Building boundaries for custody and childcare
June 7, 2016 4:20 AM   Subscribe

I'm separated, getting divorced, and have 50% custody of our child. We both have busy jobs. My ex regularly leans on me to provide child care when he is in her custody. With spousal and child support, at the moment, she has considerably more income than me. At times though she either cannot or will not sort out child care at her end. Halp!

I know that I'm being manipulated, and also that I should be dealing with this, but the whole situation is causing me stressful mental blockage, driven partly by my feelings for my child, and that the child might have a crappy time with her because of my actions. Has anyone else had to deal with this? - If so, how do you deal with this? I know the answer is kind of obvious in some ways (establish rules, boundaries, etc. - right?) but I'm really unsure of how to get there.
posted by life moves pretty fast to Human Relations (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Spend as much time as you can with your child, even if it's not "your turn." It's good for the kid. Document in writing every time you have your child when it's supposed to be her parenting time. Then ask your lawyer whether you have grounds for a modification of child support.
posted by decathecting at 4:32 AM on June 7, 2016 [26 favorites]

Your kid is in the middle of a divorce. Introducing a new person for child care seems pretty rough. This really is the best for ALL of you. I know it's hard to feel that right now because you want things to be "fair" and that's natural.
You will be divorced and the lawyers will help set boundaries. Why don't you document the situation of this on a calendar to help you keep track of it (how many hours, etc)? It might help you really have on a handle on how much you help and maybe be helpful when discussing it with your soon-to-ex in the future.
(Having a decent relationship with your ex is one of the best things you can do for your stress and your kid's. Working hard on keeping things amicable will likely make you much happier in the long run)
posted by ReluctantViking at 4:50 AM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Do you work the same hours in the same city? Can you set up standing daycare you can both use?

If child in question is young, folks often have a right of first refusal, where if one parent is working for more than 4 hours, the other parent has the opportunity to care for the child.

You ex isn't taking advantage of you by offering you time with your child. This is really ideal to a lot of divorced couples. you could be offering her time as well! If she's doing at the last minute consistently, try to talk about planning ahead. If you don't want the extra time, say no. Being with a parent is best for the kid. Don't say no because you're ticked at your ex.
posted by Kalmya at 5:08 AM on June 7, 2016

Thanks for the replies so far! In fact, I already have the majority of interaction time/f2f with my child, as I cover a lot of the weekend. I also have a busy job (50-60+ hours week) that mixes office and 'work at home.' I can reschedule this work to an extent to do extra child care, but this has a tendency to cause pile-ups of stuff that needs to be done, and tensions with colleagues. And yes, we have already have daycare to an extent (which I already contribute significantly more towards, although it benefits both of us).

Kalmya, these are good thoughts, although from my perspective, she is not 'offering' me more time with my child, but rather refusing to set up childcare when the child is in her custody, and I am working. I have 'offered' her time as well (for instance to cover business trips) and she refuses.
If she offers me the extra time, I often take it when I can, even if it involves juggling my work. However I think she should be more pro-active in looking for solutions . So the question - as stated in the 'more inside' part - is more about boundary setting, and not so much whether or not I should be spending more time with my child (which I actually do anyway). Sorry if this was not clear!
posted by life moves pretty fast at 5:36 AM on June 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

she is not 'offering' me more time with my child, but rather refusing to set up childcare when the child is in her custody, and I am working.

If she says "Can you take care of kid Tuesday 2pm-6pm", how is that not an offer of more free time? If you say "no, sorry, no way I can get out of work" what happens? She dumps kid on your doorstep? Leaves the kid home alone?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:41 AM on June 7, 2016

Have a look at examples of parenting plans or parenting agreements - there are lots of guides online to drafting them for separated couples, and they're helpful in figuring out shared custody and childcare. Right of first refusal is helpful, also setting a reasonable expectation that your child will have X or Y or Z childcare instead of a parent (esp. if there's childcare options you want to avoid like an awful relative).

