When my parents divorced in the 1970s, my mom got custody of my two sisters and me. My father moved out of state and had visitation rights. He would show up irregularly for awkward visits. As a result, my father never did day-to-day parenting chores that are pure expressions of love. The consequences for me: feelings of powerlessness and confusion.
"Custody'' is now a thing of the past as Florida has joined a nationwide trend that instead mandates that parents work out a child-sharing arrangement on their own terms.
So my friend Tere’s divorce takes a completely different approach to parenting in two households. Her child-sharing agreement with her ex-husband on their 3-year-old son reflects equality.
"We decided to hire a private mediator and not to do a divorce with lawyers because of our limited funds," Tere said. "So that we could craft something we could both agree on."
What they came up with is a schedule that divides their son’s time evenly during the week between both parents, with a similar set-up of the boy’s necessities and belongings at both homes.
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"In mediation, we asked, ‘What was best for our son and us?' '' Tere said.
The agreement covers how they divide their son’s time during the week, as well as other scenarios, like when they could introduce new love interests to their son. They even discussed what would happen if one of them got a job in another state. Their solution: Both of them would have to move there to continue sharing parental duties.
The aim of the state's new approach is to protect the children's feelings and to send the message that the marriage may be over, but parenthood is forever.
"Emotions are intense during divorce," Tere said. "But it’s important to step back from all of that. I kept thinking, ‘I have to deal with this person for the rest of the life of my child. I need to respect him and his wishes to make this work.' ''
Several services are out there to help divorcing parents arrive at a plan.
Miami-Dade County, with nearly 5,000 divorce cases with children filed last year, is the only state court circuit with Family Court Services.
If parents can't agree on a plan, the court will impose one.
Here are some tips for establishing a Parenting Plan during divorce:
TAP INTO TOOLS
Coral Gables child psychologist Jerome Poliacoff said meeting with a mediator is less contentious and money-saving. Experts say the best possible scenario is that both you and your ex-spouse know what you want before you step foot into court. Miami family law attorney Alliette Carolan advises assessing what your attorney’s approach is to divorce, mediation and parenting plans before you sign on.
Boca Raton mediator Elinor Robin suggests the best possible set-up for creating a parenting plan is for the divorcing couple to sit down with or without a mediator and create one on their own. Assess your and your children’s needs and schedules. Nitty-gritty details such as when a weekend starts need to be defined. ‘‘The point is to avoid fighting today, tomorrow and five years from now," Robin said.
BE HONEST AND STAND UP FOR YOURSELF
Verbalize what you want parenting post-divorce to look like.
Don’t just agree to something you are not going to abide by or it will lead you back to court, said Vivian Perez-Pollo, director of mediation services in Miami’s 11th Judicial Circuit Court.
"With this change in law, there is no presumption that children will spend equal time with the mother and father," said Miami family law attorney Aliette Carolan. "The time arrangement has to be decided by the parents."
DON’T MINIMIZE OTHER PARENT
Consider that there must have been something that brought you together initially and something redeeming in their role as parent. "In one divorce case, a father was a soccer player from Brazil," Perez-Pollo said. "The mom conceded that the father should have a role in the parenting plan taking their son to soccer games and practicing with him."
DON'T ESTRANGE CHILD FROM OTHER PARENT
Don’t ask children to deliver messages to their other parent. Don’t shut off that part of their life from the discussion. Speak freely and without judgment with your children about their visits with their other parent. Therapist Tania Paredes tells her clients to make a family day or meal time -- even after divorce.
TALK ABOUT IT
Give your kids a clear explanation of what is going on and keep on the lookout if your child is having problems dealing with the separation. Perez-Pollo suggests giving your child an object like a keychain that they can give you at any time to show they need to talk.
Tere makes a monthly calendar for her 3-year-old son to understand where he’ll be spending the night.
And if your children are too young or can’t handle the weight of the decision, don’t ask them to decide how the parenting plan should be structured.
WHEN YOU HIT A WALL, GET HELP
Miami’s 11th District Family Court is the only one in the state that includes free or cheap services, including mediation, mental health professionals, parenting and counseling courses and parenting coordinators.
If you and your ex can’t agree on a parenting plan, or things get violent, or communication becomes impossible, you will be referred to oustside services. Susan Scholz-Rubin of Miami Counseling and Resource Services sees high-conflict divorcing families with such poison built on anger that they pass that fear to their children.
"Try not to fight to win," she said.