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Re-evaluating and Adjusting Visitation

QUESTION: I am a fulltime access father and although my ex has custody, I have statements in our agreement that give me joint custodial rights. This is one of the many issues that helped me stop my ex from relocating herself and my daughter many miles away.

My daughter is almost 8, and we have lived apart since she was 2 and a half. We see each other all the time. Our schedule is every other weekend Fri to Sun night and every Wed evening 4:30 to 7:00 during school. The summer and holiday she can sleep over. I also take her out for lunch ever other Monday and see her at all of her school and extra curricular activities.

In my home (I am remarried) I have 2 step children, a 5 yr old girl and 9yr old boy. Em fits in wonderfully and the children who have known each other for 4 and a half years are truly a brother and sister to Emily.

Emily has expressed an interest in sleeping over on Wed nights through out the school year. I know I can accommodate this and will drive her to school for the morning with homework done, bathed, fed, lunch packed (I guess what I am saying is that I am capable as I do this for my step children as well).

My ex is concerned on how this may affect her schooling and she wants Em in a non-disruptive pattern during school months. I do understand that with swimming lessons, and brownies that our visit is yet another thing that Emily has on week nights and this alone is disruptive enough.

To make a long story short, can over night stays at my home affect her schooling or any other aspect of her life? I ask her teachers all the time if they notice any difference in Em's performance after spending a weekend with me, and the answer from all 4 teachers is no.

Please send me in the right direction, I do want to do what is best for Emily.

ANSWER: You should congratulate yourself on your obvious success in parenting your daughter after your separation and divorce. Though it may have been difficult in the beginning, the fact that you maintain your focus on what is best for your child reflects the quality of parenting she is receiving from you. It is likely that your daughter is doing well in school and other areas of her life not in spite of her overnight stays with you, but because, in addition to other positive influences in her life, you remain emotionally committed to Emily and she feels it! Maintaining a strong relationship with your daughter based on accommodating her schedule and needs has not proved disruptive, but stabilizing!

You are right to consider your daughter's needs with respect to other activities in her life, including her academics. However, if you are willing to ensure her ability to complete school assignments and step in to assist her to remain organized, there is no reason why an overnight should not be considered, if your daughter is asking for it. Be sure if it is decided to do so, that your daughter understand what is involved. She may need to give up an activity for an the extra overnight. But it may be the case that being in the household overnight is more important to her and her development than another extracurricular activity at this time. By the time she is a teenager, she will be more likely to be spending increased time with her peers and outside activities and may want to decrease time with you. So enjoy it while it is here! This is the time to solidify your connection with her. Be clear about your expectations. If you and her mother agree to try it out, you can set a time to evaluate Emily's adaptation to her new schedule.

Your daughter's interest in spending more time with you and her stepfamily now may be an outgrowth of her budding independence and a sign that she feels secure enough to express her desire for a change. Her desire to remain overnight during the school year is a natural extension of what she has already experienced in the summertime. So there is little being introduced that is new. With your readiness to provide for her needs and her familiarity and comfort with her stepbrother and sister, I see little reason why this change would be disruptive to her. Her readiness and your willingness in addition to the stability of your situation suggests that this could be a positive change for your daughter. And responding to your daughter's naturally evolving independence by allowing her to make her own choices is beneficial to her development.

Your daughter's healthy adjustment is likely a result of her parents' careful negotiations for her stability and consistency. However, as Emily matures, she will be having ideas of her own about how she wants to spend her time. Support her ideas whenever they originate from a point of healthy independence, for this is usually a sign of her readiness for new challenge. Thwarting these impulses (repeatedly) at this age can lead to dulling her spirit and decreasing her assertiveness in the world. In her book, "Reviving Ophelia", Mary Pipher writes about the potential for our culture to kill a young girl's independent spirit at this age by not supporting her emerging initiative. Part of your daughter's development is to begin to have a say in the decisions made about her life.

Emily is fortunate in that you and her mother have the same goal, which is understanding what is in her best interests. With her mother's care and cautiousness and her father's sense of responsibility and interest in her, Emily has a chance many children of divorced parents do not have--- growth resulting from balancing stability with change.

True growth requires new challenges which upset the balance a little, but not too much. This allows Emily to master new situations. Determining the correct balance is the nature of a child's growth and the challenge of parenthood. The tension between stability and change is a dance that must be encouraged so that stability does not become stagnation and change does not produce chaos. Emily is trying her hand at choreographing a part of her life. Why not try out her dance?

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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