Creating a Parenting Plan for the Modern Family

This post has been harder to write than I initially expected. I had planned to write a helpful post with tips and suggested provisions to put in your parenting plan- either initially or upon modification- that would help ease the conflict that can be inherent with step/blended families. To do so, I turned to a group of stepparents I belong to online to ask them- what’s worked for you and/or what do you wish you had in your plan to make things easier. I thought we could find a few universal things to agree on. Simple, right? Wrong. Turns out, what works for one family can be detrimental for another family and so forth – every family situation is unique.

So, instead, I will try to give you some general things to consider when drafting a parenting plan. And this isn’t just for modifications after re-marriage, those of you who are doing your first initial plan upon divorce/breakup should take note, too; because whether or not you want to think about it now, you and your ex will likely find new significant others and spouses in the future. Preparing now will hopefully help prevent future problems.

  1. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander – there are two sides to every coin – yada yada yada, pick your cliche. Basically, the problems seem to be at their worst right when the first of the two parents remarry or begin a serious relationship with someone else- especially if that relationship happens during or is the cause of the original breakup. Many biological parents come to me wanting to put all sorts of provisions into a parenting plan to control what the newcomer can/cannot do regarding the child(ren). I caution you all- take a breath and think about this for a minute. Why do you want this? Is it truly in the child’s best interests, or is the child perfectly fine and this really just about you? When you have a new partner, will you be ok with having the same controls on you and your new partner?
  2. Boundaries are a good thing. Yes, we’ve all seen the memes online about how we should all be one big happy family and go on joint Disneyland vacations because it’s what best for the kids. And hey, if that works for you, more power to you. But let’s be real- that works for a tiny minority of blended/step families. Most of us would fall in to the “thanks but no thanks” camp- and that’s ok! Really! When people tell me they don’t need specifics in their parenting plan because they’ll just “handle the holidays as they come,” I basically figure I’ll hear from them again as soon as they enter another relationship and their new partner goes crazy with that chaos. So please, do yourself a favor and really specify how the holidays, school breaks, and summer vacations are going to really work, ie., how they will be split up and divided, how they will alternate, and/or the times for exchanges. Set up some boundaries now that recognize the fact that while you are both still the parents, you are no longer a couple and may prefer to not see the other or their new partner at the Thanksgiving table or may in fact have other family obligations with your new partner. You are always allowed to mutually agree to celebrate together or veer off of the schedule, but these provisions provide a great fallback (and avoid drawn out legal battles) when issues inevitably arise.
  3. Realize you are not done once the ink is dry on your divorce decree and/or parenting plan. You know what I just said above about making a detailed parenting plan? I will stick by that, but please accept that what works when your child is three and you’re recently separated will need to be adjusted as your child grows older and new family dynamics happen. This is yet another area where the added dimension of the step/blended family can cause heightened conflict. Many biological parents see the other parent’s request to modify a parenting plan as a direct result of the stepparent’s influence. Maybe, maybe not. Regardless- take a step back again and think- does it matter who brought up the suggestion to make a change? Shouldn’t what really matters be finding a workable plan to not only keep things amicable, but that works for what the children need now? Don’t push back just because the change is to help out a new family dynamic on their side. Remember what I said in Section No. 1 above- you may need some concession or a change too at some point.

Overall, just try to not be crazy. You wouldn’t believe some of the stories I’ve gotten from my stepparent friends about their parenting plans. For instance, one parent required that they get all of the baby teeth as they fall out. Another required that the stepmother introduce herself as “the stepmother”, so that there could never be any confusion. What may seem rational to you, may be completely crazy to another. Each family is unique and you need to respect those differences as long as your children are not being harmed.

And to all stepparents reading this- if the biological parents’ schedule and plan has worked for years, but you are now taking issue with that and are pushing for a change, really examine why exactly you think a change is necessary. Is really about the children and their best interest, or is it a conflict or control issue with the adults involved? The step/blended life is FULL of compromise. Litigation will affect the kids and your relationship with them. Determine it’s worth it first. And if you think it is, come see me for a consultation and I’ll help you figure out if we can reach your objectives with as little animosity as possible.

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