One of the most important parts of the divorce process is figuring out how you and your ex will change your relationship to co-parents of your children. What used to be called “custody” and “visitation” is now thought of as developing a parenting plan. This includes decision-making around important issues like your children’s education and medical care, as well as the time you each spend with the children – day to day, on holidays and vacations, and what happens in case of emergency.
When I was growing up, children whose parents were divorced usually stayed “home” with their Mom, and visited with their Dad every other weekend. That thinking has all changed now, in large part due to Dr. Isolina Ricci’s work, which was groundbreaking when they were released. One is Mom’s House, Dad’s House, and the other is its companion, Mom’s House, Dad’s House for Kids. While the books have been around for decades, they still resonate and have much to offer.
It is important to help your children make the transition from having one home to two homes – one with each parent. Both are your children’s “real” homes. And it is important for the kids to feel secure and safe in both places. You do not lose anything by encouraging your children to be “at home” with the other parent.
Dr. Ricci maps out the steps to creating this new reality:
Stage One – The Dream Home – Trust and Respect Intact. Your family starts with two parents and the children, all living together, parents working to make ends meet, children growing, a stable home.
Stage Two – Problems at Home – Trouble and Discord. Tension builds, perhaps slowly at first, parents become less content. Perhaps there is one specific triggering event, perhaps problems develop gradually over time.
Stage Three – The Dividing Home – Severe Difficulties. The intensity and frequency of parental conflict escalates until it is just intolerable for one or both parents to live together. The children may seem to ignore it or may respond with physical or behavioral maladies. Everyone is feeling stressed out, and perhaps overwhelmed.
Stage Four – The Divided Home – Separation. The physical separation finally happens. Despite the fact that there is less fighting, this can often lead to a psychological shock for everyone involved. It is the beginning of the realization of a new reality, the developing of new expectations. There can be a lot of grieving during this time.
Stage Five – Mom’s House, Dad’s House – Off the Wall, Troubled but Separate. At first this time can seem totally overwhelming. The budget that was tight for one household now has to be stretched over two. Each parent has to adjust to living without the other, and children will often miss the parent they are not with, and long for an intact family. Everyone has to make a million little adjustments. This is the time when you are re-writing your family history. It is important for both parents to take extra care of themselves during this time, and to stay very well connected to each child. Take extra care to be respectful in your communications with the other parent.
Stage Six – Mom’s House and Dad’s House – The Reshaping Process Settles Down, “I’ve Survived, I’m Coping.” During this time, each parent is separately getting accustomed to the new reality – figuring out how he or she will balance work and home, perhaps looking for a new job or other ways to increase the family budget. Everyone is getting used to the new schedule, possibly using an online calendar and structuring more formal ways of communicating. There may be tensions as new occasions arise (e.g. the first holidays, soccer games, weddings…) or as each parent gets settled, but for the most part, parents are muddling through, staying emotionally connected with the children and guiding them through the transition.
Stage Seven- Mom’s House and Dad’s House – From Coping to Creating, Two One-Parent Households. By this time, the households are stable. The parents are getting on with their lives, and so are the children. Everyone is accustomed to the schedule, and children become experts at navigating their different but solid relationships with each parent. Parents become more like business partners, with respectful boundaries, as they work together to raise their children.
Of course, while all of this is going on, you are often negotiating the terms of your separation agreement, either through mediation, collaborative process, or working with lawyers. Mediation and collaborative process can lead to better and more direct communication, and you can use your sessions to work together to make a smoother transition for everyone.
It might help to think of this as a journey as you each get used to a new chapter in your lives. And it is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes focused effort, getting out of your comfort zone until you find your new center and help the children find theirs. The goal is for your children to be fully present in both homes.
This new reality, as Dr. Ricci says, “is worth the work and the wait.” It is an invaluable gift to you and your family.