Saying Goodbye: Custody Transition Do’s and Don’ts

Father and Child

Years ago, when we first began sharing custody, I dreaded the time my children were with their father. I missed them terribly, and transitions triggered all my grief and guilt about our divorce. I felt like a part-time parent and the days were excruciatingly long.

As the time came for the kids to leave for Billy’s house, I’d gather them up for extra hugs and kisses. He’d arrive and I’d hug and kiss some more. I’d reassure them that I was nearby, and available to them when they needed me. I’d send Lottie, our youngest, with a mommy memento so she wasn’t lonely. I’d tell them how much I’d miss them.

After Billy picked the children up, I’d roam around our home, sadly straightening beds and picking up socks and listening to the quiet. While they were gone, I’d check in with the children often, during our nightly call and several times a day via text. I’d run forgotten items over to his house, and linger for in-person goodnight kisses. I’d spend my days missing them and waiting for them to come home to me.

That worked for exactly no one.

I pined away my time alone. Billy had his time interrupted. The kids couldn’t settle in at home at Dad’s because they never really left Mom’s.

After more than our share of trial and error, we found routines that work better for all of us. Just like coming home, following a handful of do’s and don’ts has smoothed the goodbye transition for all of us.

Do Keep It Low-Key: Transition is part of our everyday life. It doesn’t require pomp and circumstance or tears and prolonged goodbyes. The children are just going home, not on a three-month tour of Antarctica. Gnashing of teeth just acts as a trigger for grief and worry. Today, I hug and kiss each of the kids as Dad arrives, and wave goodbye happily. Easy-peasy.

Do Take Time to Prepare: I ask the kids the morning of transition to put anything they need at Dad’s on the hall table in the foyer. I remind them once more before Dad arrives. Throughout the week, school papers he needs to see or other items that belong at his house pile there too. When Dad arrives, everything that is also making the trip is easy to find. We don’t run around at transition looking for things, and we don’t end up ferrying items back and forth (often).

One note: the kids have everything they need stocked at each house. They don’t pack clothes or other necessities. The items that transition are ones kids choose: a favorite tie for the homecoming dance, the book Caden is currently obsessed with, Lottie’s iPad, and charger.

Do Anticipate the Silence: The hardest moment is still when the door closes for me. The quiet used to make me sad. Now, I try to anticipate and revel in it.

Gabe and I curl up with a glass of wine and a full DVR or I have a girlfriend over. I often leave right after the children to meet a friend for a movie or hit the gym. Proactively planning for what I will do in the quiet time after the kids leave helps reframe that time from the potentially sad absence of the children to happy, much-needed time for self-care.

Shared custody offers a chance to strike a different balance.

kate chapman

Do Adjust Your Parenting Rhythm: When I was married and in a first-family, my parenting rhythm wasn’t dictated by the presence of the children. I grocery shopped and folded laundry with little ones tugging at my shirt. I read books and played dolls thinking of all the household tasks sitting undone.

Shared custody offers a chance to strike a different balance. When I’ve said goodbye to the children, I focus on the parts of my life that are easier to accomplish without kids around. I grocery shop and secretly clean out drawers. I call the insurance provider and balance the checkbook. I catch up on work and self-care.

When the kids are home with me, I have fewer distractions. My mommy time belongs to them. This new rhythm allows me to focus entirely on the kids when I have them and catch up on the rest of my life when I don’t.

Don’t Interrupt: Our routine includes a goodnight call each night the kids are with the other parent. Today, other than that agreed call, I avoid initiating texts, calls, or visits to the children. I want them to feel fully at home with Dad and Stephanie, and I’ve learned that when I text and call off-schedule they’re stretched awkwardly between houses.

The truth is that reaching out to them before was about me, not about them. I missed them. I needed to hear their voices. They’re too little to be shouldering their mama’s needs. Once I realized what I was doing, I stopped. I learned giving them uninterrupted time with their father and stepmother allows them to receive that love without any loyalty bind and free of worry about mom.

I am always quick to respond to a call or text from them and shower them with love and attention when they reach out. But, if they don’t reach out, I typically don’t either.

Don’t say “I miss you:” I still bite my tongue on this one. I do miss them, but telling them that doesn’t serve them. It makes them think about me at home alone and worry. Instead, I say “I’m happy you’re having a great time at Dad’s!” or “I’m looking forward to seeing you on Friday’” or “I love you.”

Sometimes the children have asked if I miss them when they’re gone. I tell them the truth: I am happy they are spending time with the other half of their family, and that is really important to me. I sometimes miss having them at home with me, but I know they are at home with Dad, safe and happy. When they’re gone, I catch up on boring mom stuff until we are together again, which is always right around the corner.

Saying goodbye is tough. Transitions away can easily trigger grief and pain for everyone. We’ve learned, through trial and lots of error, that following these simple do’s and don’ts make the goodbye transition easier on us all.