I was reminded by a phone call from a client the other day, how tricky those first few days and weeks are, when you decide to separate.
It's easy for me to get all caught up in my mediation-world, and Parenting Plans, and long term relationship goals ... but sometimes, when you start down that road to divorce, there are so many other things to attend to, that getting to mediation and making long-term plans seems impossible. Not to mention that you're also trying to deal with massive upheaval, and even trauma.
It's huge. And you don't want any added pressure or psychological load.
You also know that the way you move forward now could have long-lasting impact on your relationships with your children, and the foundations of your Co-Parenting. The decisions you make now are taking you either closer to the future that you want, or away from it.
So, let's take it one baby-step at a time.
What are some small things you can do, right in the beginning, that will set you on the path towards peaceful Co-Parenting and happy, resilient children in the future?
1. Make sure everyone is safe.
I have been working with separating parents for nearly 15 years, and this one thing never changes for me -- safety will always be the top priority.
Don't worry about Parenting Plans or Consent Orders, and don't worry about following most of what's on this blog, because you can't Co-Parent when you're afraid for your life.
Prepare as much as you are able to, under the circumstances ... and get yourself and your children somewhere safe.
If you have experienced Family Violence: make sure your phone is charged and there is petrol in your car, and get yourself somewhere safe. If you can, get certified copies of your important documents before you leave, and maintain contact with friends and family who can help you stay safe.
Then, (or even prior to leaving, if you can) contact a Specialised Family Violence Worker.
Call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) in Australia, and find somewhere local that you can get specialised support, counselling, and other services.
Or, contact Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14
If you only do this one thing, you have done enough for now 💗
2. Make a short-term plan for where your children will live.
If everyone is safe, you can start to think about what kinds of parenting and living arrangement might be good for your children in the short-term.
Try and agree on something that will get you through the first 6-8 weeks, so that you can maintain some sense of consistency and co-operation for your children.
It's a good idea to write something down so that you all know what to expect, but I wouldn't get carried away with a complete Parenting Plan at this stage. A lot will change at the beginning, and you may not want to commit to a long-term plan until you have settled into your new routine.
In mediation, we often call this an "Interim Plan", and we make sure that we include a date when it should be reviewed. You could also include an idea of what will happen after that, such as:
"If the children are coping well with this, on [August 15, 2020] we will progress to Plan #2, where they will spend an additional night with Dad each week".
Even though you may have a plan in your mind to change things after a couple of months, be aware that this first plan can have the effect of setting a precedent. That is, if you are unable to agree on what changes are to happen after this Interim Plan is finished, one of your options will be to stick with the current arrangement. And, if you end up in a Family Court process, they may take into consideration your current arrangement when they make new Orders.
3. Make arrangements for Communication.
I suggest that you use this Interim period to set some precedent of your own. Especially in the area of communication.
I don't think it's stating it too strongly to say that your communication could make or break your Co-Parenting relationship.
While I want to acknowledge that it's truly challenging to communicate well when you're navigating the raw emotions and constant change of separation, there is a part of me that wants to take you into the future, and show you how much more difficult it will be in five years, if you don't set yourself up for success at the start.
Now, that's not to say that you can't work on things as you go along, and communication can definitely improve with some persistence and grace on both sides ... but you are doing yourself (and your children) a huge favour if you can find a respectful way to communicate early on.
Here are a few simple starter ideas for your Interim Plan:
We agree that we will speak respectfully to each other when our children are around, setting an example for how we would like them to speak to us and others.
We agree that we will speak respectfully about each other to our children.
We agree that our communication will mostly be via text message (or email, or communication book, etc.), except in the case of an emergency, when we will communicate by phone call.
We agree that we will let each other know as soon as possible about any changes to our parenting arrangements.
We agree that we will speak on the phone every two weeks (or month, etc) - on Friday night at 7.30pm - to ensure that we are on the same page about our children's needs, issues, and up-coming events.
We agree that if our conversation is getting heated, or we feel that we may be about to overstep our boundaries, we will let each other know by saying: "I really think we should talk about this later, I'd like to take a break."
We agree that if one of us is not able to answer a question at that time, we will say: "I'm not sure about that, I will need to (eg. find out from my boss), and I should be able to get back to you by ...".
4. Make a plan to re-convene to make a longer-term agreement.
As I alluded to in Point 2, there's no need to think about the long-term things too much in the first six to eight weeks. Expect things to change on a daily basis early on, and use the time to observe how your children are coping with the initial arrangements you have in place, so that you can make a plan that works better for them when you do your second draft.
Include a review date in your Interim Plan, so that you both know how long this first-effort will stay in effect, and when you need to be starting to get your ideas together for a Parenting Plan that lasts more like 3 to 6 months.
This will help in (at least) three ways (probably more!):
If you can stick with a plan for a couple of months in the beginning, rather than chopping and changing things every 2 weeks, your children will feel more settled, and your plan will probably work better for them because of sheer routine (children love routine). This is true even if your plan is imperfect, and a little frustrating in the short term.
You will give yourself time to really notice what is working and what isn't working, and to start to formulate some workable solutions - which will be much more helpful than "this plan sucks" when you come together to review your Interim Plan.
You will be demonstrating to each other that you are prepared to work at a Plan (even a frustrating one), and to be consistent for the benefit of your children, and your Co-Parenting future, which is comforting, and a great foundation to build on.
There is a caveat to this one though.
If you notice right away that your child is really not coping, then this may not be a moment for persistence.
Very young children, and those with special needs, for example, often require a different (more gentle) approach to parenting arrangements.
If your child is distressed at every handover, or clearly not managing at school, or experiencing high levels of anxiety or depression, you may need to roll back any big changes, in favour of something that feels more familiar in the short term, to help them cope.
Hopefully you will both be tuned into how difficult the experience is for your child, and agree to prioritise more emotional security for them, however that might look.
5. Make a statement together about your intentions for your Co-Parenting moving forward.
If there is one thing you will hear me say over and over about Mediation Prep and Parenting Plans, it's this:
Start with the end in mind.
One helpful way of doing this is to think about your values, what is most important to you about being a Parent and a Co-parent, and what you want your family life to look like in 5, or 10, or 20 years time, and set some intentions.
A few positive things to look out for when you talk about intentions:
You might find that you have a few values in common, and that will strengthen your shared resolve to work together to achieve your goals.
You are talking about what you do want to see, rather than what you don't want to see, and this sets you up for more positive conversation moving forward.
And, you are helping your Co-Parent to see your positive motives (rather than assuming the worst) when you have to deal with those inevitable mistakes and misunderstandings.
You might use some phrases like:
We agree that we want to create a stable and secure parenting base for our children.
We agree that we will work together for our children.
We agree that we will be respectful/peaceful parents.
We agree that we will focus on what our children need from us.
Okay, cool 👍🏻
So now you have a list of 5 things that you can start on, that could help life to settle a little in these first, tumultuous weeks of separation, and that hopefully will create a foundation for your Co-Parenting, and for your children, for the months and years to come.
Well done for making it all the way to here!
If you scrolled straight to the end, or you're still processing all of that, let's do a quick re-cap:
Make sure everyone is safe.
Make a short-term plan for where your children will live.
Make arrangements for communication.
Make a plan to re-convene to make a longer-term agreement.
Make a statement together about your intentions for your Co-Parenting moving forward.
And if you're unsure about whether you're making a good choice with your words or actions, stop and think about where you want to be in a year, or 5 years ... and work out whether you're going in the direction that will take you there.
Start with the end in mind.