It's also good to count the total hours as a percentage of the week, and to look at the hours and see what's free time with the child (going to the park to play), and what's supervising time with the child (like the morning rush to get a kid ready for school). Each parent should get a reasonable share of both types of time if possible - kids need to have regular ordinary humdrum time, not just special fun time to build deep bonds. You can do that in excel with a table for a typical week - turned out one extra afternoon and an extra sleepover every fortnight helped rebalance my shared custody close to 40-60%.

I had good luck trading work hours - I would take the kids but only if I had an immediate offer of an equal number of hours of him parenting when it was my day so I could replace my lost work hours later that week.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:50 AM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

If she says "Can you take care of kid Tuesday 2pm-6pm", how is that not an offer of more free time?
Good question - but free time for who? I am usually working.
If you say "no, sorry, no way I can get out of work" what happens? Her: "Well okay I guess I will just have to track down a sitter." Calls later: "I cannot find a sitter." Me: "Okay drop kiddo off." The I start to rearrange my job. So - see my question above ...
posted by life moves pretty fast at 5:52 AM on June 7, 2016

from my perspective, she is not 'offering' me more time with my child,

From your child's perspective, your child is getting more time with you.

I was in your situation too. My ex would call me up on a Friday morning and ask if I could take our daughter for the weekend, and I lived five hours away. I would take that deal every goddamn time, and if we still lived five hours apart, I would still do it.
posted by Etrigan at 5:53 AM on June 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

dorothyisunderwood: I had good luck trading work hours - I would take the kids but only if I had an immediate offer of an equal number of hours of him parenting when it was my day so I could replace my lost work hours later that week.

I would be fine with this :) it's a good idea and maybe we could have that in a revised custody agreement.

Okay apologies for thread sitting. It seemed better than an anon though.
posted by life moves pretty fast at 5:56 AM on June 7, 2016

Good question - but free time for who? I am usually working.

Sorry, not sure why I added "free" in there. You originally said she is not 'offering' me more time with my child, which is what I meant to reference. She IS offering you "more time". Obviously it's not your "free time" though.

Have you tried looking for babysitters yourself at all? Presumably you live in roughly the same area. Do you know if it is legitimately very hard to find a sitter at short notice? Or is it possible but she's just not trying very hard because you're always a failsafe backup option?
If you haven't researched sitters yourself (via Google search and asking other local parents), maybe give it a try and if you have any good leads pass them on.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:45 AM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I hear you on how hard this is! Yes, time with your child is the most precious thing ever, but repeated last-minute intrusions on your ability to work (so that your partner can work instead!) would be a completely normal source of tension even during a happy marriage. Getting divorced doesn't magically make it more okay or easier--it just makes one particular alternative (not having that time with the kiddo) more salient.

If you say "no, sorry, no way I can get out of work" what happens? Her: "Well okay I guess I will just have to track down a sitter." Calls later: "I cannot find a sitter." Me: "Okay drop kiddo off." The I start to rearrange my job. So - see my question above ...

The problem there is the "Okay drop kiddo off" response to "I cannot find a sitter." Another completely valid response would be "I'm so sorry! I hope something works out." Followed, depending on your relationship, by a list of sitters you've used recently, a recent recommendation of a sitter from a friend, contact info for a stay-at-home parent who recently suggested a playdate with your kid, an offer to take the kid at a different time so she can make up work, etc. If you talk regularly, you could bring this up independent of a particular crisis: "It's so much harder than I thought to find sitters! It seems like we need some more reliable options for back-up childcare. Do you want to work on building a list we can share? I can ask around at [work/daycare/neighborhood]." Or, if the problem is that she really needs to find a more stable arrangement (part-time daycare, a nanny, etc.) see if you can work on that together--finding and visiting centers, etc.

This assumes you trust her enough to take decent care of your child even when she's stressed out about juggling responsibilities. It sounds like you're worried about that stress coming through to the child (moreso when she's the one stressed out than when you are), but not about safety (or the answer would be obvious). In that case a fair compromise might be to explain that you're willing to keep providing backup childcare as you have been for N months, to ease the transition, but that this really isn't a workable long-term arrangement for you, so you'd like to make sure you're both working on finding good alternatives.

