Massachusetts divorce lawyer Josey Lyne Payne discusses the challenges faced by parents whose children are returning to school in the fall.
It’s September, and the kids are going back to school. Divorced and divorcing parents also find themselves going back to court. This is not paranormal, it’s actually fairly predictable and understandable, although perhaps not necessary.
The first day of school and the weeks leading up to that special day are often overwhelming, taxing already busy schedules and giving rise to new expenses. There are enrollment issues, parent-teacher meetings, sporting teams and extra-curricular activity sign-ups, the need for choosing and purchasing school supplies, choosing and purchasing new outfits, bus schedules, coordinating personal schedules, and so on. These added pressures often create feelings of regret, resentment and even anger.
Add to these feelings the simple fact that children enrolled in school do not require as much supervision, rides to camps, vacations or other attention. The fall represents a time of transition, so it’s not surprising that many parents also feel it is time to address any overdue probate and family court issues.
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Psychologically, the start of a new school year represents a sense of advancement for children. With these advances come new challenges, however. Divorced and divorcing parents often feel they need to turn to court to make new arrangements to determine which parent is responsible for pick-ups and drop-offs at the school or at the bus stop. Many parents feel “my kids are re-organizing their lives, so I should too.”
The resumption of school triggers other questions. Which parent should pay for the school supplies and extra-curricular activities? What if those activities occur during one of the parents’ scheduled parenting time? Who should pay for supplies and clothing? The questions can go on and on and so can the resentment, since one parent often feels he or she is carrying most of the load with new school responsibilities.
Some parents return to court in the fall because they are finally free of the child care responsibilities of the summer. Other parents do so because fall is a time to “get serious” and address the problems they put off all summer. Still others feel so overwhelmed by new school-related responsibilities that they feel their only means for relief from the new pressures is to go back to court with new demands or requests.
Going back to court should not be a decision that a parent should take lightly. Even more importantly, going back to court is not they only option, and may not even be the best option. Unfortunately, many parents don’t realize that they have both the ability and the authority to make agreements together with only minimal involvement from the court and sometimes no involvement at all! Sometimes, parents just need a plan to empower them in making their own decisions for their family, and making agreements that benefit everyone, especially the children.
Addressing Unresolved Issues
Many parents exit summer feeling like they spent the last three months on cruise control, jumping from beach trips, to cookouts to family reunions. The change of pace from summer to fall is sometimes so drastic that parents feel the need to solve all of their problems at once – including problems with their child’s other parent. Snapping out of the summer haze doesn’t need to cause panic, however. Parents should start the fall by making a list of all of the parenting issues they need to resolve. After sending the list, they may be surprised to learn that their child’s other parent is gripped by a similar feeling of stress and panic over similar issues. For this reason, a diplomatic tone is important.
Identify the issues that have created new problems for the family; these are often the expenses associated with getting the kids their back-to-school supplies and scheduling issues. It can be difficult to step back and look at the situation objectively and then create a plan, especially when stress is running high. Now is the time to 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 supplies that come part-in-parcel with the kids returning to school can trigger that panicky sense that the rest of the world has snapped back to reality, while you are just waking up.
Many of my clients have found that success comes when they agree 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 kids still need sweaters and outer wear. Similarly, school supplies are often best addressed with a “divide and conquer” approach. Rather than asking for reimbursement or “splitting” costs, parents often do best by voluntarily purchasing a portion of the supplies, then asking the other parent to shop for and purchase the items that still need to be purchased.
This way, parents equitably 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.
Addressing Schedule Conflicts
Back to school often includes an even busier schedule for kids, even if child-rearing duties lighten for parents once school resumes. If the family isn’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 actives, breeding 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 that will make up their memories over the school year. Several of my clients use COZI.com or create a shared Google calendar for the family to use. Each member of the family, including both parents, have a central location to both 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 with the child regularly, he or she can develop his or her own voice when it comes to the activity and event schedule.
Informing Important People
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 separately. Involvement by both parents is helpful to teachers and sends a strong message to children that they are important and loved. That’s 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 of the court-ordered parenting plan schedule. It is often the clients 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. However, civility goes a very long way.
Sometimes families really do need attorneys and the court to intervene to address parenting problems that are just too difficult or overwhelming for the parties to deal with on their own. That doesn’t mean the parents have failed or that they are bad parents. Being a good parent often involves making the difficult decisions and asking for help when your family and health are compromised. Turning to experts to help craft a plan that can address issues and simplify or clarify problems is a very real option for parents who need help creating an environment where their children can thrive, not just survive.
About the Author: Josey Lyne Payne is a Massachusetts divorce lawyer and Massachusetts family law attorney for Lynch & Owens, located in Hingham, Massachusetts.
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