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Visitation & Mediation

QUESTION: I have an 8 year old son. His father and I are separating, unmarried, and going through a visitation battle. He lives in Oakland and I in SF. Michael goes to school and has many activities in San Francisco. During the school year, I am asking for no less than Mon-Thurs and one or two weekends. His father wants to split the week and take Michael Thursday so that he can have an educational experience with him. However, on the weekend he never does anything that is educational.

In order for them to commute without too much traffic on the Bay Bridge they have to leave at 6:00am. Michael is asleep, his father dresses him, he doesn't eat breakfast nor does he wash his face or brush his teeth. When he is with me he doesn't wake up until 7:00am and still has time to do hygiene and breakfast.

We attended a mediation session in Oakland and the mediator's recommendation leaned toward the father's request which gave me only visitation of Mon-Wed with one weekend a month, possible. Michael had seen a counselor who had recommended that Michael's schedule not change. The mediator did not take that into consideration, thus he has gone through much turmoil because for this summer we negotiated a schedule which resulted in 5 days here 2 there 3 here 4 there type situation.

I know my son and this is not good for him. All his teachers and counselor said that he needs structure. This schedule and proposed schedule is very disruptive and not very constructive. My belief is that at this age, a child needs consistency in the way he learns and tools to be the same. Later, in his teens, they are better able to adapt to changes of mid-week being toss around.

We are about to go to an evaluator and another mediation session.

My question is where can I find information which will help me convince these individuals what is best for my child. I have read "Your eight-Year-Old" by Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D. A lot of good information. Also, please note, I do not want to deny his father visitation. I want them to share quality time. My goal is for Michael to have consistency during the week. To know without looking at a calendar what day he is with dad and what day he is with mom. To know that when he does his homework it is in one place, the same place every night.

Can you recommend any literature reports that support this way of thinking? I need help, as the father has become sneaky and is not thinking what is best for Michael, but his wants and his anger that we do not live in the same household and that he doesn't see his son everyday.

The mediator we have is not looking at what is best for my son, but for his father because he was the one that filed.

Wouldn't it be best if a child didn't have to commute, be able to get a solid 9-10 hours sleep (especially when the child needs this much) and can have a consistent place to study.

I am at my wits end, I have paid over $5,000 so far in legal fees and nothing has helped. Am I crazy??? Is my thinking that wrong? When my son is older, I don't have a problem of him spending more time with his father during the weekday. I am very secure knowing that my son knows I love him very much. I have told him several times a day since he was born. I had to teach his father to tell him he loved his son.

You clearly have your son's best interests at heart. And you have the agreement of a professional counselor who has seen your son and his teachers who know him. Your request which stabilizes his week to Monday - Thursday with time with his father up to three 3-day weekends per month appears sound, given the fact that your husband chooses to live away from the vicinity of the life activities of his child. Though fifty/fifty arrangements have gained popularity, they are clearly a response to parental' "rights" and not children's needs.

Unfortunately, mediators do not respond or may not even be knowledgeable about children's needs. They serve primarily to negotiate a deal between parents with the absurd effect of your child as more a piece of property to be bartered than a human being with established connections and a life of his own. Asking that you have your son with you only Monday-Wednesday, (especially if you are a working parent) and only one weekend per month can seriously interfere with your ability to provide the stability and ongoing relationship that may be needed by your son, particularly if you have been the primary caregiver. That is why an evaluator has been called to the case to serve in the best interests of your child and his needs.

It is often the case that women do not fare well with mediation because the mediator's job is simply to get the parties to agree, and oftentimes men are conditioned to be more entitled to express their desires, while women are conditioned to be more accommodating and already be compromising to others, including a child. Therefore, men can reap an unfair advantage through mediation when this is the case, and women may fare better using separate legal representation. In addition, it is not uncommon for men to want half time custody or visitation not because they believe it is best for their child, but sometimes because they resent paying the mother child support, which is based on parental time with the child.

Our legal system is currently so steeped in attempting to keep fathers involved that they forget to look at what choices fathers are making when they choose to live at a distance that makes them naturally less accessible to their children. Negotiations to make the child adapt to this situation rather than the parents are a part of the problem. For example, if your ""ex" wants more involvement as a father, what stops him from moving closer to his son's school, lessening the burden on his child in order to enjoy contact with him?

Gender roles and conditioning are changing, and this includes respect and value for the father-child relationship. However, cultural conditioning of fathers themselves is still rooted in more self-centered than self-sacrificing behavior generally. It is incumbent on each of us as parents, to assess our own self-centeredness and to be willing to sacrifice our time, money and energy for our children. This is and has been an unconscious expectation for women when they become mothers. It has not been the expectation that most men have been raised with in our society.

Seek the assistance and support of the professionals that have known your son in communicating with the evaluator. Do not spend useless energy on mediation that is not based on your specific child's best interests. Instead, work with the evaluator to identify what is in the best interests of your child. The evaluator will make a recommendation to the court which the judge will usually accept. If it is possible to point these issues out to your son's father in a non-alienating manner, do so. Explain to him that you value and respect his relationship with his son and want to support their ongoing relationship. Let him know that you value your son's relationship with his father and very much want him to have a strong connection to him. Also, be clear about the possibility of future change in the visitation schedule, as your son grows and becomes more independent.

Sometimes when emotions calm down judgment can become increasingly clear. Perhaps your son's father will be able to put his son's needs first, even if it is inconvenient for him to do so. Perhaps he will see avenues open to him to center his life around his son's needs, rather than require his son to adapt to his lifestyle and place of residence in the middle of your son's school week. It is best if two parents can come to some agreement that is centered on the child's best interests, and continue to share stories regarding their child. Let your husband know what special events or activities have transpired that he was not present to see. Research shows that children fare best when their parents continue to share anecdotes and details about their child with one another.

Though your separation is a sign that your personal, romantic relationship has ended, your family relationships continue. Time with your child should not be based on a competition for amount of contact, but a genuine understanding of what will most benefit your child and his development over time. Rarely is it the case in any intact family unit, that each parent is with the child half of the time. If this has not been true when parents lived together, why should we assume it when they become separated? Do your best to communicate your views and get assistance for establishing a visitation schedule that is best for your child. And continue to express your appreciation for the importance of the father-son relationship to your son's father, as well as your reasonable desires to decrease unnecessary and upsetting disruption to your son's school schedule.

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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