You know your kid. Depending on age and personality, introducing new sitters/childcare providers could add to the stress of the divorce, and/or it could be way better than being handed off last-minute between equally frazzled parents.
posted by cogitron at 6:46 AM on June 7, 2016 [7 favorites]

It seems like the crux of this is that you feel like she is taking advantage of your time, goodwill, and desire to see your child. If I were in your situation, I'd feel the same way. I imagine this was probably an issue in your marriage and, yes, it's not something divorce will magically fix.

You need to start telling her no. Gently, and kindly, no. She is an adult, finding reliable child care is a problem that an adult can solve on their own. You do not need to give her a list of sitters to call or walk her through the options of finding one herself. You are no longer in a relationship with her, she no longer gets to look to you to solve these problems for her. Gently pushing her to be independent is absolutely necessary (reminder, you are divorcing!) and will be really good for her. She needs to develop these life management skills if she is to successfully function as the sole head of a household.

Once you've divorced, you have a solid parenting arrangement and schedule set, and she's adapted to her new life as a single parent, then you can be open to taking your child when your ex is in a fix or simply because you want to see your daughter! But always being there as her back up now only reinforces in your ex's mind that you will continue to enable her indefinitely.
posted by scantee at 7:29 AM on June 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

You may be jerpordising your job by enabling her to not deal with her responsibilities. She has no reason to change since you rescue her.
Maybe start with something small, like giving her a notarized letter "for the first two weeks of july a work project precludes me from taking on extra unscheduled childcare. Please arrange for an alternative to depending on me if you need it".
Have a plan for if she shows up and leaves the kid at your door.
posted by Sophont at 7:35 AM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

My partner and I have similar situations: exes that are flakey, kids from our previous marriages, and intense but highly flexible work situations. We know well the situation where you sit down to get a power of work done when you're off the parenting clock and then you're pinged by the ex who needs help.

Although we are happy for extra time with our kids, it is also true that we have to get work done. And it has to be said: sometimes these situations aren't really about time with our kids, they're about our relationships with our exes and the lingering investments in the habits and rituals of our old marriages.

I think askme culture, which I love (!) (most of the time!) can honestly seem a little rabid about children of divorce and these kinds of situations. And so here's my perspective on this, because the guilt can really pile up when you're divorcing with kids:

In my experience at least, a 50/50 time split doesn't necessarily mean that one is parenting half as much as they would in an in-tact marriage; they're doing 14 days worth of parenting in 7 days because they're the only parent on the clock (so they're doing /all/ the meals, bedtimes, baths, activities, playtimes rather than alternating days or sharing time/tasks on a day to day basis). If you're like most people with this kind of arrangement that I know, you defer a lot of things that would creep into your day to day parenting in a regular in-tact marriage to the days when your ex has the kid(s), precisely because you're trying to devote all the time you have with your child to your child. (And it sounds like you're still highly involved with your child on the days your ex has with him/her anyway.) If you had clocked parenting hours in your marriage, you may well find that over a two week period, you spent about as many hours helping, talking and playing with your child as you do now. For some, even, the divorce has them doing more now than they did before.

In an amicable divorce situation, it's a good thing for the child to have equal time with both parents. They need to have time and space to develop their relationship with that parent and to adjust to the new reality of the divorce; in other words (and this assumes that the other parent really is a decent parent who is giving it their best shot), I like to imagine the time division from the child's perspective: does he or she get to see mom and dad an equal amount of time? And I believe it's just as important to keep that calculus in mind as it is to enjoy as much time as I can with my child. Might they have a "crappy time"? They might. But it's important for the child to know that parent and for the child and that parent to have the relationship they're going to have. You can't and shouldn't try to control that relationship anymore.

Finally, the idea that a child is always better off with a parent than with a childcare provider seems to me a little off, too. I know that in my experience, I think it's way healthier for my kid when I'm stressed, busy, burned out -- when I can't really be fully present and engaged (and who doesn't get like this sometimes?) -- to have a childcare provider who can really, truly pay attention to them, and play and talk and hang out and do activities.

