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Summer Vacations After Divorce

Many children spend large chunks of time with their non-custodial parent over the summer. Whether your child is going across town to spend a few weeks with your ex, will travel to their home state for visitation, or is packing up to go away on a big trip with your ex, preparing for and adjusting to the absence can be very difficult.

Set Your Mind at Ease

When your child is preparing to go away, do some advance planning that will help you feel comfortable with the vacation or the trip. Find out where your child is going and get the contact information. Ask questions so you know what the plan is. If your child will be traveling, get the details of the itinerary. Make sure your ex understands your child’s capabilities when it comes to swimming, hiking, or other activities. If your child is going to another state to stay with at your ex’s home for a few weeks, find out who will provide child care while your ex is at work.

Stay in Touch

If your child is in elementary school, this might be a good time to get him a cell phone. That way, you can reach him directly without having to go through your ex and you’ll have the peace of mind of knowing you can call at any time. Stay in touch, but don’t call several times a day. You have to let go a little and let your child and ex have time together without you involved. A few texts or a call once a day is reasonable.

Pack Well

Help your child pack for the time away. Make sure all essentials are included, including prescription medications, glasses, retainers, rubber bands for braces, summer reading requirements, sunscreen, special stuffed animals, favorite toys, clothing appropriate for the weather, and personal care items. If your child will be traveling, don’t assume your ex will think to pack children’s pain reliever, dental floss, water shoes, or other important items. Talk with your ex about making sure your child follows her routine and takes her meds, brushes her teeth, wears sunscreen, and so on.

Prepare Your Child

Depending on the age of your child and whether he has been away from you before, this could be a difficult separation. Remind him he is going to be with the other parent who loves him and is so excited to be able to spend time with him. Tell him you’ll miss him and he’ll miss you, but you’ll be together again very soon. Do not dwell on how hard the separation will be for you. That is not your child’s burden to carry. Instead, give him permission to enjoy himself and have fun. Be happy he is about to have this experience.

Prepare Yourself

If you have not been away from your child for extended periods of time, the time apart in the summer can be difficult for you to adjust to. Think ahead about how you will use your time. This is a great chance to tackle some big projects around the house or at work. It’s also a great time to do something for yourself, like a wine tasting class, audition for a play, or do some traveling of your own. You will miss your child, but you may find you enjoy the time to yourself as well.

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Mementos of Your Marriage

When your marriage ends, you work through the emotional rollercoaster and come (eventually) to a place where you’ve recovered (somewhat!) from all the turmoil. You might still be fond of your ex (or you might not be!), but at some point, you move on with your life, leaving the marriage behind you emotionally. What’s left are physical reminders of the marriage that you might want to get rid of, however your children likely have different feelings about them. Here are some tips to help you navigate your way through these tough decisions.

Photographs

One thing that will be very important to your kids are the family photos. Your instinct might be that you want them out of your house and out of your life, but these are important items for your kids. For one thing, it allows them to hang onto the fact that you were a couple, and a family, at one point. Your children likely have some very happy memories that can be relived through those photos. Don’t toss them, instead save them for your kids. You don’t need to leave framed family photos scattered through the house or a photo album on the coffee table (or digital file on the desktop of your computer), but you should try to save many of them for your kids. They will want to look at them from time to time, and that’s ok. It’s healthy for them to want some visual cues to help them process what happened. You may not want to look at the photos with them and that’s ok too. Give some brief feedback and make yourself busy with something else. Plan to pack those photos up and move them out of the house when your kids move out.

Wedding Rings

You likely removed your wedding rings at some point in your divorce process and obviously don’t plan to wear them again. Some women do take the stones and have them reset into a pendant or other piece of jewelry to wear. If this is what you want to do, you should. You can always pass that new piece of jewelry on. Some people sell their jewelry and that’s an option that is good if it works for you. Be aware that your children (daughters, most likely) will at some point be curious about the jewelry. Some children feel strongly that they would like to have the jewelry or even use it for their own weddings. If you feel uncomfortable with this, be clear that it belongs to you and you can do whatever you want with it. If you refashion it into something else, make it clear that item is a piece you will pass down. If you sell it, you might buy something else with the money that can have some importance for your family. If you need the money to pay bills, that’s fine as well. There are plenty of other items your kids will be able to hang on to.

Mementos

If you’re living in the home you shared with your ex, you probably still see him or her in every corner. Many people remodel, redecorate, or at least make some changes in their home once they are divorced. So what do you do with all the stuff that reminds you too strongly of your ex? Ask yourself if these items will have meaning to your children. A collection of shells you collected on the beach as a family or a souvenir from a family trip to the Grand Canyon are things that have importance to your children. You don’t have to leave them prominently displayed in your living room, but maybe your children would like them in their rooms. These items can also be packed up and stored away until your children are grown when you can hand it all over to them and let them decide what to do with them. This doesn’t mean you should keep every single item—be selective and space-conscious. If you need to do a real purge, ask your kids for their input on what they might like to save.

