Visitation…My Least Favorite Word

visitation in divorceIn every episode that I’ve ever seen of Inside the Actor’s Studio, James Lipton asks his guests to state their least favorite word. Well if he were to ask me, I would answer,“VISITATION”.

The word “visitation” makes me cringe because it conjures up images of parents no longer being parents but rather observers in their children’s lives. One doesn’t visit with their children, one parents them, thus, the proper term to be used in a divorce situation is “Parenting Time”.

When my husband and I are both home with our children, we are both parents and we are both parenting. If I go out for an evening and my husband is home, he’s still parenting our children. He isn’t babysitting or visiting with them. He is parenting them, and this is true for all non-divorced parents, so why should it be any different for parents who are divorced?

Not only is the term “visitation” derogatory when referring to the parent’s time with the children, what message does the term send to the children? What message does it send when you tell a child your mom/dad has visitation with you today? Doesn’t that send a message that the “visitation” parent doesn’t play an important role in the children’s lives? Today, almost every couple that I know or have worked with has joint legal custody, thus they both have equal say about all major decisions in their children’s lives, so why do people still use the word “visitation”? Again, you don’t visit your children, you parent them.

Upon divorce, parenting roles usually change just because now there is one parent in each household rather than two parents. During a marriage the parents may share certain responsibilities or one of them may take a more active role in the scheduling of play dates, social activities, doctor appointments, etc. This parent may be more likely to take the children to doctor appointments or meet with the teachers. This parent may even be the one to get the children ready for bed each night. In camp terms, this parent is the Head Counselor. In my experience this frequently is the mom.

Now upon separation, the other parent, in this case, the dad, now wants to assume many of those responsibilities. He wants to go to doctor’s visits. He wants the kids to be with him on weeknights so he can get them ready for bed and help them with their homework and in turn the mom gets angry. She says, “He wasn’t interested in all of this before the divorce. I bet he thinks he’ll have to pay less child support. Why can’t he be happy just having visitation every other weekend?”

Yes, part of the mom’s response is frustration. She may have been trying throughout the marriage to get the dad more involved. However, there also is the fear factor. What will I be if I no longer am the Head Counselor? What will I do when the children are with their father? Will my children stop needing me? As I have tried to explain to my clients, the reality is that marriage is a partnership, during which you had a partnership agreement, and now the partnership is ending and you have to come up with a partnership dissolution agreement. Dad now is realizing that he won’t be able to kiss his kids goodnight every night. He also realizes that the two of you aren’t going to be sitting on the couch or lying in bed discussing the children’s activities and all of their goings on. He realizes he needs to find out this information on his own.

If both parents can put aside their negative feelings towards each other and work together so they both are involved, the children only will benefit and will have two involved parents rather than one. So again, we’re back to parenting, not visitation.

Personally, I believe the best divorce movie ever was <b>BYE BYE LOVE</b> starring Paul Reiser, Matthew Modine, Randy Quaid and Rob Reiner. The movie follows the lives of 3 divorced dads (Reiser, Modine and Quaid) for a weekend. With humor and realism it shows the struggles these three friends have with parenting, going on with their lives and coping with their parenting roles. It also shows some of the struggles and heartache the children feel. One can’t help but cry when Randy Quaid drops off his pre-school daughter at her maternal grandparents and she begins screaming for her daddy when he hands her off to grandma. Rob Reiner plays a radio talk show host Dr. Dave Townsend and is doing a 48 hour show on D-I-V-O-R-C-E. His radio show frequently is heard in the background. Reiner’s messages are divorced people should get over it and he also has lots of mean things to say about divorced dads and his perception of their failure to take responsibility for their children.

Well, near the end of the movie Randy Quaid has had it and storms into Reiner’s studio and he verbally gives it to him. Of course, the mics are on and his diatribe is broadcast all over the airways. Quaid’s character is a father of 3, one high schooler, one elementary age son and a pre-school daughter. He tells the doctor divorce isn’t easy. He goes on to explain that before the divorce his ex-wife was the parent who did everything, he thought he was involved in his children’s lives but it wasn’t until the divorce that he realized that he really wasn’t. He makes it clear that as a result of the divorce he is a better parent. When his children are with him he has to do everything for them and now when they go back to their mom, he cries, he worries about them all of time because now he knows what he is missing. I admit it, I cry everytime I see this scene. Although I also have to admit that when I saw this movie in the theatre I really wanted to stand up and cheer for him, but I was on a date and I didn’t know how he’d react.

Quaid’s character sums it up: When he’s with his children, he is both mom and dad. He is the parent and that is the case with all divorced parents. So as I’ve said, no one is visiting. They are parenting.

I am not saying that the transition is easy, but if the parents work together it can be easier and better for the children. Certain processes such as mediation and the collaborative divorce practice can help couples work together to develop parenting strategies that are in the family’s best interests. Therapists and family coaches can help as well. Even if you’re in the litigation process, the two of you can go out for a cup of coffee and talk about it, because no matter what you say or do, you are both the parents. Neither one of you is a visitor.

By Lorraine Breitman