By Syd Sharples
Get in step with your ex to make this summer less stressful
Summers introduce a new rhythm to family life. Children are home from school, many parents must schedule child care and families might plan vacations. For some families, summer vacation and the family time it brings is a source of excitement; for others, figuring out how to keep the kids engaged and out of trouble for nearly three months is a daunting task. For the 40 percent of children from divorced families, there is the additional dimension of considering the needs and schedules of two separate households.
On a recent case I worked with, newly-divorced parents had fantastic trips planned for their kids. They’d set the vacations up before consulting each other on their summer custody schedule, however, and there was overlap with some of the dates. Neither parent wanted to budge on changing dates initially, and though they eventually worked out a compromise, it reignited some of the tensions they’d experienced while settling their divorce. There are as many summer custody schedules as there are divorced families, and finding a schedule that works best for your unique situation will help everyone have an enjoyable, peaceful summer.
Plan ahead for a smooth summer
Key to making the entire summer schedule a success is planning and communication. Typically, the schedule that divorced families follow during the school year undergoes at least some minor changes when summer arrives. If possible, parents enjoy extended, uninterrupted time with their children during the summer, when kids are free from their weekday obligations at school. Parents should identify how much time each would like to reserve with their children.
Children’s summer schedules can get pretty packed, and since many parents work during the summer—and vacation time can be limited—blocks of one to two weeks are fairly typical amounts of time to specify. It’s also important to be clear about whose summer plans have priority in any given year. If you both want to get away with the kids for a Fourth of July weekend, for example, it’s helpful to have a system for alternating first dibs on the summer; divorced parents frequently do trade this back and forth from year to year.
Communicate to keep everyone involved
Communicating plans early on is both respectful and conducive to a successful and peaceful summer. Some families will start this process as early as mid-March, which has the added benefit of enabling you to secure low fares and rates if you plan on getting away.
Most families need to arrange for more child care and/or child activities during the summer. The more parents can talk about this and agree on the summer plan, the more stress-free and enjoyable it will be for everyone. Get a leg up on the summer activity offerings and start discussions early to gauge the children’s interest and determine the most workable plan, schedule-wise, to set the kids up for summer success. Consider using an online scheduling tool such as Google Calendar or Our Family Wizard to help track activities, camps, vacations and any other events that might disrupt the schedule. Most importantly, keep the lines of communication open. If conflict is high between the parents, it can be helpful to work with a mental health professional who can facilitate the conversation and help the divorced parents devise a summer plan that works as smoothly as possible.
Try a 50-50 schedule remix
It’s not unusual to vary the regular schedule during the summer. Parental work schedules might not synchronize as well with child activity schedules during the summer as they do during the school year. Families might choose to minimize transitions during the summer and develop a schedule that accommodates this.
I’ve worked with a number of families who have developed creative solutions for their summers. I offer some examples here (names have been changed in the interest of confidentiality).
During the school year, Robert and Sandy’s daughter Lizzy spent every Monday and Tuesday with her father, every Wednesday and Thursday with her mother, and alternating weekends with each parent. Lizzy was an active middle schooler who enjoyed spending time with her friends and sleeping late during the summer. Robert and Sandy decided to follow a different form of a 50-50 schedule during the summer, whereby Lizzy would spend one week at Robert’s house, and the next at Sandy’s. Once school started, they resumed their usual schedule but during the summer, the entire family enjoyed the different rhythm.
Let summer provide balance
For families in which the children spend more time with one parent, summer is an opportunity to even out the time the children spend with each parent over the course of a year. In the case of Kate and Arthur, their three children followed a Standard Possession Schedule: they spent every Monday through Wednesday at Kate’s house, every Thursday at Arthur’s, and they alternated weekends between their parents’ homes. The Standard Possession Schedule called for Arthur to have the kids for 30 days during the summer, but this proved difficult for the entire family; Arthur wasn’t able to take 30 days off from work to fully enjoy his time with the children, the children felt out of touch with their friends who lived in Kate’s neighborhood, and Kate found it difficult to be away from the children for such an extended period of time.
Several years after divorcing, Arthur asked Kate if they might consider a more outside-the-Standard-Possession-Schedule box for changing the schedule during the summer. He and Kate were able to have constructive discussions about this, and decided to alternate weeks during the summer, which turned out to be a good schedule for everyone.
Casey and Mark took another approach: they just switched their school-year schedules for the summer, so Mark (typically having custody on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th weekends of the month, plus Thursdays) adopted Casey’s schedule, Casey adopted Mark’s schedule, and they even switched a weekend so Mark could spend Father’s Day with his children. That allowed Mark to enjoy more time with the kids during the summer while still maintaining a routine and allowing each parent uninterrupted blocks of family time.
Ideally, summer is a time for everyone to relax a bit, enjoy a more leisurely schedule, and spend good time together. Set your family up for the best summer possible by talking with your children and your ex-spouse to determine a summer plan that works for your family.