Divorcing fathers in the United States are seeing more and more the availability of joint custody with their former spouses. Recent publications by the American Psychological Association and others suggest that well developed joint custody arrangements are often best for helping children survive the impacts of divorce.
Like all good dads in a divorce situation, you want what's best for your children, so you decide to try the joint custody route. So maybe the kids are at your place three days a week and at your wife's three days a week and you get every other weekend. How do you successfully coordinate the scheduling, parenting and other challenges of share custody?
After talking to many fathers personally, by email and in the Fatherhood Forum, I have found five important keys to making joint custody work.
1. Put the kids first. I know of no more important attitude for a father with joint custody than putting the needs of their children first. There will be times you and your kids' mom need to compromise in order to make this happen. While, for example, you agree to have piano lessons on "her days," there will be times the lessons have to be moved to "your days." Understand and accept the realities of parenting and be flexible. Make sure that the needs of your children are more important to you than your convenience and schedule.
Make sure that you don't just take the "Disneyland Dad" approach that many moms complain about. That is, making sure the kids only have fun when they are with you and leave the hard parenting to their moms. Take an active role as a parent. Do homework with them. Volunteer to help with their science fair project. Be their cub scout den leader or help the girls earn girl scout badges. Make sure you are keeping their needs first.
2. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Next to putting kids first, the best thing you can do is to keep the lines of communication open. Keep talking to their mom and keep her in the loop. Whether or not you can still stand your ex, you need to for the kids's sake. Make sure you both know what is going on in their lives. Keep a detailed schedule so you know what is expected. When discipline problems arise, talk it over with their mom. And keep the kids in the loop as well. Make sure they know that you care enough to communicate effectively.
Expectations can be a challenge when the kids' parents don't live together. Try to coordinate on what you expect. If mom needs them to do chores at her house, try to keep them on task at yours. By coordinating and communicating, you bring some semblance of security and consistency to their lives.
3. Show interest in them. Related to putting kids first is the need to make sure they know you are interested in them. Go to their school play, concerts, piano recitals, soccer games and the like. Talk to them about what interests them, what is happening in their lives and their social circles. Sometimes there is a temptation for shared custody dads to "delegate" these things to the mom and to be little more than a caretaker when the kids are with dad. Don't let that happen to your kids.
4. Respect your Ex. This is maybe the hardest rule of all, and one that many dads in shared custody relationships don't follow. But it is a key to keeping your kids close to you. Always show respect to your children's moms in their presence. Never be critical of her. Help them continue to love her, no matter how bad you feel she treated you (or them). Some dads (and lots of moms) behave as if their children must choose sides. "If they love her, they must not love me." WRONG! Children can and should love both their parents in a share custody situation. Take the high road on this one; in the long run, your attitude toward the kids' mom is a big determiner of how they feel about you. If you want to be close to your kids now and later, respect their mom.
5. Avoid having a serious relationship. Now I know some of you dads will complain about this one. After all, those Friday and Saturday nights alone can get lonely. But during a time when you are sharing custody, it is a bad idea to get close to a woman, and, in the opinion of many family therapy professionals, the worst time to remarry. Let's face it-if you are doing parenting right, you help the kids know they come first. When the feel your attention divided or diverted, life takes a bad turn for them. So cool any relationship that might be leading to marriage or to making you a POSSLQ (Census-speak for persons of opposite sex sharing living quarters). Be friends, date, have a good time, but don't get serious while you are sharing parenting duties.