I don't like the fact that my children move between two homes. It disrupts their schedules and creates tension on transition days. I see the anxiety levels rise as they attempt to gather what they need and want or get frustrated when things are left in their other home. Their dad and I work hard to combat and minimize the struggle, but it is a reality that we know will impact them. It is an ever-present aspect of their lives that will define their concept of "home" forever.
As a parent, there is tension, anxiety and frustration for me, too.
Sometimes, I strive to have exceptionally wonderful moments during the hours prior to their departure. This is unrealistic and adds pressure to both myself and the children.
I am tempted to make their lives easier in our home by requiring fewer chores, less responsibility and providing fewer boundaries. This doesn't do them any favors and results in entitled children. Eventually, I resent that they expect me to do everything for them.
It feels like the angst builds closer and closer to pickup time and so there are some things I've learned in the seven + years that I've been co-parenting.
· No Suitcase Required! Having all the necessary gear at two homes is the ideal. Children are not visitors and need a sense of ownership and belonging in both locations. Stress increases dramatically when there is a need to cart clothing, hygiene supplies, games, toys and more between two locations. Some things do have to go back and forth (homework, personal devices or a stuffed animal), but these can be minimized.
· Avoid big chores on transition day. Early in the process, I used to make leaving a time to straighten, organize and get everything in order so that the children would return to a comfortable room and space. This only created stress prior to them leaving and they dreaded it. Now we take care of major chores the day before transition, and they just keep up the day to day things. If it’s messy when they leave, it’s messy when they get home…and no one seems to care much.
· Keep a space available for items that need to move between homes. We don't pack suitcases, but we do have to transport backpacks, school papers and the occasional uniform or device. Having a designated spot alleviates the mad dash at the door while dad is waiting.
· Separation anxiety extends beyond the toddler years and in the shuffle between homes, some personalities are more prone than others to agitation that they cannot yet articulate. Knowing that the tension during the back-and-forth is normal, can help you adjust expectations accordingly. This isn’t the time for life lessons. Correct only what is essential and aim to bid farewell on a positive note.
· Separation anxiety happens for parents, too, but your anxiety will escalate theirs. Calm down because your calm presence provides the perspective they need and will adopt. It is essential that your children do not feel responsible for your feelings or worry about you while you are apart. Let them know if you have plans or how you will fill the time. You are the grown up. You have just been given a block of time without childcare responsibilities. Use it work, for self care, for home maintenance or whatever. Keep your perspective positive and treat the time you have as a gift.
· Keep goodbye simple, sweet and in advance. Do not prolong the farewell or require superficial affection prior to departure. Be relaxed, upbeat and keep it enjoyable. A quick hug and kiss is just fine. Let them know you are available if they need you, but give them the freedom to head out to their other family and enjoy time there, as well. Long, heartfelt goodbyes will make your child feel guilty about leaving you.
· Create a schedule and keep it as consistent as possible. Kids like to know what to expect and it will instill security. Predictability is your friend in the sometimes chaotic lives of co-parenting families. Be simple and positive at send-off.
Transitions while co-parenting are unavoidable and inevitable. They are part of the normal patchwork and life for some children. I have found that keeping the transition as low-key as possible it best. We try to make the switch as uneventful as possible and normalize the back and forth. There is a specific need for peace in these families.
I love speaking with older kids who have gone through the process and have more perspective. One girl told me it feels, “So unbelievably normal. I couldn’t imagine not going between homes, especially now that my dad has my brothers. And of course, my mom is my mom!” She went on to say, “If you start when you’re little, it’s no big deal. If not, you still get used to it.” It's sobering to grasp that something that seems so out of ordinary to me will be the status quo for many children.
Obviously, most children and teens eventually find a way to cope with the movement between two homes. But we cannot deny the real pressure and triggers that are involved. As parents, we take on the duty to make these transitions as simple, low stress as possible. Ultimately, transition days are not about me. My gift is to smooth the process where I can and help my children cope with the drawbacks. While they are gone, I get to take care of me and enjoy some freedom from the pressing responsibilities of childcare.