As parents move into co-parenting after divorce, one of the many questions that arise is who will care for the children when the parent with whom they are scheduled to be cared for has to be somewhere else (a business trip, a doctor’s appointment, etc.) The right of first refusal means that the other parent will be the first person on the list to contact to see if they are available to watch the children. The intention is to maximize the time the children have with their parents rather than other caretakers. This can be whether it is on short notice or with advance planning.

With many parents, this works quite well. They live close to each other, the children have an ease in going back and forth between the two homes, there is an acceptance that all is transparent for them….their parents just don’t live together anymore.

With other parents, this is not as smooth. There is often a feeling of “losing” if they are not fully responsible for the children when it is their parenting time, including finding alternate care for them should he/she be unavailable for them. Often the hurt and angry feelings that led to the divorce are still affecting their interactions and the thought of asking the other parent for help is too hard to bear. Perhaps the lack of trust that was developed through the marriage and the subsequent divorce has impacted how they are willing to engage with each other. The parents may also want to avoid acknowledging that the other parent and the child(ren) have a close bond they are trying to deny. And sometimes, the appearance of a new partner for the other parent creates an additional barrier to be willing to co-parent with them in a way that is seamless for the children.

When does it makes sense to use the rights of first refusal and when doesn’t it? In the first example above, the parents provide a seamless environment for the children to go back and forth between their homes and they have the ability to depend on each other. As they cooperatively maintain their childrens’ lives in school, with their friends, on their teams, etc., the right of first refusal is simply built into the post-divorce family system.

When that seamlessness is not available, it may make sense to delineate when the first rights of refusal will be exercised, such as when the custodial parent is away from the children for more than a certain number of hours. You may decide that a grandparent or a play date is sufficient to not invoke first rights of refusal.

An important ingredient in a co-parenting relationship is that the children get to experience the support of both parents in their relationships with each parent. When parents fight over time with their children it is modeling behavior that is not unlike what children experience on the playground. The rules on the playground do not promote sharing toys, taking turns on the swings, etc. It reinforces those rules and places the children in the middle of an argument that is not theirs. It has the possibility of creating fear for them and makes keeping secrets a way of avoiding problems. It could feel dangerous to be the “messenger” regarding anything the other parent is doing. Sometimes, these experiences can contribute to low self-esteem, often a precursor to depression and some types of acting out.

To help avoid these potential outcomes, working with other the parent to reach an agreement about the care of the children is crucial. If this cannot happen without assistance, finding a trained mental health professional who is experienced in working with parents who need help in making these types of decisions can help to smooth the path towards healthier communication.