It’s happened to even the most organized of divorced co-parents— the school pick-up mix-up. The story goes something like this: You arrive on the usual day, at the usual time, to collect your third-grader from her after-school ceramics class, only to be told by the obviously-not-a-parent ceramics teacher that she doesn’t know where your child is, that she must have left with someone! Trying to push down the rising panic, you stop a group of your daughter’s friends in the hallway and they assure you that, yes, they saw your daughter. In fact, it was just a few minutes ago. She was getting into a car with some man! Oh, but they think it was her dad. Turns out that your ex-husband got his Tuesday confused with his Wednesday, so he picked up your daughter a day early. He is very sorry. He did not mean to cause those 3,000 new gray hairs on your head. Welcome to the modern world of co-parenting after a divorce.

Of course, these kinds of mix-ups happen to married couples, too, but co-parenting comes with its own unique set of challenges and zany mix-ups. Luckily, there is a wealth of information available for divorced couples hoping to make the transition from one parent’s house to the other’s house as seamless and painless as possible.

Share and Share Alike

Although popular just a decade ago, the days of “Disneyland Dads,” with children living at mom’s house 90 percent of the time, only visiting dad every other weekend, are waning. Most child experts now agree that, for the majority of divorced families, a shared custody arrangement is better for children and their parents.

“Children want and need both parents in their lives, beyond the constraints of ‘visitation’ relationships and ‘primary caregiver’ arrangements,” states Edward Kruk, author of the book Divorced Fathers: Children’s Needs and Parental Responsibilities, in his article “Sixteen Points in Support of Co-Parenting” for Psychology Today magazine. Splitting time between the two parents evenly “enhances the quality of parent-child relationships, and reflects children’s preferences and views about their needs and best interests,” argues Kruk. “Where family violence is not a factor, children’s needs and interests are best served by preserving meaningful relationships with both of their parents.”

Some parents decide to share custody by having a one-week-on, one-week-off type of arrangement, where children keep two sets of pretty much everything at each parent’s house and go back and forth every other week. This was the arrangement Jeff Whitehead grew up with. Now a father himself working for the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Whitehead, 33, says the week-on, week-off lifestyle was both positive and negative for him and his younger brother, Michael.

“I liked being able to see both families,” Whitehead says. “I didn’t feel abandoned by either parent, and I liked that this arrangement showed real energy from both parents to see us and spend time with us.” However, Whitehead says the constant shuttling back and forth every other week was tedious. “Sadly, there was much more that I didn’t like about this arrangement than I liked,” he says. “I was not a fan of having two sets of rules, and I didn’t feel like I had a real home.”

For parents looking into this arrangement, or who are already living the week-on, week-off parenting life, Whitehead has some advice: “I would encourage parents to have some semblance of the same rules,” he says. “And maintain open communication between the two households! That would have made things better for me, I think.”

Other tips for making this type of arrangement work:

  • Flexibility is great, but having a set schedule will make life a lot easier for you and your children. Consider sticking to a set pick-up/drop-off time and place each week (or whenever you decide to do the house-to-house transition) to maintain stability for your children.
  • Make sure everyone knows about the new schedule.

“The goal is always to create the least amount of conflict between the parents,” says Elaina Goodman, 43, a writer living in Portland, Oregon. The mother of two elementary school aged daughters, Goodman has been co-parenting with her ex-husband for the past year. The former partners agreed to what they call a five-five-two-two arrangement, which means mom has the girls every Monday and Tuesday, while dad has them every Wednesday and Thursday. They alternate Fridays through Sundays to give each parent a full five-day stretch with the girls.

This is the type of situation that works in theory but can have major mix-up potential, Goodman says. To alleviate confusion, she and her ex-husband maintain an online Google calendar, which the girls can access and print out for a visual picture of how their weeks are going to shake out. The parents can add the girls’ doctor and school appointments, soccer games, and after-school schedules to the calendar and the other parent has immediate notification. “As long as everyone follows through on the calendar it doesn’t really have any drawbacks,” Goodman says. “It’s good for the kids because they can look at a broad picture of their week, know exactly where they’re going to be, and have that sense of security that they need in their lives.”

  • Keep two sets of clothes, toys, books, shoes, sports uniforms, and other necessities at both houses. The only thing your child should have to drag between homes is a backpack for schoolwork. Doing this encourages your child to feel at home in both places, and drastically reduces that drama that ensues when you figure out— 10 minutes before school starts— that your son’s class is going to the forest on a fieldtrip that day and rain boots are required, but that his rain boots are at mom’s house, 10 miles across town.
  • Don’t make it a competition. There are going to be things that your kids like about your house and things that they like about the other parent’s house. Just roll with it. Don’t criticize your ex’s house in front of the kids and avoid making comparisons.
  • Consider making special compensations for infants or toddlers. Parent-child attachment researchers say overnight visits with both parents are critical for helping younger children bond with both parents. Kruk addresses this challenge in his article “Co-Parenting Infants and Very Young Children” for Psychology Today magazine, and says breastfeeding schedules can be a point of contention for co-parents of very young children. To smooth these transitions, Kruk advises that “an attitude of support for breastfeeding mothers by fathers is critical … at the same time, mother’s support for the ongoing father-child relationship is equally critical to children’s well-being.” Again, with open communication, a routine, and some flexibility (along with a good breast pump), even breastfeeding schedules can fit into co-parenting arrangements that include two different households.