Updated: Nov 7, 2022
You’re about to sit down with your ex and work out how you will co-parent your children. You may be doing this over a coffee. You may have a mediator, child specialist or lawyers to help you. Perhaps you are outside the courtroom doors, trying to get something agreed before a Judge decides for you. Whatever the method, when it comes to parenting plans or agreements, I often see parents:
Trying to anticipate, and provide for, every single “what if…?” to the point they get overwhelmed and spending far more time and emotional energy on it than they need to.
Feeling pressured to get this plan “right” because they perceive this as THE PLAN. This.is.it. For the rest of their children’s childhood.
Feeling anxious and fearful that they will do the wrong thing in the plan and will have to live with that forever.
Rigidly insisting (or facing such insistence from their ex) that THE plan must be followed forever more, even in the face of that being impractical or undesirable.
If you can relate to some of that, press pause. Relax. Breath. Your parenting plan is not usually cast in stone forever.
Yes, your co-parenting agreement is important because it deals with what is most important to you – your children and their wellbeing. It is also important as it sets in place the care arrangements for your children at a time when you perhaps are struggling to communicate and work together as parents. Yes, it’s there in black and white and may have had input from lawyers. It may even be in a court order. Yes, you are obliged to follow the plan or order. However, it is not usually cast in stone forever.
Over time, things will change and, with them, your co-parenting arrangements will need to alter. At the very least, your children will grow older and with that, their needs will change. What was suitable for your child at 5 years old will not be suitable for him or her at 12 years old. The co-parenting arrangements will need to be revisited and changed to consider your child’s changing needs that come with his or her changing development. As they get older, they will start to flex their own autonomy and express their views about how they would like the arrangements to work.
You will change and so will your circumstances, even if that may feel unlikely or scary right now. I have assisted more than one set of parents to revise their parenting agreement after one parent decided to relocate. Likewise, I’ve seen a number of parents who, having been hands-on with the primary care of their children, grow to desire a less hands-on parenting arrangement in order to pursue their ambitions.
Furthermore, even if you are not there yet, hopefully you and your ex will reach a point where you can operate the co-parenting of your child flexibly, reach safe agreements together and mix things up to suit circumstances as they are at the time.
I am not saying relax to the point of not having a plan at all. Your children will want and need certainty and predictability in their care arrangements. They will want freedom from parental conflict over where they should be and when, who will take them to football, whether they should bring their clothes or have a set with each parent, whether they should be dropped at the top of the driveway or the bottom …etc etc etc etc. Having a parenting plan can meet this immediate need for predictability and order in your child's life. However, treating your parenting plan as a living document, one that evolves over time as you all do, can take some of the pressure out of coming up with a plan.
Treating your co-parenting plan as an evolving, living document means you can tailor the plan to your children's needs here and now. You can say good-bye to the angst of this being IT forever. Often parents come to me with ideas about their parenting plan that reflect their understandable desire to be present and involved in the parenting of their child and their notions of what is “fair”. Often what they are proposing is designed to give them greater security and soothe their fears. When we measure the proposals against what is reasonable given their child’s age and developmental stage, they often can fall short and are not realistic. This is often the case where children are very young. With older children who can express a view, this sometimes hasn’t been considered in the proposal.
Remembering that the plan isn’t cast in stone, consider what is appropriate here and now given your child’s stage of development. You may be able to forecast into the future a little as to what will be appropriate as the child becomes older. If you can, you could incorporate agreements about future, graduated changes to the plan to help future-proof it. Or, you could say "You know what? Let's agree to look at this again in 12 months/2 years/when its time to start school because we'll be dealing with the certainty of how things are then, rather than trying to crystal-ball gaze and predict".
Amid the uncertainty that you can face on separation, there is one certainty - over time, things will change some more! That thought may increase any anxiety you feel about the future but, when it comes to your parenting plan, it can allow you to ease up when it comes to your parenting plan!
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