Parenting Apart: Coping with Visitation and Your Baby

by Brette McWhorter Sember

It's no one's dream to be a single parent, but since half of all marriages do end in divorce and at least as many unmarried couples break up, single parenting is reality for many mothers. Separating or divorcing while pregnant or with a baby or young toddler can be stressful and difficult. Arranging visitation is easiest if you remain flexible and patient.

Two is Better Than One

Unless the other parent is abusive or dangerous, it's usually best for a child spend time with two parents. Develop an ongoing parenting partnership with the other parent. Even though you are no longer a couple, you will be parents together for the rest of your lives. Put aside your personal problems and work together as a parenting team.

Sharing and Preparing

If you are separated or divorced during pregnancy, you can begin to create a two parent life for your child before birth. Include the other parent in childbirth classes and the birth (even if you choose someone else as your primary childbirth support partner). Share information about your health, the baby and your due date.

Discuss how to share time with your child after the birth. Think about your schedules, driving distance between your homes and the needs and routine your child is going to have in the first few months. Remember that no schedule should be set in stone. It is essential that both of you remain flexible.

Make sure the other parent has the necessary baby equipment and supplies. Some separated parents-to-be attend infant care classes together or separately.

Baby Equipment Alternatives for a Visiting Parent

It is usually not practical to transport needed baby equipment with your child, but the parent who has visitation can still be equipped without purchasing an entire duplicate set.

  • Instead of a full size crib...he/she should have a folding travel crib
  • Instead of a high chair...he/she should have a booster seat with tray
  • Instead of a changing table...he/she should have a folding changing pad
  • Instead of a baby bathtub...he/she should have a foam kitchen sink liner
  • Instead of a jumbo pack of diapers...he/she should have a small pack of diapers
  • Instead of a toddler bed...he/she should have a bed rail
  • Instead of a deluxe stroller...he/she should have a lightweight folding stroller
  • Instead of a complete layette/wardrobe...he/she should have a a few items of size appropriate clothing to keep at home

Items to Transport With Your Baby on Visitation

  • Car seat (unless each parent has one)
  • Pacifier
  • Special blanket
  • Special toy
  • Diaper bag with a few diapers and wipes for use in transport
  • Breastmilk if nursing
  • One or two bottles for use during transport
  • Sweater or cover up
  • A change of clothes
  • Any necessary medication

Dealing With Legalities

Going to court is a necessary step in organizing your child's life. You need an order spelling out custody and visitation. Get a referral to an attorney from your local or state bar association. You may also use a mediator, who can help you and the other parent create an agreement yourselves (contact the Academy of Family Mediators at (202) 667-9700 or www.acresolution.org).

If you do not create your own agreement, the court will create a visitation schedule for you. It is important to remember that you and the other parent can alter this schedule (as long as you both agree to any changes) as your child grows and as your lives change.

Getting the legalities taken care of will offer you peace of mind. "I'd recommend making sure you have all of your legal ducks in a row and also have a good support system to help you through it all," says Marie Lafferty of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, whose son began visitation at birth.

Baby Steps

When creating a visitation schedule for your infant, start in small increments. Begin with an hour of visitation at your home every day or every other day. Gradually increase this to two or three hours a few times a week at the other parent's home. Most new mothers feel most comfortable if visitation takes place while they are present, but the other parent has to be given the freedom to develop parenting skills and a bond with the baby.

While most experts recommend against overnight or extended visits until a child is three years old, it is important to remember that everyone's situation is different. If an overnight visit once a week works for you and the other parent, your child will not be harmed by it. If you want or need to set up extended visitation, gradually work up to it by slowly increasing the length of visits.

Jennifer Hartnell of Houston, Texas who dealt with visitation with her baby says, "You don't have to adhere strictly to the parenting advice such as no overnight visits until the child is three years old. Do what works best considering your situation and your individual child."

Breastfeeding and Visitation

It is possible to breastfeed successfully even if your child spends extended time with the other parent. Start pumping milk as soon as possible and build up a supply. Make sure the other parent understands the benefits of breastfeeding and how to transport, thaw and feed expressed milk to your child.

Meet with a lactation consultant to plan for breastfeeding and visitation and to help you work out problems as they come up. Suggest that the other parent speak with your pediatrician or lactation consultant to fully understand the benefits of breastfeeding and how to handle expressed milk.

The Schedule

The schedule that should be most important is your child's schedule, not the visitation schedule. One week your baby may be feeding on demand every two hours, making an extended visit difficult, another week your infant may have an ear infection and scream all night and sleep all day. Assess your child's needs and try to work around them. Make substitutions without reducing visitation time.

Donna Mecham of Sierra Vista, Arizona began dealing with visitation when her son was six months old. She suggests parents may have to recognize "what works for your schedule won't work with the other parent." She also advocates that parents try "to disrupt the child as little as possible."

Toddler Time

Young toddlers are very schedule oriented, so it is important to keep the schedule stable. If your child naps from 1 pm to 3 pm each day, make sure that you can work visitation around this. Toddlers often can handle longer visitations that are spaced farther apart. For example, you may wish to schedule visits twice a week for three hours.

Separation Anxiety

Both moms and babies experience separation anxiety! Of course you are going to be nervous and worried when you are apart from your child. There will certainly be times when your child has trouble making transitions between parents. All of this is completely normal.

Developing a relationship with both parents is essential to your child's emotional well-being. Encouraging a relationship with the other parent is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child. Put your own feelings about and history with the other parent aside and focus on your child.

Coping

Parenting an infant and coping with visitation are two very stressful situations that are even more stressful when paired together. Being a single parent is not going to be easy and neither will working with the other parent to make sure your child has contact with him or her.

There are steps you can take that will make the situation easier for you. When Mecham's son began going on visitation she was nervous. "I made sure I knew where my ex was going to be, taking my son and picking him up. I also made sure that a friend went with me." She points out "If the parents work together and both try to make the visitation less of a challenge for the other then it will go smoother."

Lafferty says her worries were "about the baby's safety and my own." Women who are concerned about their own safety need to obtain legal assistance or go to a domestic violence shelter. If you feel your child is in danger or has been harmed, contact your state child abuse hotline and hire an attorney immediately (or pursue help from a legal aid agency).

Hartnell got past her worries about visitation "...by telling myself that it was important for him to have a relationship with his father and the benefits of that outweighed the possible problems."

She points out that to get through the difficult periods when her son would cry or be upset she and her ex "had to work together...Be prepared compromise on the things that don't really matter."

When your child is new to the world it is hard to think about giving up time with him or her. Visitation is about giving your child the benefits of having two parents. Working together to do this will offer your child incredible benefits.

Resources for Single Mothers

Brette McWhorter Sember is a retired family attorney and mediator and nationally known expert about divorce and parenting after divorce. She is the author of:

Learn more about Brette on her web site.

Copyright © Brette McWhorter Sember. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.