Fair Time Sharing and Transitions Between Homes


There is a phenomenon in our country—loads of children (exact percentages are unknown) are living in more than one home, or “time sharing” with both of their parents. I was generally ignorant to this trend for most of my life—those were the “other” people who were not like me. When I first heard of divorced parents sharing their kids in this manner, I thought that the children were being objectified for the benefit of parents who couldn’t figure out how to give their kids a single, stable home. I was clueless.

As a divorced parent with two children, I now understand how badly children need both of their parents. It simply would not do to deprive my son of the dad who is teaching him how to be a man, of the person who has loved him tenderly since birth, of the father who sits on the floor for hours playing legos with him. It wouldn’t be fair to his dad, either—and that matters. Family bonds should be safe for the benefit of parents and children alike.

On Friday evenings when I drop the children off at their dad’s, Halle runs up to her father and says, “I ‘loveded’ you while I was at mommy’s.” There is a place in her heart for daddy that no one else will fill. Had I sought to have my kids live with me most of the time, I may have won. But the kids would have missed out on crucial memories with their dad plus the core emotional stability imbued to a child who experiences the clear and obvious devotion of both his parents. (This is no slight to the amazing single parents out there who are going it alone, and not by choice. Hats off to you!)

Even when I’m longing for them, I fall back on the knowledge that this set-up is fair, and best for my children. I refocus my thoughts on growing my own identity in a way that is not solely rooted in being a mother. It is during those weeks apart from them that I swim more laps, visit with friends, make fancier dinners for Todd, work longer hours, read more books and sleep ’til 7. Of course, I’d give it all up in a minute.

The fairness of our arrangement doesn’t lessen the impact of time-sharing on the kids. They thrive on getting lots of uninterrupted time with both parents, but living in two homes takes its toll.

I got to experience this first hand when my ex and I first separated. For 6 months, the kids lived at our home while he and I went back and forth between the house and an apartment. The dwellings were completely different, and so were the lifestyles. I felt torn in two. It was during these months that my ex and I thought about ways to mitigate that feeling for the kids, who would ultimately shoulder that split. We’ve continued to think about and talk about this issue along the way.

I’m writing a series of posts entitled “Transitions” that will be about some of the ways that we’ve tried to make time-sharing easier on them, and I’ll lead off with a decision we made during mediation regarding the transition between homes.

When my time with the kids comes to a close, I take them to their dad’s as a gesture of good will. Driving them there, walking them inside and greeting my ex is a blessing for the children. It gives them peace to know that I’ve entrusted them to their other parent.

No matter what your parenting plan states, I encourage divorced parents to take up this practice. Our mediator said words that couldn’t be truer: Co-parenting is going well when you forget about your mediated parenting plan. You really only need it when you’ve abandoned the flexible, open co-parenting relationship you should have, and when you’ve denied that your ex is every bit the parent you are.

Even when my ex and I have hit bumps in the road over emotional or practical matters, the practice of visibly entrusting the children to each other has motivated us to move forward positively, and it has protected the children from the pain of knowing we have a disagreement.

When my ex brings the kids over on Friday evenings, he usually walks them to my front door. They rush inside to hug me and greet their stepsiblings and Toddy. They say goodbye to their dad, and he wishes them a good week. Sometimes he and I talk for a minute in the foyer. My ex and I aren’t falsely jovial with one another, and sometimes we don’t talk, but the transition is casual and the pressure is off. The kids don’t have an awkward burden placed on them. They also don’t sit in the car and wait for me to come fetch them. Instead, I usually wait inside, to allow them those last few moments with their dad and to give him the opportunity to hand them over on his terms.

I don’t pretend that our way is the only way, but I am confident that it is the best way to handle this particular issue, provided that both parties in the former couple have transportation, good health and sanity.

This morning I spoke with a mother whose son’s transition from his father’s house to hers is problematic. It goes a little something like this.

He and his son approach her front door (so far so good), and the father cultivates separation anxiety in his son by showing his own sadness at separating. He expresses how much he’ll miss his son, and then tells him all the wonderful things they’ll do when they’re reunited (mind game). He tells his son his own plans for the next week in detail—his upcoming meetings and travel schedule—to create a clear picture in his son’s mind (pure manipulation!). Then he reminds the son that his stepbrother will be missing him terribly, and will cry for him at night (a real zinger). Calming the son fills the rest of the mother’s evening.

When she noticed that this style of farewell had become a pattern for her ex, she arranged to pick her son up at school instead, which has been a vast improvement (way to go, mom!).

I know of a mother who sends her daughters off by encouraging the older daughter to look after the younger one while they are at their dad’s, thereby temporarily transferring parenting responsibility to the older daughter. This diminishes the older daughter’s trust in her father (boo!).

Another angle to transitioning between homes is when one parent builds up the other in an artificial manner to conceal real feelings. How about the father who loathes his ex, but says to his son, “Have a wonderful time with your mommy. She loves you so much and I know she has a great week planned for you. Remember that she is taking you to the circus Saturday, and and you will see all your favorite animals. There are going to be tigers jumping through fiery hoops!” My opinion: this is overkill, and even kids can sniff it out. Be real. Say goodbye like a normal human being. Your kids will thank you for it later.