It's amazing how the course of one meal can alter your life. A few months ago one of my stepmom friends and her husband were eating dinner with their stepkids, when the littlest one chirped up, “Mommy says we're going to move away and have lots of fun. ”
After nearly choking, the s-mom and her dear one were shocked to find out that the bio-mom had serious intentions of leaving the area. She had even been house-hunting several states accompanied by her oldest daughter – who now sheepishly stared at the floor.
What do you do when your highly structured world of shared custody, scheduled play dates and negotiated truces with an ex-spouse appears to be crumbling? Family courts are entertaining an increasing number of relocation and custodial dispute cases, as families adjust to a shifting economy and move more frequently - the result: more blended families are facing these thorny issues. So what do you do?
(1) First, take a deep breath and give yourself a moment for the “who do you think you are to move the kids across the country without mentioning it to us" reaction. Don't have your emotional boil-up in front of the kids. Wailing about the other parent in front of them, even if it is deserved, only serves to divide their loyalties and make them feel even more conflicted. Your spouse (the stepmom or stepdad) can be a wonderful support - but discuss privately.
(2) This is an adult-to-adult problem - keep it with the grown-ups. It’s not the kids’ fault that Mommy or Daddy has decided to pack up and move without so much as an email or phone call. Inevitably - this happens at the worst possible moment when you are tempted to be petty or mean – remember the principles of shared parenting – going jugular early may give you emotional satisfaction but may not help the situation.
Shared parenting is like two kids on a seesaw at the playground. Balance is maintained when both are on the teeter-totter at the same time. But when one decides to jump off, chaos. The question is how to get everyone back on the seesaw and restore a sense of balance.
(3) Gather information before talking to the other parent. Look at your custody agreement and shared parenting plan. Many agreements contain statements that limit geographic mobility and prevent a parent from leaving the area without a legal negotiation about custody changes. You may want to consult with your attorney about your rights as a parent and how best to proceed if you believe the relocation is likely.
(4) Consider how relocation may impact your child, not just you. Relocation often disrupts the fragile balance of the post-divorce ecosystem. Your child has already gone through the trauma of seeing his/her parents split up. Even if you are not the primarily custodial parent, hopefully you have set up a balanced custody arrangement that lets your child have both parents be active in his/her life and communicate without hostility about the child. A relocation – and even talk of a relocation – can disrupt this fragile balance.
(5) Communicate with the other parent. Ask lots of questions and find out why the other parent wants to move. Talk about what is in the best interest of your child, as well as the custody ramifications. Communication with the other parent may be difficult, but it has to happen – it is the only way this situation will come to a resolution. Is the proposed move due to finances, career advancement, a remarriage, or to be closer to an extended family support system? If the conversation is verbal or over the phone, write down what is said and log the date. Email can be helpful in that it gives you a record of what is said, but its impersonal nature can also contribute to misunderstandings and emotional flare-ups.
Fortunately for my friends, it all worked out - their children remain near and are not going anywhere, other than maybe college in a few years. I have another set of friends who were not so lucky – their stepdaughter moved around the world after her mother’s remarriage and the mother severed contact with the father. They hired an investigator to find her and endured a red-tape nightmare, but they eventually saw her again.
Although custody situations often do not escalate to the point where one parent takes the child and flees, parental abduction is an unfortunate and very real occurrence. More than 204,000 children were abducted by a family member in 1999, according to the NISMART-2 study. If you'd like to know more, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has free publications available online or toll-free at 800-843-5678 called “Just in Case – Family Separation” and “Early Identification of Risk Factors for Parental Abduction. ”
Dawn Miller writes a column on life in blended families at http://www.thestepfamilylife.com