When clients come to me to help them mediate custody, one of the first things we address is the term “custody.” For most people, the word custody puts conjures up images of people being arrested for something and being put into custody. In a word, criminal law. The term custody implies that the children are assigned to the physical control of one parent and that one parent also makes most of the decisions about the children. It also implies that parents will be competitors when deciding how to share time with the children, after all, only one person can have custody at a time.
But how children’s time is divided between parents is not criminal – while it is a legal matter, it is civil, not criminal. And in the best circumstances, the parents themselves, with the help of a mediator if necessary, jointly design their own parenting plan taking their lives and their children’s lives into account, without a court telling them what to do. A judge may still have to review and approve a parenting plan, but in most cases they are only too glad to allow the parents to decide their own parenting plan.
Many states have changed the term “child custody” in their laws into the less threatening and more accurate term –“co-parenting.” And the term for how parents share parenting of their children is a “parenting plan.”
When parents are using a parenting plan that they have jointly designed, they jointly parent their children—that is, the children physically divide their time between both parents’ homes, and the parents jointly make decisions about the children. Occasionally, parents choose to allow the children to remain in the home while the parents take turns moving in and out. One term for that is “nesting.” For most parents, nesting is a temporary measure—they do it for a few months until the children are more comfortable with the idea of the parents separating—and the parents ultimately secure their own housing with enough room for the children to sleep in both homes.
The best co-parenting of children is flexible – parents agree on how to divide the children’s time with them, but they make allowances for special circumstances. They give additional time to each other, when, for example, the grandparents are in town. If the parents wish to go out at night or away for a weekend, they offer the other parent that time with the children before calling a babysitter or one of their parents to watch the children.
If the children normally receive calls from the non-hosting parent at a certain time in the evening, when the children are unavailable for the call, the hosting parent makes sure the children call the non-hosting parent as soon as they are available. They do this even if is inconvenient, because they know that children do best when they have as much regular contact as possible with both parents. And they are putting their children’s welfare before their own.
If parents can work cooperatively with each other, even when they disagree about certain parenting issues, this is a gift to the children. The children see that the parents are not fighting about them, and that even if parents don’t agree, they can work out disagreements without using the children as messengers, or worse, pawns. When the children themselves become parents, they will have role models on which they can base their own parenting. And if, God forbid, they should divorce, they will be able to co-parent beautifully and the word “custody” won’t even enter their minds.