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    Divorce: Negotiating Your Parenting Agreement

    Excerpted from
    Getting Divorced Without Ruining Your Life: A Reasoned, Practical Guide to the Legal, Emotional and Financial Ins and Outs of Negotiating a Divorce Se
    By Sam Margulies, Ph.D., J.D.

    Scheduled access to die children should provide an opportunity for them to share the lives of both parents. Special occasions and treats should occur with about the same regularity as in married families. Children should not come to expect special entertainment every time they see their father. They should have an opportunity to "hang out" with the father, share quiet time, make lunch, do the laundry, go grocery shopping, or even do nothing together for an afternoon.

    If it is the father's day to be with the child and the child is sick, the child should not stay home with the mother unless she or he is literally too sick to travel to the fathers home. Fathers are capable of entertaining sick children, reading to them, and cleaning up after them. In other words, the key to maintaining a full parenting role is to assume a full parenting role. Both parents are capable of the full range of nurturing behavior, including those dull, repetitive, and often unpleasant tasks that go with the territory.

    These are the considerations that go into negotiating the written contract. Now let's look briefly at some of the agreements that you need to make that do not get written down.

    Let Your Spouse Be Competent

    The requirement that fathers master a broader repertoire of parenting skills imposes on the mother a reciprocal obligation to promote such mastery. For many men, the full range of tasks that come with being a single parent is something new. Even though the majority of mothers are employed, most studies suggest that working mothers perform the same domestic chores performed by nonworking mothers. In other words, women tend to run the household and to be more responsible than men for supervising the daily affairs of the children. There are, of course, families in which these tasks are evenly shared, and when these families divorce, there is less of an adjustment to make. There are also a few families in which the father plays the domestic role, but these families are unusual.

    Fathers who seek to fully parent their children after separation and divorce need to learn how to do most of the things they previously left to their wives. These may include cooking, cleaning, laundry, and other such tasks. It also means planning and arranging for the kids, being emotionally available, comforting them, taking care of them when they're sick, and otherwise nurturing as necessary. While they learn, they need others to support, not belittle, their efforts or shaky first steps. Whether your spouse is the child's mother or father, it is in your interest that he or she succeed as a parent.

    Resolve Your Differences Privately

    Differences between you and your spouse should be addressed directly and in private. Your children should not be allowed or invited to participate overtly or covertly. If you disapprove of something your spouse has done, tell him or her, but do it privately. Seek comfort from your friends, your relatives, your clergy, or your therapist, but not from your children.

    The most challenging and most important aspect of any co-parenting relationship is your ability to help your child maintain a full and satisfying relationship with the other parent. It is absolutely essential to the well-being of the child that she or he be able to believe that she has two good parents who love her and will take care of her.

    Although you may be very angry at your spouse and regard him or her at times as a terrible person, you must not transmit that message to your child. This can be very difficult, particularly when you feel that you are the victim in the divorce. Victims frequently seek solace from their children and subtly subvert the children into playing a parental role for them. It is a terribly destructive thing to do. Children have a right to be children and to be taken care of by their parents.

    The sense of betrayal that one parent may feel is easily transmitted to the children. A mother who is left by her husband casually refers to the fact that "Daddy left us" or "Daddy doesn't love us anymore." Or the mother short on cash tells the children that "Daddy's too selfish to give us enough money." Or the father undermines his wife's authority by telling the kids, "If you're unhappy with your mother, come live with me." These and other comments that express your resentment weaken the bond between your children and their other parent. They also teach the child early in the divorce that he can divide and conquer by manipulating his parents and playing them against each other. Children are not oblivious to power and influence. Your running down the other parent can create a competitive scheme in which the child is allied alternately with you and then your spouse, depending on which one accedes to the child's wishes.

    In the end, when you undermine the relationship between the child and the other parent you pay a heavy price. You have a troubled child who becomes your sole responsibility. Despite negative feelings for your former mate, you destroy your own resources when you sabotage that relationship. You also open an avenue for attempts to do the same to you, and you increase the chance of problems with the child.

    Mind Your Business When the Child is
    with the Other Parent

    When the child is with the other parent, your position must be one of noninterference. Before you jump on your ex for feeding the children food you disapprove of, for letting them stay up too late, et cetera, ask yourself if it is really worth it. Your inability to mind your business when your child is with your ex-spouse will probably be far more damaging in the long run than all the candy bars in the world. Do not direct, do not criticize, and do not rescue. Let the children and their mother or father deal with one another. Let them work out their relationship.

    It is undoubtedly troubling when the other parent takes a radically different approach to nutrition, bedtime, or discipline. But children adapt to different rules in two households. It is easier when you are in agreement on these things, as consistency may be easier on the kids. But differences must be respected, or the conflict over these assumes disproportionate importance. If the other parent is too permissive, let him or her cope with the consequences. (If you must disapprove, do it privately, away from the child.)

    On the other hand, it does help when you can accommodate a strongly felt preference of the other parent. Some parents have very strong feelings about nutrition, for example. You may not agree. But is it sufficiently important that you cannot accommodate it? There will be many honest differences you will both have to live with, but where you can meet your ex-mate's strongly felt principles without major sacrifices, why not? It may get you what you want next time in another area.

    The point here is that your ability to lead your life reasonably well depends in large measure on how well your children do when they are with the other parent. That requires a competent parent at the other end, and your cooperation or sabotage (as you choose) can make a difference.

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