t doing a good enough job or that you are inadequate in some way serves nobody.  Get help if you need it.  Confide in family and friends and use all the resources you can to make things better.  Take care of you.  Take care of your children.


{ 2 trackbacks }

sharon farnham (dollslikeus) 's status on Friday, 14-Aug-09 11:59:00 UTC -
August 14, 2009 at 7:59 am
Making It Easier For Your Kids When You And Your Spouse Get Divorced — just parenting advice
November 20, 2009 at 11:35 am

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Natalie August 13, 2009 at 7:08 pm


You made such great points! I really hope that parents will take it to heart! Co-Parenting is definitely the best scenario for children of divorce. Having a solid Parenting Plan in place relieves the stress everyone experiences.

Thank you again for posting this information.



2 Carolyn August 13, 2009 at 8:37 pm

Thanks for stopping by Natalie! I actually just heard of software like yours. What a neat idea and talk about taking the guesswork out of so many things for co-parents. Great idea.



3 Natalie August 13, 2009 at 9:55 pm


Thank you. We strive to make it as user friendly and beneficial as we can. Helping to make the situation as stress free as possible is very important to us.

I have bookmarked your site and will definitely be visiting it in the future.



4 Becky @ Farmgirl Paints August 14, 2009 at 8:47 am

You made some really good points there. Fortunately I don’t have to worry about custody issues, I’m happily married. I can’t imagine the headache of having to do that.

Just stopping over from SITS. Hope you have a wonderful weekend.
.-= Becky @ Farmgirl Paints´s last blog ..My 200th post & giveaway! =-.


5 Peter Pan August 14, 2009 at 9:32 am

Shared vacations and time spent together as a family would be a difficult thing for the child to understand. How would you recommend the parents ensure the child understands what, when, where why. In the movies you always see the kids laying in bed at night wishing their parents will magically fall back in love.


6 Carolyn August 14, 2009 at 9:51 am

Hi Peter, I just emailed Deesha asking her to respond to your comment as well. Young children may fantasize that their parents will reconcile, but if they are it will happen with or without the vacation. It must be clear to the kids. A conversation may be in order stating that ‘Mom and dad aren’t getting back together. We just want to be able to spend some time all together for you’. Of course the parent’s conduct needs to reflect that as well.

Personally Peter, I never dreamed of my parents getting back together. I never wished for it or longed for it. BUT, whenever I heard or knew that they had talked or met to discuss their parenting of me, it made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Not because they might get together, but because my two parents were working together for my benefit. It’s an odd feeling to describe and one that children who don’t have divorced parents could hardly understand (because their parents are for the most part, always working together parenting them).

I know Deesha will be able to explain better than I can. She’s been there. She’s been the mom on vacation with her ex husband (and more recently his wife and her fiance). She’s seen her kids go through it and not have a problem with blurring the lines of their arrangement.

I look at my 4 yr old. Whenever we are sitting down and planning the day’s errands he will usually pipe up saying ‘I want us ALL to go!’. And that’s not because he wants to see my husband and I interacting as a couple. It’s because *he* doesn’t want to be separated from either my husband *or* I. It makes him feel good to be surrounded by his whole family. We children of divorce are no different.


7 deesha August 15, 2009 at 12:07 am

Carolyn, this is a fantastic post, all around. May I have permission to re-post it?

As to the question at hand…

Peter Pan wrote: “Shared vacations and time spent together as a family would be a difficult thing for the child to understand. How would you recommend the parents ensure the child understands what, when, where why. In the movies you always see the kids laying in bed at night wishing their parents will magically fall back in love.”

Many kids of divorce fantasize about their parents getting back together, whether the family vacations or not. This wishing doesn’t require anything happening in real life to support it; it’s simply a child’s deep desire.

As for helping the child understand what the family vacations are–and are not…this happens in the context of on-going conversations between the child and the parents, not just at vacation time. Hopefully, when parents have discussed divorce with their children, they have emphasized the permanence of their decision, as well as the continuing, unconditional love and care the child can expect. In our family, we talked about all the ways that divorce would change our family, and all the things that would stay the same, such as our individual commitment as parents to our kids, and to our enduring family. As we often say on, divorce ends marriages, but families endure. For us, vacationing and other outings with both parents are part of that commitment to family, because we know that it feels good and is important to our kids to have these times with both of us.

.-= deesha´s last blog ..Back to School Checklist for the Single Parent by RJ Jaramillo of =-.


8 Carolyn August 15, 2009 at 9:50 pm

Of course you may repost! Thanks for your comment. I love your philosophy of the family enduring through divorce. It’s unique and very special.


9 Theta Mom August 16, 2009 at 4:33 pm

You made so many good points in this post. I can’t even imagine how hard this must be on everybody, especially the kids. I think open communication, especially with the kids is most important. Parents need to be in tune to what they are feeling throughout this process.

