When couples separate a parenting plan is developed. Will that be the plan that exists forever ?

Couples develop parenting plans with their mediators or attorneys in the process of separating. This can sometimes be a very difficult task. When it is done well, it is very comprehensive and deals with as many contingencies as possible, to avoid future conflict between the parents. The parenting plan explains the daily schedule the child(ren) will follow, specifically when they will sleep at each parent’s home. It also details the times and places of transitions, which are particularly applicable when the children are young. The parenting plan also details the holiday and vacation schedule which needs to be worked out between the parents to ideally fill many of each parent’s needs. This is often difficult and painful. Holidays like Thanksgiving only happen one day a year. Generally, to be fair, this day is alternated each year, so every other year one parent does not celebrate with their child(ren). The plan is developed based on the needs of the parents and child(ren) at the time of the separation.

Vacations are always a big issue. When the children are in school, the days off are usually split between the two parents so each can have time with the kids. Summer also needs to be discussed and plans need to be made. The tricky thing about parenting plans is that while they are “law” as they are signed and agreed upon in court with a divorce, they inevitably need to change when children’s needs change. For example, if a plan is developed when a child is three years old, it must include babysitters/nannys to care for the child when the parents are at work. Young children need to see their primary caregivers frequently as they are in the attachment phase of growing up. If both parents are equally involved in daily caretaking, it makes sense for the plan to involve both parents with frequent time so the child can remain attached and not feel abandoned by either parent. This may necessitate frequent transitions which works well for young kids. However, as the child gets older, frequent transitions are not advisable, as the child needs to be able to have time to settle in and not go from house to house so frequently, and it is better to be in one place for a few days. This might require an adjustment in the parenting plan. Summer vacation can also change a lot, particularly if the child(ren) want to go away to summer camp. If they are away for 2 weeks, 3, 4 or more, the remaining time needs to be divided between the parents in a way that is fair and works in the parent’s schedule. Another good example is a change from split to whole weekends. When children are young, sometimes split weekends work well for both parents and kids. But when they get older and have activities and sleepovers with friends, if one parent only has the child for one night and s/he was invited to sleep at their best friend’s house, the parent will not have time with the child. If each parent has a full weekend, the child will be freer to begin to develop their own life, which is important to encourage as s/he gets older. The important point is that parenting plans generally need to change as the children get older and needs change.

If the parents get along well enough, they can make the changes and go on with thier lives. One couple I know changed the schedule because a new girlfriend also had joint custody and was on opposite times from the dad. Dad asked his ex if she would change the schedule so he and his girlfriend could be on the same times with and without the kids, and she readily agreed. Now, that is ideal. But all situations aren’t that easy. When parents cannot get along, the help of a Parent Coordinator can ideally be beneficial to facilitate the conversation and help the parents resolve the conflicts. Changing parenting plans is a frequent request for PC’s and as long as both parents agree to the changes it becomes the new plan.