Is It Possible For Divorced Parents To Just Be “Parents”?
By Brenda Waugh
Yes, divorced parents can be “parents” without a qualifier. Not “divorced.” Not “single.” Just “parents.”
When I first started practicing law in 1987, things were different. When parents wanted to divorce, one retained a lawyer who filed a complaint or petition with the court. The sheriff served the documents, lawyers engaged in a series of negotiations, and eventually convened the final court hearing where we usually announced the terms of a negotiated agreement. I thought it worked fine. But it didn’t. Creating this adversarial relationship was no way to create a healthy, happy, post-divorce family.
As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Today we know better! We understand that children of divorce can be just as healthy and happy as other children. However, when the divorce includes a “custody battle,” children may experience emotional difficulties that extend for years after the divorce.
How do we “do better”? Rather than “lawyering up,” we consider mediation and collaborative practice as options to secure a divorce while maintaining good parent-child relationships.
In mediation, both parents attend a meeting with a third-party facilitator, a mediator, who works with them to develop a mutually agreeable way to make crucial decisions regarding their child, including medical, educational, and religious decisions. The mediator also helps parents decide how to divide their custodial time with the child during the school year, summer and holidays.
Parents work together to maximize their time with the child, considering their residences and employment. The mediator helps the parents draft their parenting plan incorporating these decisions. When parties are getting divorced, the mediator may also facilitate a discussion about their property division. Once an agreement is reached, the parties may review it with their lawyers, if they retain them, or provide it to the judge to include in the order. Mediation often occurs before any party initiates the divorce, permitting it to proceed as a no-
Equally effective, collaborative divorce creates an opportunity for the parents to divorce while maintaining a good relationship with their children. In collaborative divorce, the parents each retain specially trained attorneys who are often members of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals. Instead of attending court hearings, the parents and their lawyers have meetings to work out the details of the parenting plan. Once the agreement is reached, the attorneys file the paperwork and complete the steps required to have the agreement included in the judge’s order.
The lawyers may also represent the parties on issues of child and spousal support and property division. In collaborative practice, the parties may expand opportunities by including a neutral, or conflict, coach in meetings to expand options in the division of property, spousal support, or child custody.
How do we know that mediation and collaborative divorce work? Is there any way to see that “divorced parents” are simply “parents.” Yes!
Parents select the best extracurricular activities for their children together. Both often attend games or meetings and support the child and the team.
Parents attend school conferences together, working to find the best way to improve their child’s success.
Parents coordinate schedules so that the children are in daycare less and with their parents more. They understand that no parent babysits their children.
Parents attend medical appointments, taking turns or attending together, depending on the nature of the appointment. Both know when appointments are scheduled and can access
Parents avoid asking their children to make difficult decisions, such as where they want to live or when they want to spend time with the other parent. Instead, they work with the other parent to take the stress off of the child.
Parents spend time with their children having fun. They also both spend time doing the hard work of parenting, chores, homework, and discipline. Neither parent becomes a “fantasy”
Parents make sure the children feel comfortable at home. They recognize the children have two homes. They find a way so that a child is sleeping in their own bed, at either home.
Is it always possible? No. Sometimes the level of conflict between the parents escalates to a place where “divorced parents” can’t be “just parents.” In those situations, judges make the important decisions on raising the children, often guided by attorneys (called Guardian Ad Litems) or by parenting coordinators. When a conflict between parents has escalated, and behavioral health resources cannot tone it down, judges often order detailed schedules to reduce the necessity of good communication between parents.
These situations are the exceptions. Most divorcing parents can be more than “just parents.” They can work together to be “great parents.” Getting started by cooperating to create the best schedules for the children in mediation or with collaborative divorce provides the best opportunity for this to occur.
To learn more about mediation or to find a mediator in your area, visit mediate.com. To learn more about collaborative practice and find lawyers, financial neutrals, or conflict coaches in your area, visit collaborativepractice.com.
Brenda Waugh is a lawyer/mediator with Waugh Law & Mediation, serving clients in the Blue Ridge region of Virginia and Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. She has conducted workshops throughout the U.S. and in Canada, and has published articles in periodicals and legal journals in the area of alternative dispute resolution.