Until recently, I was a stranger to parenting plans. Other than hearing about custody schedules and, sometimes, child support, most of my divorced pals have kept their coparenting arrangements with exes under wraps, at least until conflicts occur.
But my friend, L, who divorced when her daughter was 4 (she’s now 18), suggested I take a gander at parenting plans, not for how they serve divorced parents, but for what they can teach married couples about staying in sync as we raise our kids.
What’s a parenting plan? It’s a way for divorced or divorcing couples to coordinate schedules, and find other ways to stay aligned as coparents. From what I’ve read, the most effective parenting plans are those that are put in writing, and reviewed or updated regularly.
What’s useful about parenting plans for couples who stay together?
It gives us an opportunity to sit down with spouses and make a slew of decisions jointly that might, otherwise, be made on the fly, or by only one of us, or not at all. While solo decisions sometimes work out, they can also spark disagreement, power plays, and resentment.
Given that conflict about the division of labor remains a hot-button topic for many parents—perhaps because research shows that women still do twice the housework and 3 to 5 times the childcare as men—getting aligned around a range of parenting issues is an important ingredient for healthy relationships with our spouses and for our co-parenting success.
FYI, if one parent fulfills 100% of a parenting or household function—even if she or he likes playing that role, or is a stay-at-home-parent—it’s often a recipe for resentment.
In an article about rebuilding trust with exes, Jennifer Wolf lists techniques that are also great ground-rules for creating a parenting plan with your current spouse, never mind an ex. Wolf’s slightly revised tips are:
- Keep promises.
- Be consistent.
- Be considerate.
- Keep trying.
- Don’t get defensive or critical.
- Genuinely ask for your spouse’s opinion.
- Affirm your spouse’s relationship and effort with your kids.
So, keeping in mind these ground-rules, what do we address in a parenting plan? The sky’s the limit, but here are a few ideas to get started (bear in mind that they might vary depending on children’s ages):
- Major decisions: What topics are most important for you to consult with each other before making a decision that impacts your family? Write them down.
- Day-to-day decision-making: What kinds of parenting decisions are okay for either one of you to make on your own? Write them down.
- Extended family/holidays: What are your philosophies about where to spend the holidays, and when to schedule visits with extended family (especially in-laws)? If you disagree, what joint-philosophy can you develop?
- Parenting roles & responsibilities: Make a list of childcare & household duties that are ongoing sources of conflict, and resist the impulse to argue with your spouse about any of the items s/he lists.
Then, both of you come up with 2-3 plausible fixes to what’s on the list, whether or not you agree with what’s listed. (No, suggesting your spouse stop complaining or just change his or her opinion is not a fix!).
Choose 1 fix from each of your lists and try them out. If one works, write it down and keep doing it; if not, try others until you find a fix you can both live with.
- Kids’ schedules:
- What are your philosophies about kids’ extra-curricular activities? If you disagree, what joint-philosophy can you develop together?
- Create a weekly or monthly kids’ drop-off/pick-up schedule, even if only one of you is mostly responsible for this task.
In the blink of an eye, I’ve gone from ignorance about parenting plans to becoming a fan. I love that a tool designed to help divorced couples stay aligned as they raise their kids separately, can also support couples raising their kids together.
Who knows? Maybe if some of those divorced couples had created parenting plans when they were married, they might still be married!