Some strategies that have worked for us:

1. Set up one day a week where you and your ex get on the phone or get a coffee or exchange emails to hash out yours, hers, and kiddo's schedule for the coming week. Put it in a shared Google calendar. This would also be the time to work out/plan any exchanged hours. The idea is that you want to start limiting the need for day-to-day back and forthing with your ex. Day-to-daying is bad for kids who need the stability and predictability of routines now more than ever; it is also too easily manipulated into arrangements that seem unfair because it makes it harder to keep in mind the bigger picture of weekly schedules; it also keeps you and your ex communicating like spouses who can plan on the fly because they live together, rather than exes/business partners.

2. Practice what you preach. If you really want to develop a pattern where you're sticking to your custody schedule, then you have to stick to your custody schedule, too. This may mean that you defer business trips to a week when you don't have the kiddo and schedule other obligations for then, too. If you don't want her calling last minute for help or to reschedule, then you can't do that, either.

3. Develop a list of shared childcare options that you both agree on. I don't think you should be solely responsible for this list, but at one of those weekly phone calls/emails/coffees - you can bring in one or two ideas for childcare options, and your ex can do the same. I think that the script for this is pretty easy: "It seems like recently, both of us have needed a little more childcare than usual for work reasons. Let's make a shared list of contacts for when those situations come up. I'll find two options. It'd be great if you could find two options, too. And then we can share that information so that we can use it when we need it to get work done." That way, you both have the same list of about four-deep childcare options that you both know you approve and that you can both use without consulting the other parent.

4. Stop answering your phone when it rings the second time. She calls and says, "Can you take kiddo?" You say, "That won't work for me." She says, "Ok. I'll get a sitter." Here, if you've already gotten a list of options, the conversation should be over. But if it's not, then - well, you're working, and so you can't get to the phone. She can leave a voicemail, and you can take a reasonable amount of time to get back to her (like an hour or so). If she shows up on your doorstep, then you /are/ going to have to have a direct conversation with her about boundaries. In my experience, though, this kind of thing doesn't happen: if you let her find her sea legs and solve the problem herself rather than solving it for her, she probably will.

This is part of the dynamic of a marriage that all divorcing couples have to work out; it is and it isn't about childcare. While you can be co-parents who are each others' "first responders" when it comes to kids after the divorce, it usually takes a little bit of going your separate ways first to get to a place where that's a healthy dynamic.

So right now, just let it ride a little bit. Trust that she'll figure it out without you. When you're both more established into your separate lives, you can answer the phone again right away and pitch in.

That's something I think people miss, too -- the relationship (even the co-parenting relationship) you need to have with your ex while you're disentangling is not/should not be the relationship you will have later on. You want to do your absolute best to keep it amicable and keep your child's best interests in mind, but you may have to work a little harder than you think at changing the dynamic, frequency, and type of communication you have with your ex, because it is easy to pretend you're talking and acting like coparents when, what you're really doing, is still trying to talk and act like spouses.
posted by pinkacademic at 9:16 AM on June 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm in a 50/50 custody situation, with my ex having significantly more travel than I do with my job.

Any conversation about helping with child care on a day she can't cover, despite being scheduled to do so, comes in the form of a trade or a transaction.

For example, if my ex called me today to take my kid this coming weekend (it's not my weekend; it's her's with the kid), she'd have to agree to take him on other days where I am scheduled to have him. Or, I'd bank this as a favor that she would re-pay later. And she has done the same for me (i.e.--taken him during a time I couldn't and "banked" that day as a favor to be cashed in later).

Despite sounding kinda cold and transactional, it works for us and minimizes frustration and resentment.
posted by PsuDab93 at 11:14 AM on June 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Thanks so much everyone. There is a very good list of ideas/suggestions here, and I'll be working on these.
posted by life moves pretty fast at 7:03 AM on June 17, 2016

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