“What influences the child are the long-term circumstances of life during the post divorce years. As couples exit the courthouse steps, profound changes in parent-child relationships lie ahead. …As we have seen in many homes, parenting erodes almost inevitably at the breakup and does not get restored for years, if ever.”
– Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, pp. 311, 308)
Understanding the challenges of parenting after divorce
Parenting changes rather dramatically after a divorce. Effectively parenting children in two separate households is a much different task than parenting from an intact family. Many of these changes might be things you’ll enjoy – it doesn’t take long before parents appreciate the benefits of having time to themselves while the kids are at their mother’s or father’s house. But these changes can also make quality parenting more difficult, and it’s far too common for this dual-household parenting situation to result in a measurable decline in the quality of care children receive. This is one of the most potentially harmful aspects of divorce.
The good news is that both parties willing, it is quite possible to maintain high parenting standards and good quality of care even after a divorce. It just means adjusting your parenting to fit this new lifestyle. Although there is no miracle cure for these issues, we hope that by going over the dilemma’s that parents commonly face, you’ll at least know what to expect and be better prepared to meet these challenges as they arise.
Some of the challenges we’ll discuss in this chapter speak directly to you as a parent. Others are issues that may come up with your ex that ultimately impact their parenting of your children. Either way, they are issues you should be aware about.
Disruptions in parenting after divorce
“In divorced families…because the child lives only part-time or even half-time with her father or sees him according to a set schedule, their interaction is not a given. …Their relationship must be created from the more limited interactions they enjoy or, if things are not going well, do not enjoy. The potential for disappointment and hurt, or for misunderstanding on both sides, is omnipresent. The opportunities for making up after a quarrel, for doing better, are more limited. It’s as if the myriad daily interactions of the father-child relationship have to flow through the narrow end of a funnel. Relationships feel constrained by the clock because they are being interrupted constantly.”
– Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000)
The situation described above illustrates one of the fatal flaws in parenting apart. When time together is divided by chunks of time apart, it makes it harder to develop rapport between you and your child. The nature of parenting changes when it’s constantly being interrupted for custody transitions.
Though there is no way to avoid this issue outright, there are a few things we suggest that can smooth things around the edges:
- A) In the same way that marriage partners will make the rule “never go to bed angry,” parents and kids should try to adhere to the rule: always end a visitation or your parenting time together on good terms. This doesn’t mean that parents run away from any and all quarrels, but it should mean that no matter what quarrels arise, they stop arguing and put them aside at the end. Agree to sideline the issue and revisit it again later. No matter how upset you are, each visit should end with affection. There’s plenty of time to argue later.
- B) Avoid bringing up contentious issues towards the end of the visit. Most things can wait.
- C) Smooth over this problem by continuing daily contact through phone calls or other means when the child is at the other parent’s house.
Maintaining consistency is difficult
When people talk about parental inconsistency after divorce, the conversation usually focuses around parents who each decide to do things their own way, thus offering no consistency in terms of parenting. But this covers up a deeper structural issue: not all of this inconsistency is intentional. It can become an issue even among parents who are otherwise cooperating with one another, not because of malice or callous disregard, but because it becomes harder to know what the other parent is doing (or has done) when parenting apart.
Think hard, and I’m sure you’ll remember plenty of times when the kids asked the other parent something, got an unfavorable answer, and then came to you asking the same question. There were probably a number of times you gave a contradictory answer, unaware of what the other parent had told them. And this was while living under the same roof. This problem will only grow after you separate, because it becomes even harder to stay on the same page when you can’t merely holler downstairs and confer with the other parent.
Each parent needs to recognize these difficulties, and show patience if the other person accidentally steps on their toes in trumping a decision they made. It’s bound to happen quite often, usually unintentionally. You can help curb this somewhat by trying to communicate back and forth and call when you’re uncertain, but this won’t address the problem completely.
Children can become leftovers
Most parents who divorce don’t remain single for the rest of their lives. In fact, the majority will enter new relationships within several years. Unfortunately, this can often place children from the old marriage in an awkward position.
These relationships are more than just new partners for adults; they lead to the formation of new family structures, each with new goals, hopes, and plans for the future. This quite routinely conflicts with the goals and interests of the kids from the previous marriage. For example, let’s say dad meets a new woman and they get married. His physical, mental, and emotional energy is now going to be directed at building the family around this new relationship. Perhaps this woman brings new kids that she has primary custody of, or perhaps she is childless and wants to start a family of her own. Either way, because the parent is focused on maintaining this new relationship, he or she will tend to tilt their resources towards the new family, especially when push comes to shove.
In an ideal world, parents have limitless time and devotion to go around. In the real world, they don’t. So when these new priorities enter the equation, children from the old marriage often find that they get squeezed out of their role. They are the “old” family, the product of a failed marriage. These other people are the new family, the family of the current, and most profoundly, the family of the future. When parents are being squeezed by the demands of parenting multiple children, do they pour their support for college into the children from the “old” family, or do they support the children from their family of the future? Parents should be aware that future stepmothers or stepfathers may exert quite a bit of control over what actions your ex does or does not take towards caring for the children.
DES Parenting after divorce is different than parenting from an intact family. This information will prepare you for what you can expect.