Parenting arrangements for the modern family

by Barbara Badolato, CSW

Thirty years ago, when people got divorced, parenting arrangements almost always looked the same: the children lived with mom and saw dad on the weekends. In those days, mom was usually the primary caretaker and dad was the breadwinner.

As we all know, times have changed- there is no such thing as a “traditional” family. Working mothers are now the breadwinners for 40 percent of American households with children. (According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center). Plus, both parents are much more actively involved in raising their children than ever before, and oftentimes neither parent identifies him or herself as the primary caretaker of the children.

Parenting arrangements have changed with the times, and these days, we see our clients choosing all different kinds of options.

Here is an overview of the arrangements we see most often:

Custodial/Non-Custodial Parent

For many families, a more traditional approach still makes the most sense. In this arrangement, the children live primarily with one parent (referred to as the “residential” or “custodial” parent). Their home is the home base for the children. The other parent (often referred to as the “non-residential” or “non-custodial” parent) might spend time with the children every other weekend and twice during the week, including having the children sleep over. The “residential” parent could be mom or dad, and often both parents are still working. This arrangement still works very well for many families, especially if one parent has a more demanding job, and the other parent is used to handling more of the parenting duties or does not work outside of the home.

Joint Physical Custody

Many parents choose to have the children live with them on an equal basis. For example, the children will live with one parent for four days, and with the other for three, and then they will switch. Or the children may live with one parent for one week and the other parent for the next week. For some couples, a shared parenting arrangement is ideal. They find that the time without their children gives them a chance to recharge their batteries. Also, it gives both parents a chance to take on new parenting roles–usually for the better. For example, maybe mom always made dinner and dropped forgotten bookbags off at school. Maybe dad helped with homework. Now dad is preparing meals and mom is helping with algebra. It can be beneficial for the children to experience both parents taking on these roles and participating in their daily routines.

On the other hand, parents contemplating this approach must be mindful that what is ideal for them may not be ideal for the children–for example, it may be too stressful and unsettling for the children to be shuffled back and forth between residences for extended periods of time (or too frequently). Furthermore, for true joint physical custody to work, parents must live in close proximity to each other. Both homes need to be relatively close to the children’s school and activities so you’re not putting too much burden on the children to reasonably meet their obligations.


Nesting is when the children continue to reside in the home and the parents come and go, depending on who is on duty. When not with the children, the “off” parent generally stays in a small apartment or with a relative. This is most common when people want to maintain a home for the children but do not have the resources to maintain two houses. For the most part, nesting works best as a temporary arrangement. As mom and dad start to pursue their own personal lives, it can become too complicated. We have seen this arrangement work well when a couple is trying to accomplish a certain short-term goal. For example, a couple with teenage children may want to wait for their youngest to graduate high school before they sell their home, as they feel it would be less disruptive for the children.

Individualized Plans

There are many other arrangements that couples we work with create to suit their lifestyles, or their children’s needs.

Many people’s lives don’t fit neatly into any of the parenting plans mentioned above: More and more people have the ability to work from home and can be available to care for the children while the other parent must go to an office or work outside of the home. Many people work on a rotating schedule. Some travel for extensive periods and are home for long periods of time. One parent may work at night while the other works during the day. If there are children with special needs, those needs may override other considerations.

In all of these situations, with the help of their mediator, parents can be creative in devising a parenting plan that best suits their particular needs, and the needs of their children. The point is, when parents are willing to work together they can come up with a plan that is realistic and practical, rather than agreeing to a cookie-cutter approach that simply will not work for them.

Barbara Badolatois a certified social worker and a partner at Divorce Mediation Professionals. She has twenty-five years of experience working with couples in divorce mediation, and she specializes in the emotional aspects and financial concerns of couples going through separation and divorce. She is active in the training and continuing education of other mediators in the field and has made numerous presentations at programs and conferences sponsored by The New York State Council on Divorce Mediation, The Academy of Family Mediators and the Family and Divorce Mediation Council of Greater New York. Barbara has been affiliated with Stony Brook University School of Social Work as a field instructor, and is also in private practice working with individuals and doing couple’s therapy.

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