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Beyond the Boundaries

Beyond the Boundaries

“I feel so guilty,” she told me with true anguish in her voice, “This is so hard.” My daughter was in conflict with her dad over her summer schedule after returning home from college. “I hate being in the middle.”

For 12 years I tried to heed the oft-stated warning for divorced parents to keep your children out of the middle. The middle being between me and their dad. On many occasions, I “sucked it up” and conceded on a co-parenting issue to shield my kids from knowing there was conflict between their parents.

When we divorced our daughters were 7 and 5. We were required by law to follow a Parenting Plan until our girls turned 19 (the age of majority in Nebraska). We were fortunate enough to design our Parenting Plan ourselves without court intervention.  We would alternate Mondays/Tuesdays with one parent, Wednesdays/Thursdays with the other parent and rotate our weekends. This provided us the structure we needed. With an established plan we avoided conflict over who’s time was whose.  We were fortunate to afford each other flexibility when needed but if ever a conflict arose, we were able to objectively follow our plan.

My daughter reached her milestone 19th birthday this spring and now that the parenting plan no longer applies to her, and she finds herself in the space that I tried to pretend didn’t exist for all these years. She can now decide her own schedule, her terms, and her own “dad days” and “mom days.”

The cause of her current discontent came when months ago, I asked my daughter if she would be willing to care for our cats for a 10-day period after she returned home when I would be working remotely in Oregon. One of our old cats needs twice daily insulin injections so it is an “every 12-hour” commitment and it would mean she would need to spend consecutive nights at my house.

I know firsthand that as a divorced parent I tend to take it personally when my kids have the option and choose their dad over me – regardless of the reason.  I suspected her dad might have similar reactions, particularly now, after missing his daughter while she had been 1,800 miles away at college. I wanted her to be set up for success so that he understood this wasn’t a mom versus dad choice, so I asked her to let him know wanting to set expectations sooner rather than later.

As our kids often do, she didn’t take my advice. She did not give her dad advance notice of her intentions to arrive home from college and spend 10 nights at my house.  She told him with about a two-week warning and coincidentally when he and I were in conflict over another parenting issue.  The timing could not have been worse.

Like Mary Poppins, I dug deep into my well-worn carpet tote bag full of co-parenting conflict tricks and tips. Now that we are beyond the clear boundaries of our Parenting Plan it seems appropriate for me to pass some of these to my adult daughter. I offer these suggestions:

Plan Ahead: While it was now too late to do this in the immediate situation, my daughter experienced firsthand why I made this recommendation. Planning ahead allows for space, thoughtful consideration, and for everyone involved to identify what they most need/want and what they are willing to compromise on. With advance notice, decisions can often be looked at from an objective lens rather than in a heated moment when emotions are high.

Seek Input: Identify anyone who will have an interest in the decision and corresponding outcome. Ask them what they would need in order for the decision to feel fair or right. Be open, receptive, and curious to their differing viewpoints.

Set Expectations: Identify what you most need and want from a situation and set expectations accordingly. The more clearly you have aligned your needs with the desired outcome, the task of any necessary compromise is simplified.

For over a decade, I have balanced the boundaries of the parenting plan and keeping my daughter out of the middle. I wasn’t always successful, but when I wasn’t – I learned. My daughter is more capable than she sees after years of learning how to live in two separate households. Now she will find her own voice and knowledge as we continue to adapt together.

Angela Dunne