This is one in a series of four articles, in a collaboration between Law Office of Lisa A. Vance founder Lisa Vance and Dr. Becky Davenport, founder of the San Antonio-based Institute of Couple and Family Enhancement, looking at parenting plans in divorce decrees from a child’s perspective.
Bexar County’s standing orders – which judges often adopt by default when hearing divorce cases – don’t adequately account for what children need from their parents at different age levels, especially after divorce. We’re addressing four different age groups in order to help parents going through divorce think about what their children need.
Though the first three years is incredibly broad from a child development perspective, we’re looking at parenting plans through this window because the Texas Family Code does.
Specifically, Section 153.234 states that “the court shall render an order appropriate under the circumstances for possession of a child less than three years of age.” The statute also calls for the court to “render a prospective order to take effect on the child’s third birthday, which presumptively will be the standard possession order.” This will either be what the court assigns to a couple relying on litigation, or whatever plan the couple agrees to if they’re negotiating a settlement.
But the court acknowledges the need for a different plan for children under three, considering a number of factors including “the child’s needs to develop healthy attachments to both parents” and “the child’s need for continuity of routine.”
You can only imagine how challenging that is during and after a divorce! In the first year of life alone, there’s so much bonding and attachment taking place between mother, father, and child that it’s preferable to have them all together as much as possible.
Some parents will try to address a baby’s needs by having the baby go back between the mother’s house and father’s house each day. That’s not quite the solution some parents might think it to be, because it can be difficult for a baby to find consistency going back and forth between houses, and because bonding time between parent and child is about quantity as well as quality.
Certainly, a standard possession for a non-custodial parent of one day a week and every other weekend wouldn’t be sufficient for a baby and parent to bond in a way that ensures the baby will experience the parent as a primary attachment figure. (To be fair, it’s woefully inadequate for other age groups, but it’s especially inadequate for babies and toddlers.)
Bonding and attachment between parents and infants changes further as object permanence becomes more established toward the end of the first year of life, and the child knows that when Mommy or Daddy isn’t physically right there, that she or he is somewhere. This awareness often creates increased separation anxiety and distress. Considerations that can be helpful in a parenting plan include ensuring regular and predictable contact between the child and both parents to ensure familiarity and bonding with both parents, opportunities for both parents to engage in all aspects of parenting (such as feeding, bathing, putting to sleep, and playing), and general consistency in daily routine between households. The formation of secure attachment is about both quality and quantity of time together.
The key in any parenting plan, of course, is to be cognizant of the needs of the children affected by it. For a child under three, it’s particularly important for the child and both parents to factor those needs in – and it may be necessary for both parents to interact more intentionally and more often than they would for older children in order to make that happen.