Dear Dr. Jann– My child’s father and I share equal custody of our daughter, Marni, age 14. He has just announced that he wants to move to Pennsylvania for work and wants to take her. What is the likelihood he can take her and can you suggest a parenting plan that will work when parents live in different states?
Sincerely– Mom Left Behind
Dear Mom Left Behind,
When parents share equal custody and one wants to move, it often puts the final say into the hands of a judge. Neither parent wants to leave the child. Parents often ask the child what they want to do–and that puts the child right in the middle of the two people she loves most. In order to not hurt either parent, it’s not uncommon for a child to tell both parents the same thing– that they either want to go or stay, depending on the parent they’re talking to. A good guide to gauge if a child really wants to move is to find out how they feel about changing schools. That is a huge indicator of what the child really wants.
For the record, a child of 14 can “choose” where they want to live in some states, but not all. The age and approach is dependent on the individual state law. Some states allow the child to speak to a mediator or a judge and weigh in on a preference, but that does not guarantee the child can choose. “A voice is not a choice.”
That said, long distance parenting plans are dependent on how far away the parents live from each other, the child’s age and their school schedule. For very young children, it might be better for the parent who moved away to visit in the town in which the child lives predominantly, and as the child grows, arrange to have longer stays away from her primary caregiver. This may mean hotel stays or short fun trips for weekends at first, then moving into longer visits when the child is older.
Once the child starts school, longer trips away are expected and the time with the other parent is during the child’s breaks from school. Spring and Fall Break, Winter Break, and Summer Vacation. How those breaks are split between the parents really depends on the age of the child. Say, the Winter Break is two weeks long–that is a long time for a six-year-old to be away from her primary parent and a better solution at that age may be a week with mom and a week with dad. As the child gets older, say, 11 or 12, the parents might want to alternate the entire break to give the non-custodial parent a little more consecutive time with the child.
There are a few ways to approach Summer Vacation–and this is dependent, again, on how far the child must travel to see the other parent and mom or dad’s work schedule must also be taken into consideration. Some working parents simply do not have the luxury of spending long leisurely breaks with their children.
Alternating weeks work for parents who live relatively close by and can drive during exchanges. Living farther away may require a plane flight, and the expense of flying could contribute to a need for fewer exchanges. Therefore, alternating months may work if the parents want to keep the time equal, or a very common approach is that the child stays with the primary custodial parent for the first two weeks of Summer, the non-custodial parent for the bulk of the Summer, returning to the primary custodial parent a week prior to school resuming.
After all is said and done, it’s best to live near your child’s other parent if you want to share your child’s time. However, if this is impossible, there are ways to ensure you keep a close relationship with your child:
- Regularly scheduled phone calls so your child can anticipate hearing from you.
- FaceTime or Skype calls add a little novelty, plus work well for short calls for younger children.
- Texts with fun emojis or emails directly to the child.
- Let them bring their friends with them for the visit. This way you can get to know their friends, plus have more to talk about after they leave.
- Learn the latest technology and apps that will engage your child, i.e. Snap Chat, Facebook, Instagram, and use them in between visits.
If you or your coParent is facing the possibility of moving, take time to iron out the details and be as fair as possible. The child will want to feel like they aren’t being a burden, so try to make it a positive experience full of new opportunities. While it may be hard now, having this mindset will pay off in the long run.