Married or not, all good parents want the same thing—to do what’s best for their children. That’s why it’s so critical to co-parent effectively with one’s ex. In New Jersey, most parents are granted joint custody. Coparenting, though a non-legal term, is how the courts and mental
health practitioners prefer parents make choices. “The goal is to be as inclusive as possible with both parents making decisions for their children. The word ‘co’ referring to parents is significant,” says Short Hills-based family lawyer, Evan Weinstein. “Most mental health professionals believe children benefit from having two parents involved on a near equal basis whenever possible.” It’s good for the kids, but can be complicated for parents who need to make every major decision as a team even post-divorce.
START OFF STRONG
Custody decisions, often made during the initial separation, kickstart negotiations and provide the foundation for a more comprehensive plan. If there’s an issue, the courts will require mediation to resolve them. We know: the thought of only seeing your babies part-time hurts. So it makes sense that parents might fight for what’s “fair” to them. “This is a mistake,” says Amie Wolf-Mehlman, a Caldwell-based psychologist with a focus on parenting and divorce-related issues. “Instead, focus on what will work best for your children, making sure they can see and feel that they are your main priority. This will enhance your relationship with your children more than that extra overnight.”
“A well-thought-out plan has flexibility built-in, but is well-defined and easy to follow so children understand where they’re going to be and what is going on,” says Weinstein. To that end, a simple schedule is ideal even if it means giving up time.” So what else is in the agreement, aside from custody? “Parents can agree on whatever is best for their children—as long as it’s legal,” says Weinstein. Holiday, vacation and birthday schedules are typically noted, as are camps and summer plans. Extracurricular activities and special needs therapies are frequently included as well.
Parents may include daily requests like phone calls when away and screen time allowances, along with weighty directives on discipline (i.e. no corporal punishment), religion and private vs public school. Even dietary restrictions are on the table (i.e.: respect our daughter’s vegan diet). Once drafted by an attorney and signed by all, plans are enforceable as part of the judgement of divorce.
AIM FOR FLEXIBILITY
The perfect plan—if there is such a thing—allows for as much wiggle room as is workable. “Parents who co-parent well together can manage a parenting plan that is flexible, while parents who are at odds do best with a fairly rigid plan,” says Wolf-Mehlman. “Having to negotiate changes increases conflict, and conflict is a primary factor in causing children distress.” No one wants that. What you do want, according to Weinstein, is “a good working agreement with flexibility for change” along with an expectation that there may be a need for occasional modifications as children change and grow.
ACCEPT HELP WHEN NEEDED
If there’s a struggle to stay on the same page, a parent coordinator can help finesse agreed-upon plans to better make them work. According to Wolf-Mehlman, these mental health professionals specialize in helping divorced parents navigate the murky waters of post-marriage family life—they can be a blessing when the adults are at an impasse. “They’re especially helpful in high-conflict parenting cases,” says Weinstein.
PUT THE “CO” IN COVID
The courts still expect parties to adhere to the parenting plan during coronavirus to the extent that it’s safe, according to Weinstein. But what is considered safe? “When one parent is strict about adhering to guidelines and the other is not, this creates problems for both households, and puts the child in the middle,” says Wolf-Mehlman.
“When there is disagreement, parents can agree to follow the advice of a trusted third party, such as the child’s pediatrician. “If, however, there’s a serious reason to deviate from the plan (for example, a parent refuses to wear masks), a request to the court to intervene can be made—however, it will be a temporary change only.
TALK DON’T SQUAWK
The one thing all successful co-parents do is talk to each other. “The have great communication,” says Weinstein. “The lines are open and they’re receptive to the other party, because it’s not about them but their children.” If warm interactions elude you both, at least keep it civil and straightforward.
“Co-parents who fight, especially those who fight over things related to the children, and even worse who fight in front of the children, are almost certain to have children with stress, anxiety, depression, and other difficulties,” says Wolf-Mehlman. This includes indirect fighting like bad-mouthing or making kids an intermediary.
FOCUS ON WHAT’S IMPORTANT — YOUR KIDS
Bottom line, a plan is important but it’s the parenting that really matters. So he’s 20 minutes late dropping the kids off. She wants to swap weekends—again. Be agreeable. Let it go. Says Wolf-Mehlman: “Determine what is really important and what is less so, and then to the extent possible, let go of the small stuff.”
—Jennifer Kantor is a lifestyle and parenting writer. She lives in Maplewood with her two children.