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Before getting started on your parenting plan, you should understand the context in which your parenting decisions will be made.You Are Not Alone
During the last quarter century, the expectation that two people would meet, marry, raise a family, and grow old together has changed. Studies over the past 10 years have confirmed that couples who divorce will be most likely to do so after about seven years of marriage, and that two-thirds of these divorcing families will include at least one child under the age of six. Statistics also show that more than a million children each year for the past 25 years have lived through a divorce.
Other researchers have commented on the changing structure of the family. During the past 35 years, the divorce rate has quadrupled and births outside of marriage have increased by 22%. Many families relocate every few years, depriving these families of the benefits of living close to extended family. Researchers predict that nearly half of all babies born today will spend some time living in a one-parent family. A family in which biological parents stay together and raise their children to adulthood is now the reality only for about one-third of all couples. The new reality is that most parents will never marry, will marry and later divorce, or will create their families through artificial insemination or adoption.Keep Your Parenting Plan Focused on Your Children
You and your children's other parent are about to undertake a difficult but very important project: making the best possible decisions about your parenting arrangements. Of course, it may be hard to separate the desire to have nothing more to dowith your ex from the task of making decisions that are in your children's interest. After all, separation and divorce exist to solve adult problems, not to meet children's needs.
Even if your separation or divorce will be better for your children in the long run, for the short term most children feel that things are worse. Divorce or separation can shake a child's confidence that he or she will continue to be loved, cared for, and safe. This is true even when children understand the reasons behind the decision.
You and the other parent can help your children by using this book to develop an agreement that focuses on meeting your children's individual needs. The more attention you pay to those needs, the more likely you are to build an agreement that works for all of you.
You and the other parent must honestly assess your relationship as parents and your ability to work together. To keep your agreement focused on your children, you must be willing to trust each other and set aside your anger, frustration, and pain, at least for a while. If you've just separated, you may think it will be impossible to trust and cooperate with the other parent. Many find, though, that trustful and cooperative relationships usually evolve over time. One of the most effective strategies for moving toward this kind of relationship is to build on points of agreement until you have crafted a comprehensive parenting plan.Dealing With Grief, Anger, Pain, Relief, Fear, and Other Messy Emotions
Some compare the end of a marriage or other committed relationship to a death. The dreams that most of us bring to our relationships are huge. Add a child or children into the mix, and the combination is powerful indeed. Losing those dreams or seeing them fade away will stir powerful emotions in both parents. Add to this the fact that children go through their own worries, losses, and pain, and your divorce is likely to be a very difficult time -- at least at the beginning.
Is all of this "normal"? In many respects, it would be strange if the changes associated with separation or divorce were not terribly difficult at first -- even if you are the one who ended the relationship.
These are times where it makes sense to make space for feeling as if your emotions are "out of control," not knowing exactly how you feel, or wondering whether your feelings will ever settle down again. It is also a time to seek out some support. Powerful emotions are just part of the territory when relationships change or end. It's when you feel alone that the feelings can take over more of your world than may be healthy. Find good friends, relatives, a religious counselor, or trained mental health professional who can hear what you are feeling, and help keep things in perspective. In time, the initial pain and turmoil will lessen, and you will be able to move on to a more balanced frame of mind. Remember to look for support for your child as well. Some children feel best confiding in their parents, others worry about overloading an already-stressed parent, and so try to handle too much on their own.It Gets Easier Over Time
At the beginning, separation or divorce is often traumatic. Many people behave irrationally or seem unstable. As time passes, however, most parents regain their balance.
Let's look more closely at the typical emotional stages parents go through when they separate, and how these stages might affect each parent's ability to reach an effective, child-focused parenting plan.The First Few Weeks
Just before and just after the initial separation, you will probably feel confused. It may seem that there are an endless number of decisions to make, each of which appears to be the most important. You will probably ride a roller coaster of emotions. On any given day you may have intense feelings of rage, depression, abandonment, relief, grief, guilt, and excitement. In fact, you may decide that ending a relationship, or having one ended for you, has left you feeling like you are going crazy.
This is not the time to worry about charting a permanent course for your children's future. Instead, try to develop one or more short-term agreements that will allow you, the other parent, and your children to settle in to the new arrangements gradually. By taking it slowly, you will have time to see what makes the most sense in the long run. The key to success is to separate the adult relationship issues from the parenting issues and develop a clear, child-centered plan that each parent can easily follow.Divorce and Separation Aren't Only About Ending an Intimate Relationship
Separation and divorce occur on many levels, including emotional, financial, legal, social, and intimate. Given these complicated changes, you and your ex should think about how you will manage all of these aspects of splitting up. Your child will benefit most when you can separate the "adult" issues from the parenting issues and keep your child out of the middle.
As you and the other parent gain an understanding of the full scope of your new relationship and the ways in which you will take on new and separate lives, you will find that you are better able to chart your own course, and you will be pleased with the results of your efforts. In fact, the parents who express the greatest levels of satisfaction with their separate parenting agreements are those who take the time to negotiate comprehensive, child-focused agreements that both parents can support.
There are lots of books that can help parents cope at the beginning of a separation or divorce. See Chapter 17 for references.The First Few Months
Several months after the initial separation, your life will probably be a little calmer, but you may find that your relationship with the other parent can still provoke either or both of you in extreme and unexpected ways. Many parents find it hard to distance themselves from each other when they need to stay in contact because they share children. Your children can be a constant reminder of what has gone on (or has gone wrong) and what remains to be done. You may be experimenting with a new partner or a new approach to how you want to live your life. You may feel annoyed if the other parent's presence puts a damper on your newfound freedom.
At the other end of the spectrum, you or the other parent may still feel angry, sad, powerless, or abandoned, as you did when you first separated.
If you try to negotiate a parenting plan during this phase, you may find it extremely difficult to reach agreement on any but the easiest issues. Many parents, nevertheless, negotiate temporary parenting arrangements early on, especially to resolve a particular issue, such as where the children will attend school. These parents can start with Chapter 6 (Basic Elements) and address only the most pressing issues until they are ready to handle more.