You may also have notes, letters, cards, and other personal items that were meaningful in your marriage. You are completely within your rights if you want to toss or destroy these, but it’s possible some day your kids might want to see them (if they are appropriate to share). It’s fine to store them in case your kids have an interest in them, but it’s also fine to just get rid of them if you need to.

Strong Feelings about Unexpected Things

All of the things we’ve discussed so far are things that clearly have emotional meanings. Don’t be surprised if your children have strange, unexpected attachments to other things you could never have predicted. The recliner the other parent often sat in, the pile of unused lumber next to the garage, the dusty set of glass jars on a kitchen shelf—things like these can be symbols of the other parent and children can get very upset if they are moved, disposed of, or changed. If your child has a sudden outburst about something unexpected like this, take the time to talk it through. Why does this object or objects matter to her? What do they symbolize? It’s your house and you call the shots, but if there is a compromise, look for it. Would your child like to keep the item (if it’s small!) or some portion for herself? This doesn’t mean giving in and not changing a thing to preserve your child’s fantasy that you will reunite. It’s important to be very clear about that and the fact that as the adult in the house, you make decisions about the home. That being said, having some sensitivity to your child’s feelings will make everything smoother.

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Termination of Parental Rights

I am asked a lot of questions about parenting after divorce. People have presented me with some pretty unbelievable situations, but there is something that I am asked about far more often than I would have expected – parental termination. Parental termination is a legal process in which a parent’s legal rights are taken away. In the eyes of the law, that person ceases to be that child’s parents, and has no more rights or responsibilities towards the child.

Abuse or Neglect

The most common situation in which a termination happens is in an abuse or neglect proceeding (not a divorce!). A parent is determined to be such a danger to the child’s physical, mental, or emotional health that the parent is completely removed from the situation and the child’s life with no further contact permitted. Even in these kinds of cases, it is considered an extreme measure and is one that takes the court system months or years to arrive at after every other alternative is tried first.

Adoption

When a parent’s rights are terminated in an abuse or neglect situation, the child is placed in foster care with adoption as a goal (at least for younger children). When a parent who is divorced and remarried wants his or her new spouse to adopt the child, a stepparent adoption must take place. However, this can only happen if the other natural parent consents to the adoption by giving up his or her rights to the child, or has his or her rights terminated by the court. A termination in this situation, when it is warranted, is often a good thing for the child. The child is adopted by a loving and involved stepparent who fills those parental shoes in the child’s life.

Other Terminations

Unfortunately, I am often asked about termination of parental rights in other situations. These fall into two general categories: fathers who don’t want to pay any more child support and want to give up their rights to get out of it; and mothers who want to find a way to terminate the father’s rights to get him out of her life (I have never been asked these questions with the genders reversed or in same sex couples, although my answer applies to all situations).

Both of these situations are deeply disturbing. It is appalling that a man would be willing to break all ties with his child and in effect say ‘I no longer want to be part of your life’ just to save some bucks. The damage that is caused by this act is irreparable. The child is clearly told he is not important and does not matter – and that money is of more importance than him. It is disgraceful and appalling. Even if a man has previously had little contact with the child, this legal maneuver still sets the child up very clearly as someone who is not wanted.

The other situation is just as disturbing. There are lots of people who have very difficult relationships with their exes. And of course there are women who have been placed in great danger by a man and want no contact. However, if a court has decided that it is appropriate for that child to have a relationship with that father, the mother must put her personal feelings aside and find a way to make it happen. Yes, it can be a pain sometimes to deal with his BS. Yes, visitation can be an inconvenience. However, to seek to terminate a father’s relationship with his child just because you don’t like him or don’t want to have to navigate the situation any more is inexcusable. Even if that man fails to exercise his visitation, he still is connected to that child and there is a chance that someday he will come to his senses and reestablish a connection. A woman who proactively seeks to remove the father from the child’s life without a good reason is creating a trauma for her own child. The child may one day as an adult feel that this choice was harmful.

Courts Weigh In

There are certainly situations in which termination is appropriate and warranted and courts will respond in those situations. However, in other scenarios, it is very likely the court will not grant the termination that is being sought. In the eyes of the court, a parent and child have a connection that should not be severed without a very good reason. Unfortunately, there are times when courts will grant terminations if both parties agree – the father to get out of child support and the mother to get him out of her life.

Parental termination is not something that should be considered lightly or without extreme circumstances.

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Marital Status and Your Kids

You’ve probably read or heard a lot about how divorce can be bad for kids. In general, I don’t agree with that idea because it’s been my experience that a home filled with anger, turmoil, or violence is a bad environment for children. And often, divorce is the only choice, so everyone simply has to make the best of it. I’ve talked a lot in the past on this site about how to talk to your child about divorce. Divorce isn’t the only choice though, so let’s talk about other situations you might find yourself in and how to explain them to your children.