Thanks for sharing this.


10 Carolyn August 16, 2009 at 9:00 pm

Thanks Heather! Communication really is key to having everything go as smoothly as possible. Custody issues are an integral part of the picture for both divorced parents and children of divorce.


11 hayley August 17, 2009 at 11:36 am

Caryoln, this is such a great post. My ex and I do not have shared physical for precisely all the reasons you mentioned. I do have sole physical even though we have shared custody. We co-parent as you say – and the only toy we don’t have together is Wii! Which, really, does a 5 year old kid need to play Wii every day of his life? No, I don’t think so! (And we explained it to him just like that.) We communicate, sometimes over communicate — even when it means we don’t agree. Again, excellent, and really well thought out.
.-= hayley´s last blog ..Fighting With Mr. T =-.


12 Carolyn August 17, 2009 at 11:06 pm

Thanks Hayley! Being that you are both a divorced parent and a grown up child of divorce, your compliment means a lot!


13 Talibah September 6, 2009 at 9:20 am

Excellent post! Our son is 7, and we have a 50/50 arrangment right now, at his request. His father lives about 7-10 minutes from us and we split the week and every other weekend. So far, based upon regular check-ins with everyone, things seem to be going well. He seems to understand his schedule, and so far, because we’re managing our communication well, we haven’t had too many bumps.

You’re so right about making sure that all of the other “stakeholders” in our child’s happiness understand our arrangement and his schedule. For us that means that the piano teacher and coach text us both with messages. The piano teacher has even committed his schedule to memory. His teacher knows and sees that we are both involved and also makes sure to communicate in duplicate.

Such great advice! And, like Deesha, I’d love to re-post with your permission.
.-= Talibah´s last blog ..Back to School Checklist for the Single Parent =-.


14 Carolyn September 6, 2009 at 11:08 am

Hi Talibah! I’ve been reading the awesome posts you just put up on your site too.

Thanks for including people like coaches and music teachers! It’s wonderful that your son’s piano teacher is so on top of things.

Of course you may repost this. I’d be honored!


15 fairyprincessmamma April 27, 2010 at 12:02 pm

You really make some great points! Many of which I have thought about… some I can apply, and others that can only be accomplished if the ‘other’ party is a willing participant. My ex lives quite close (15 mins), and although we have had a lot of ups and downs, things have started to settle down a bit (knock on wood)… he originally wanted a 50 50, but found it too much and so has relinquished his alternating tuesday (where he is working and was previously sending her to his mom’s house)… now she comes home to me Monday night. so now its more like 60 40 split. I try to be as flexible as possible, offering him to take her overnight when i work a graveyard shift but he doesn’t seem too interested in that (too inconvieniant for him to have to get up with her in the am says he)… so she stays with my mom… in her own bed.. (my mom lives in our suit downstairs). I find that providing her with as much predictability as possilble is key to her feeling most safe and secure. She knows on friday nights she is going to her dad’s and on monday night she comes home to mommy. I wanted her to be with me during the week…. when she has school…. since we live down the street from school and that is where friends and family attend… I tried to ensure the change in her little life would be as minimal (I know…. like that’s possible)… as I could provide… as for the vacations together…. i don’t see that happening… but I do think working towards a friendship with her father is of the utmost importance… So i eat up a lot of his abusive comments and cruel intentions….. and have vowed to avoid conversations in front of my child. It’s hard to argue with someone who doesn’t argue back… at least that is my theory… As for communication…. I believe you should give out… what you would like to receive…. so I share any and all information I feel is pertinent for her father to know….. he does not do the same for me…. but maybe one day he will see the value in it… I do not ever ask her to pass along info… I do this in a quick to the point email… I find that works best. And in regards to spending time together as a family…. birthdays are spent together…. we did Halloween together….and we have agreed to both attend any and all special activities in our child’s life… like plays, school events, extra cirricular activities…. I will always invite him… if he chooses not to attend I cannot control that… not sure he would extend the same to me.. Coparenting is a long hard road… and truly depends on each party’s willingness to commit to it… so what do you do when the other parent doesn’t see the significance? I struggle constantly with this task….


16 Carolyn May 11, 2010 at 1:30 am

It really sounds as if you are doing everything right that you can do. It’s impressive really, what you are enduring in the name of co-parenting. And although I’m sure it feels pretty thankless now, you know as a child of divorce yourself that your rewards will be reaped within your child and that I’m sure is what’s driving you.

I think you already know the answer to your question because it’s what you are doing each and every day. You lead by example. And just as you fear, he may never commit to it, but you will always be able to say to yourself and your child that you did. And that you never gave up.

You are doing the very best that you can with what you have to work with. And I’m not sure if anyone has really congratulated you for that or given you a pat on that back, but you deserve one. Stay strong. Stay steady. And consider your back patted (virtually) and know that your efforts are admired.


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