Co-Parent Lifeline – Your questions, answered.
My stepson’s mother phoned my husband asking if she could take their son for a family outing on her birthday – which just happened to fall on our weekend. Based on the schedule spelled out in their parenting schedule, our time with him was already limited. Although it would shorten our weekend travel plans a bit, my husband gave her two options for the additional parenting time: she could have him for the first two hours of our parenting time – delaying our travel planned departure. Or, we’d return him to her earlier than scheduled – shortening our parenting time by two hours. Not surprisingly, she responded that both options would be inconvenient for her, but said she’d let us know after speaking with her husband. After not hearing anything for twelve hours, my husband text the following message: “If I don’t hear anything within the next two hours, I’ll assume that you aren’t planning to take him”. A full four hours after his last text, she still hadn’t bothered to let us know her decision. My question is: Should we have reached out to her again or just moved ahead with our plans?
If I’ve learned anything about co-parenting, it’s that flexibility is a survival skill. For this reason, I always encourage parents to view the agreed upon parenting schedule as a “fallback plan”. E.g., when we can’t agree to be flexible, we’ll “fall back” on the approved parenting schedule. Many times, sticking to the parenting schedule is necessary until the co-parenting relationship is trusting and peaceful.
However, along with flexibility, a big part of successful co-parenting and a willingness to just “go with the flow” has to do with respect: respect for each other’s parenting time, respect for the shared child’s activity schedule and respect for the child’s opportunities to enjoy their time with the other parent. Unfortunately, respect and the ability to be flexible is a “gene” often missing in the DNA of new co-parent relationships. For this reason, when it comes to designing the parenting schedule, I suggest that parents:
- Designate how much advanced notice is needed for a requested schedule change. Social schedules can change at the drop of a hat, especially where kids are concerned. An agreement on advanced notification can minimize the likelihood of hard feelings when a request for a schedule change is denied.
- Establish an “offer and response” timeframe. This is an agreed upon timeframe within which the non-custodial parent (the parent not having the child at the time) must respond to any offer/response made by the “parent-on-duty” (the parent having the child at the time). This is similar to – but not the same as – the First Rights of Refusal clause which requires the parent-on-duty to offer the non-custodial parent an opportunity for additional parenting time, before using alternative childcare; and,
- Specify whether a change in the parenting schedule automatically implies a swap. For example, if the parent-on-duty grants the non-custodial parent some part of their parenting time, is the receiving parent required to “reimburse” the granting parent for the parenting time lost or will the time just be forfeited?
As a family mediator, I always recommend that each of these clauses be included in the parenting plan, along with a plan for communicating expectations. The best plan I’ve found is Bill Eddy’s BIFF model for co-parent communication, which means be brief, informative, friendly and firm. Utilizing the BIFF model can go a long way towards minimizing the potential chaos of schedule changes and maximizing the likelihood of friendly co-parent flexibility in the future.