Massachusetts divorce lawyer Carmela M. Miraglia discusses the challenges faced by parents whose children are returning to school in the fall.
It’s September. The kids are going back to school and divorced or divorcing parents are going back to court. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence; it’s actually predictable, although perhaps not always necessary.
The first day of school, and the weeks leading up to that special day, are often overwhelming not only for the children but also for parents, taxing already demanding schedules and stretching budgets even thinner. Parents are often faced with school enrollment, back-to-school shopping, tracking down the ever-growing list of school supplies, juggling bus schedules, parent-teacher conferences, integrating sports and extra-curricular activities with personal schedules, trying to get everyone to fall into a routine – the list could go on. These added stressors often create feelings resentment and even anger between parents, divorced or not.
Additionally, school aged children don’t require as much parental supervision, rides to activities, or other attention during the school day, which affords the custodial parent the time to reflect on the additional responsibilities. Fall represents a time of transition, so it’s not surprising that many parents also see it as a time to address overdue family court issues.
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Psychologically, the start of a new school year represents a sense of advancement for children. Advances, however, also bring challenges. Divorced and divorcing parents often feel that if the kids are re-organizing their lives, they should too. They look for answers to otherwise routine questions such as which parent should be responsible for pick-ups and drop-offs at school or the bus stop? Which parent should pay for school clothes or school supplies? Who will cover the cost of the extra-curricular activities and what if the extra-curricular activities are during the other parent’s scheduled parenting time? The questions can seem endless and can lead to resentment, since one parent often feels he or she is carrying most of the school responsibilities.
For some parents, returning to court in the fall makes the most sense because the kids are back at school, eliminating the child care dilemma of the summer months. For other parents, fall becomes the time to address the issues they put off all summer to be with the kids. Then there are those parents so overwhelmed by school-related responsibilities that they feel their only means for relief from the additional pressure is to go back to court with new demands or requests.
Going back to court is not a decision a parent should take lightly. More importantly, going back to court is not a parent’s only option, and in most cases, isn’t even the best option. Unfortunately, many parents don’t realize that they have the ability and the authority to modify an existing agreement or make a new agreement with minimal, if any, involvement from the court. Sometimes, parents just need a strategy to empower them in making decisions for their family, or agreements that benefit everyone, especially the children.
For many parents, summer ends with a feeling of relief, after spending the last three months jumping from trips to the beach, to cookouts to family reunions, with some juggling those responsibilities along with the responsibilities of work outside the home. The change of pace from summer to fall is sometimes so drastic that parents feel the need to resolve all their problems at once – including problems with their child’s other parent. Snapping out of the summer haze doesn’t need to cause a panic, and parents should head into the fall by making a list of the parenting issues they need to resolve. After sharing the list with the child’s other parent, they may be surprised to learn that the other parent is gripped by a similar feeling of stress or fear over the same issues. A diplomatic approach at first is best. If the other parent can relate to how you are felling, he or she is less likely to become defensive and smaller issues can be resolved before they become bigger problems.
One of the most frequent issues which can turn into a problem every fall is the expense associated with getting the kids their back-to-school supplies and clothes. It can be difficult to step back and look at the situation objectively, especially when stress is running high. Work together to ensure that the children aren’t burdened with these adult issues. It’s no secret that back-to-school supplies and new clothes can cost a small fortune. It’s also no secret that these things are necessary and children do not have the means to purchase or acquire these items on their own – which means that responsibility must fall to the parents.
Many families find that their dollars are already stretched thin after a summer of fun, sun, spending and shortened work weeks. Purchasing school clothes and the growing list of supplies that come part-in-parcel with the kids returning to school can trigger a panicky sense that the rest of the world has snapped back to reality, while you are just waking up.
Some parents find success agreeing to make specific purchases for the children. This often works best when one parent takes the initiative, explaining via email that he or she has already purchased shoes, pants or tops, but the children still need sweaters and outer wear. Similarly, school supplies are often best addressed with a similar “divide and conquer” approach. Rather than asking for reimbursement or “splitting” costs, parents often do best by purchasing a portion of the supplies on the child’s list, then asking the other parent to shop for and purchase the remaining items. This way, parents share the expenses and, perhaps even more importantly, each parent gets to be meaningfully involved in the process of shopping and preparing their child for school.
Back to school often presents an even busier schedule for kids, even though child-rearing duties lighten for parents once school resumes. If the parents aren’t on the same page, one of two things can occur: the children miss events and activities, or a parent gets left out of event and actives, causing hurt and resentment. There are easy and practical ways to avoid this.
One very effective way to keep everyone in the family in the loop is to utilize a shared calendar. There are several free programs and apps that can help families communicate and schedule the events over the school year. Apple and Google both have a shared calendar option, and several of my clients have reported using COZI.com with success. With a shared calendar, each member of the family, including both parents, have a central location to share and gather information. A shared calendar can also empower children who feel caught between their parents’ disagreements. By printing out the calendar and sharing regularly with the child, he or she can be aware of upcoming activities as well as develop his or her own voice when it comes to the activity and event schedule.
During and after divorce, parents have a continuing duty to make sure that the transition process is as easy on the children as possible. Part of that responsibility includes informing others of changes in the family dynamic since school ended the previous spring. It is a good practice to inform your children’s teachers, counsellors, principals, and coaches early in the school year about the current family situation. Parents should also create a safe guardian list for school officials to refer to during pick-ups, which has the added benefit of keeping your children safe.
Another way to stay informed is for both parents to attend parent-teacher conferences, either together, if feasible, or at separate times. Involvement by both parents is not only helpful to teachers and but it also sends a strong message to children that they are important and loved. That’s most important to great parenting!
By default, children’s extra-curricular activities occur during one parent’s scheduled parenting time. It is important to understand that a child’s scheduled activity should not be viewed as an interruption to parenting time, but rather, an essential part of a child’s social and emotional development. Activities also provide unique opportunities for parents to share their children’s interests.
In addition, it is important for both parents to be present at events and activities, regardless parenting time. It is often parents who encourage the other parent to attend these activities (even when it is not during their parenting time) who experience the greatest co-parenting success. Divorced or divorcing parents do not need to be best friends. Civility, however, goes a very long way.
Sometimes, even after doing their best to work cooperatively, parents still need the help of attorneys and the court to address parenting problems that are just too difficult or overwhelming for the parties to resolve on their own. That doesn’t mean the parties have failed or that they are bad parents. Being a good parent often involves making difficult decisions and knowing when to ask for help. Turning to an expert to help craft a plan to address unresolved issues and clarify problems is a practical solution for parents who need help creating a nurturing environment in which their children can thrive, not just survive.
About the Author: Carmela M. Miraglia is a Massachusetts divorce lawyer and Massachusetts family law attorney for Lynch & Owens, with offices in Hingham, Massachusetts and East Sandwich, Massachusetts.
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