Michael and Sara had been married for just over a year when they realized that something needed to change. Sara’s three children from a previous marriage combined with Michael’s two resulted in five-child, hectic schedules of ballet, karate, tutoring, baseball, teacher conferences, church, homework, court-ordered time with noncustodial parents and the occasional detention. Sara and Michael needed to find a solution that would work with their schedules, but legally, they couldn't do it on their own. They had to include Sara’s ex-husband and Michael’s ex-wife and her husband, which made the situation even more complicated.
Though Michael was hesitant to set up a meeting with all the biological and stepparents, not wanting it to turn into a yelling match, they were desperate. So they set the meeting at a local fast-food restaurant where the kids could take advantage of the play area while the adults talked. As they planned, being in a public place helped reduce everyone's tendency to become upset.
The parents started their meeting by setting rules. They agreed to place the interests of the children first, not raise their voices, listen and not interrupt, be flexible and try to offer each other grace (as Sara needed to do when her ex-husband was late to the meeting). They also agreed to give each other the space for self-imposed three- to five-minute “time outs” if the conversation grew heated. Setting the rules in advance helped Sara feel heard, even when she didn't get her way.
The group chose to only discuss their children's activities at that meeting. Nothing more. Still, the discussion quickly moved into a heated debate: What one parent thought was important was different from what another parent felt was essential. For example, Sara’s ex-husband thought sports were the most important activity in the children’s lives, whereas Sara thought academics should be the main focus.
Michael suggested they start with the activities that were mandatory, such as school meetings and doctors’ appointments. Once those items were put in the schedule, the group called each child over and asked for his or her input. The kids were allowed to choose one extracurricular activity each — a sport, club or lesson. Those activities were added to the schedule.
Then each set of parents considered their finances. They decided what they could afford and how much they would be able to or were willing to contribute. Sara and her ex-husband had their budgetary guidelines outlined in their court papers. Michael and his ex-wife had to decide how they would divide the activity fees. His ex-wife wanted to pay for one child while Michael paid for the other, but after going back and forth, they decided to divide the costs evenly since their older son's activities would be much more expensive.
From there, the parents focused on the mechanics of the schedule, where each needed to be and at what time. Previously Sara had felt like a taxi service because the bulk of the kids' transportation needs had fallen on her. The schedule was passed around, and each parent chose the times he or she would be available to transport children.
For the times when everyone was unavailable, the group had to come up with a plan. One family chose to change their schedule, while another volunteered a trusted friend who could help out. Sara still had more transportation duties than the others, but she felt relieved that she didn't have to do all of it herself. Some help was better than no help.
In the past, Sara's ex-husband had made promises to her children and then hadn't followed through and even sometimes hadn't shown up. Sara didn’t want to cause a fight, but she also didn’t want her children to be left somewhere, waiting for a father who wasn't coming. Her ex said that he wanted to be involved, so the group came up with a list of trusted people that he, they or the children could call in case of an emergency.
To keep the plan on track, all the biological and stepparents began using an electronic calendar app so they could share the children’s schedule. Through the use of the app, each adult knew which kids needed to be where and at what time. The app included notes so parents could jot down the children's chores, note if a child was on restriction, and even tell what they had for lunch.
During the meeting, each set of parents entered their pick-up and drop-off schedule on the calendar. Even when transportation was not their responsibility, they could look at the calendar and know who was supposed to transport the children that day. It also allowed everyone to stay connected when there was a last-minute change. Each adult was responsible for checking the calendar for these details. The parents decided that as the children grew older and used cellphones, they would be given access to the calendar.
The initial meeting hadn't been easy for any of the adults. They had talked, argued and debated about the activities and schedules, and everyone had to compromise. Still, Michael, Sara and their ex-spouses chose to meet again in a month to review their plan and make adjustments. Eventually, they chose to continue meeting monthly to discuss new activities — before their kids signed up for them — so they could plan their time and transportation obligations.
Michael and Sara acknowledge that there are still bumps in the road regarding their children's activities, but they know they are headed in the right direction.