Using Post-Judgment Mediation to Modify Parenting Agreements

Many parents successfully launch a plan for sharing time with children after divorce, only to find that the plan blows up a few years later. Children grow older, parents may change jobs or careers, some remarry, some move away. Sometimes rifts that have been slowly expanding for months or years threaten to become full blown chasms around the holidays. This can put further stress on families who are already coping with increased pressure. Post-judgment mediation of parenting issues can help these families get back on track.

For many children of divorced parents, the holidays are less than calm and easy under the best of circumstances. Instead of two or three uninterrupted weeks baking cookies and drinking cocoa, they may have to split their time in a complicated schedule, or travel out-of-state to spend time with a parent they rarely see. Children with amicable parents may relish being able to spend some vacation time with each of them. Children with parents who are not able to let go of past hurts, on the other hand, often sense the tension. Such children may feel a responsibility to reassure each parent of their equal love. They might feel the need to perform perfectly, and to conform precisely to whatever schedule is in place, to avoid any chance of upsetting either parent. No child deserves this kind of burden.

A Smooth Start for a Reconstructed Family

Gina’s parents, Brianna and Joe, have always gotten along pretty well. When they divorced five years ago, they decided to continue living within a few miles of each other. At the time, Gina was barely five years old. She has little memory of the holidays before she began spending half her time at mom’s house and half at dad’s. Her normal routine was to celebrate Christmas eve with one parent before returning to the other parent’s house to wake up on Christmas morning. After presents and brunch, it was back to the first parent’s house for dinner. It may have been a little complicated, but it was all she knew, and it was a way for her to celebrate the holiday fully with both her families.

A New Development Threatens the Harmony

Then last Spring, Brianna found a much better job that was nearly two hours away. Reluctantly, she decided to move. Suddenly, Gina found herself spending every other weekend, plus spring break and summer vacation, in a new neighborhood. She doesn’t want to stop visiting her mom, in fact, she wants to see her more, but she also doesn’t want to change schools. At the end of the year, though, she will graduate from her K-5 school. Her mom wants her to start 6th grade in the new neighborhood. Her dad does not.

Gina doesn’t know what she wants. What she does know is that for the first time since their divorce, her parents have begun to argue. They rarely exchange harsh words in her presence, but she can sense a new coldness in her previously warm extended family—and she knows why. Her parents have talked to her about the two options open for next year. They have been careful not to reveal that they are fighting over the options, but Gina knows. She can feel it.

Now winter break has arrived. Last night, Gina was upstairs in bed at her dad’s house when she heard him yelling on the phone. She ran to her door and opened it a crack to listen. It was obvious what he was yelling about. “The usual plan won’t work anymore,” he said. “We need to start alternating holidays. No running back and forth with two hour drives in the freezing cold!”

Gina crept back to bed, but she couldn’t sleep. Why couldn’t they just figure out how to fix this? She didn’t want either of them to be lonely on Christmas, but she was only one person. She couldn’t be in two places at a time.

Brianna and Joe Go to Parenting Mediation

Brianna and Joe are understandably going through a difficult time with their co-parenting arrangement, but they are losing sight of what is most important—their child’s emotional stability and happiness. They realize that they need to stop the arguing, not only for Gina’s sake, but also to minimize their own emotional stress. Brianna, not knowing where else to turn, decides to consult with a family law attorney, who listens to her story and immediately recommends parenting mediation.

Mediation, the attorney explained, isn’t just for setting up parenting plans when parents first separate or divorce. Like many parents, Joe and Brianna didn’t have any trouble with their initial plan. They reached a settlement agreement easily and filed it in court. As they have learned, however, things can change. Mediation can help parents decide how to address such changes with a minimum of conflict.

Joe agreed with Brianna that mediation sounded like a good idea. They chose a mediator together, and scheduled a session right away.

A Few Tips from the Mediator

Before delving into specifics, their mediator, Ms. Schumann, gave Brianna and Joe a few tips for how to change their approach. “I’m not on either parent’s side,” she stressed, “and I don’t give legal advice. These are just a few general suggestions that other people have found helpful.”:

  • First and foremost, step back, stay calm, and stop yelling at each other. If you can’t keep your cool, then put things in writing instead of talking face to face. If you need to vent, see a therapist.
  • For the short term, focus on the giving spirit of the holidays, instead of on the competition for Gina’s time.
  • Think about establishing your own separate traditions, regardless of exactly what day in the calendar they may fall on. The winter holiday season in this country is long. Be creative.
  • If you can get back to being friends, consider spending part of the holidays together—nothing too stressful, but maybe a low-key afternoon outing of some kind. This kind of interaction wouldn’t work for many families, but it seems like it might work for yours. If you decide to try it though, make it only about Gina, and agree to table any difficult discussions for the time-being. The purpose is to alleviate her anxiety about the increasing hostility between you.
  • For the longer term, remember that whatever school schedule you decide to adopt for Gina, you must keep her best interests at the forefront.

Moving Forward in Peace

After their first mediation session, Joe and Brianna made a pact to table all discussions about next year until after January 1st. They scheduled another mediation session to broach this topic in late January. In the meantime, they would concentrate only on making the holidays as happy and stress-free as possible for Gina.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of parents working together to support their children. This importance can become starkly obvious during holidays and long school breaks. Don’t let your kids feel responsible for keeping the peace in the family. That’s not their job; it’s yours.

Whether your holiday schedule is in tatters or simply needs a tune-up, don’t hesitate to contact a mediator for help. The family law mediators at the Weinberger Mediation Center wish you peace and joy this holiday season and all year long.

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