Separation
Many couples today find themselves getting separated (legally or not) because the current financial climate makes divorce an expense that is difficult to afford or as a stepping stone to divorce. If you and your spouse do separate, you need to find a way to explain what is happening to your kids. When you are separated, you remain legally married. Some people get separated, then later divorce. Others just separate and never take the final step. If your intention is to divorce, you should explain that to your kids. Let them know you won’t be getting back together and that the legal process may take a while, but that as far as the two of you are concerned, your marriage is truly over.

If you are separating on a trial basis (and many people do this to test the waters), be honest about it with your children. They have friends whose parents have separated and divorced, so it is something they understand. If you haven’t made a final decision, be clear about that. Separation can be difficult for kids (as it is for you!) because everything is up in the air and unsettled. Try to provide as much stability as you can during this time and put a clear parenting plan together.

If you are permanently separating, but do not intend to reunite or divorce, it may be hard to explain this to your child. Most kids see separation as a step towards divorce. If you are choosing to remain legally married for religious, financial, or other reasons, talk about these with your child. Be clear about what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and how it impacts your child. A marriage in name only can be a difficult concept for a child to grasp, so you will likely need to do a lot of talking about this.

Annulment
A lot of people ask me about annulments. An annulment is a legal proceeding, similar to a divorce, in which the marriage is dissolved (note that a religious annulment is an entirely different process). The difference, however, is that an annulment legally erases the marriage because it was invalid from the start. There are several situations in which annulment is possible – one of you wasn’t legally able to marry (under age, already married or not mentally fit to consent) or situations in which fraud or mistake happened, such as when one person lied about his ability to have children or about having some kind of disease. Many people are interested in annulments because they feel like they are a way to wipe the slate clean.

If you have children and get an annulment, does that mean your children are illegitimate? Absolutely not. Every state has laws that say that children of an annulled marriages are legitimate. But then how do you explain this to your kids? Annulment is a complicated idea, so the best way to explain it is to say that it’s almost like a divorce, but means that your marriage is going to be ended because some kind of mistake was made. You no longer want to be married and the court is going to undo your marriage. It’s better not to tell younger kids that it’s as if you were never married. The fact that their parents were once married is something that is very important to them. Answer your child’s questions as best you can and always come back to the fact that this situation is just like a divorce, but it’s called something else.

Unmarried Break Ups
If you and the other parent never married, the end of your relationship is going to be less formal than if you are married. You will probably find yourselves engaged with the legal system to get custody and child support formalized (even if you agree on it), so this can provide a kind of official ending to the relationship and give everyone closure. If you’re breaking up, be clear about your plan with your child. If it is not definitely permanent, explain that. If you know it is the absolute end, you need to talk about it in the same way you would a divorce.

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Could Nesting Work for Your Family?

Instead of getting a divorce and having two separate homes the kids rotate through, nesting is a newer concept where the kids remain in the existing family home and the parents take turns staying there. Some parents each get their own new place and rarely some will share one other place that they are never actually in together. Often parents rotate on an every other week schedule, but any schedule that works for the parents is definitely possible.

The idea is that the kids remain safe and sound in the “nest” or family home. Their living arrangements don’t change and they aren’t shuttled around from place to place. It allows the kids to have a more stable environment and familiar surroundings as they adjust to the divorce. The children experience as little disruption as possible and can continue with the same school, same activities, same schedule, and essentially the same life as prior to the divorce. The benefits of that are huge.

Nesting can be quite expensive though. Maintaining the existing family home as well two additional homes is a huge financial burden most families cannot take on. Nesting can also be challenging for the parents. You’re sharing a home with your ex even though you’re never there together. You don’t actually see each other (except for planned meetings or occasionally passing on your way out) yet you’re sharing a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living area. All of the conflicts you had about not doing things the same way or disagreeing about how a household should be run will continue.

It can also be difficult to uproot yourself every other week and stay someplace else. Packing clothes, work things, toiletries, medications, and everything else each week can result in some giant mix-ups.

Another challenge is that after divorce, it’s common for the parents to gradually evolve and make some changes about who they are, what they think, and how they live their lives. This is often gradually reflected in parenting styles that can change. If this happens during nesting it can be confusing for kids who may find the parents suddenly are implementing different rules within the same home (Mom says no eating in the family room, but Dad says it’s ok, for example).

I worked with some families who tried nesting and most found that it worked as a short-term transitional method. It wasn’t something they wanted to do long-term, but they found that for a few months to a year after the divorce it was a great way to help their kids adjust and also give themselves time to figure out what to do with the family home and to find other places to live permanently.

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