In this article, I talk about how, as a shared parenting couple, you can help your children live happily between two homes.
Of course, in a perfect world, co-parenting wouldn't look like our own special screening of The Shining. Instead, we'd all sign the divorce papers, stick to our commitments and rationally organise who would carpool to soccer on the weekend.
Unfortunately, that's rarely the case.
One of the most challenging parts of a shared parenting arrangement is the complex logistics required when your children no longer live at one home, but share their time between two.
I mean, kids have so much 'stuff' already! Where will it all live? And how will you get it from one house to the other at the right time?
If you are new to this, my first advice is not to overthink it, as it will feel overwhelming. If you're not new to this and still struggling, keep reading, as I have many tried and tested suggestions from years of shared parenting across two homes.
The reality is that helping your children live happily between two homes can be hard, but it doesn't have to be. Keeping things predictable, staying organised and communicating can turn the worst of shared parenting situations into a positive new beginning.
Helping your children live happily between two homes
Keep things predictable
Children love surprising us. My personal favourite is when they stand over you at 5am on a Sunday morning and yell “I’m hungry!” – oh, the joys! You’d think that from their choice of entertainment they too would love the unpredictability that comes with most situations. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Children feel more comfortable in places where they have familiar surroundings. Helping a child feel secure in a new house can be achieved with the help of a few favourite personal items (Mr Boo-Boo and the Unicorn princess night-light will suffice), and a special area dedicated to all things ‘kids’.
Not only will this give your child a sense of belonging, but also allow you to keep all the Lego confined to one area – win/win!
Set a firm routine between two homes
Listen to any Supernanny episode and you’ll hear the word ‘routine’ spoken so many times that you’ll begin to contemplate making it a drinking game.
Children don’t like admitting it, but they absolutely thrive when they have a stable, predictable routine.
Sit down with your former partner and agree on some key guidelines that you can apply to both houses. Regular meal times, homework and bedtimes might not sound as exciting as 5am wake-up calls, but are easy things you can both do to reinforce expectations and minimise behavioural issues.
Finally, a calendar outlining when your child will be home (or away) can help them anticipate transitions and lessen any anxiety they might have about the situation. Having a definitive parenting plan that you both stick to can certainly help to create and maintain routines that work.
Further reading: Managing kids behaviour when they come home from dad's house.
Pick the changeover time carefully
When children are living in two homes, the inevitable changeover time can be emotional.
Happy to see one parent, yet sad to leave another. It’s a lot for a little person to take on board.
By strategically picking a good changeover time, you can alleviate a lot of stress. Evenings are not great as children get tired and emotional, as do we.
A good option (age dependent) is picking a school day for changeover, then one parent drops off and the other picks up. This way there’s no a physical handover which can pull at the heartstrings.
Create a 'transition day' routine
Being the overdramatic mum that I am, my girls and I devised this "transition day" routine.
The night before, we would sleep in my room and read bedtime stories we borrowed from the local library. Then, my daughters would wake up to waffles and hot chocolate with cream for breakfast. It helped that our changeover days falls on a Sunday.
In the back of my head, I wanted to make lovely memories with them before they headed off to their dad's place. Then, when they returned to my home, they could expect a nice, cosy dinner. I'm pretty sure my ex wouldn't make them choose between two homes - but who knows? I have to make sure I have a fighting chance!
But seriously, having a routine facilitates a smoother transition. It signals upcoming changes, so your kids know when they're switching homes. It also gives them something to look forward to.
Give lots of reassurance
If having them divide their time between two homes is challenging for the parents, imagine all the stress the separation causes the kids.
One day, you're all together, living under one roof, then suddenly, poof! - they have to switch homes all the time. Understandably, your children will feel insecure about this new family setup, especially at first.
Although it will be a difficult journey, you and your ex must make sure your children are constantly reminded of your unconditional love. While you don't always see eye to eye - if you did, then you'd still be together, right? - it's your duty to work together for the kids. You must both make your children feel that divorce doesn't mean you love them any less. That you're still one family although you live in separate homes.
I found that little things like asking them how they feel and gently squeezing their hands just before they set off to their dad's make a massive impact in helping my kids adjust to this new situation.
The last thing you need is for your kids to feel emotionally alone during these challenging times.
Get organised between two homes
School mornings are already hard enough, but attempting them when uniforms are still at dad’s house can be an absolute disaster.
Try putting a list somewhere visible so your children can get into the habit of packing their own things without your constant supervision.
Another option is to minimise the number of items your child takes. A few sets of clothes, toiletries and some toys in both households not only makes transitions less stressful but enhances their sense of belonging in an unfamiliar place.
And, for the bits that have to go back and forth between two homes, make sure they have an easy way to pack everything up.
Helping your children live happily between two homes (cont.)
Stick to child-centric decision making
Did you consult your children when you filed and signed the divorce papers? My ex and I didn't.
While we thought of our kids all the time, we knew separating was ultimately best for our family. And we both still don't regret it. But we also acknowledge that it's our children who are most heavily affected by our decision to divorce. After all, it's them who had to live between two homes.
While it's easier just to impose your rules and decisions as a mum, it will alienate your children from you.
Instead, engage your kids in your decisions moving forward. Ask for their opinions. Allow them to help solve problems.
You'd be surprised at the wisdom of children!
Be as flexible as possible
Older children often require more flexibility due to their growing number of commitments. This can make living between two homes more challenging.
Extracurricular activities, a part-time job and friends all require time commitments that could fall on the days they are in your care.
With young kids it's easy to make a plan and stick to it. As they get older, the planned stuff never works as well. More often than not, I make a delicious meal meal to welcome my girls back to our home after a week at dad's, only to be told they are both out for the evening!
Thank goodness for the freezer and my new flexible mindset.
Communicate as best you can
Communicating with your former partner can be one of the most stressful parts of helping your children live happily between two homes, but it doesn’t have to be.
If your co-parenting strategy seems to lack verbal communication, consider using technology instead. Co-parenting apps make it possible to generate shared calendars and reminders. Use them to keep track of extracurricular activities, special events, and other commitments, so you’re both on the same page at all times. Or, if you're not into the technological stuff, keep it really simple with a communication book.
Whenever you meet in person, especially when being viewed by mini eyes, be respectful and polite. Remember your own values and stick to them, even if you ex is less than friendly.
Hopefully you can slowly begin to close the gap of tension and model positive behaviour for your children.
Summary: Help your children live happily between two homes
Co-parenting isn't all rainbows and butterflies. And sometimes, even if your kids have been switching between two homes for some time, the setup remains challenging, if not outright difficult. In this article, I have listed some tips and tricks that have worked for my little family. I hope you found a couple of things you can apply to yours, too.
Setting routines is essential for this arrangement to work. Routines offer stability, and - believe it or not - kids love knowing what to expect. Keeping things predictable gives children a sense of familiarity and lessens the stress of living in two homes.
Careful timing is also crucial to help your kids adjust to the constant back and forth from one house to another. It can be as simple as picking a good changeover time or making moving more effortless.
Finally, there's you - the parents. Although you're not together anymore, you must still cooperate for this co-parenting journey to succeed. Constant reassurance from both parents ensures the children don't feel alone during this time. You must communicate and always think of what's best for the kids. And you must both be flexible enough to accommodate changes in your routines.
Ultimately, co-parenting is hard work but also 100% doable. Using these tricks, you'll soon get the hang of this phase.
Oh, and one last thing: Stay calm.