When there is shared or joint custody (you'll find out more about custody options in What You Need to Know About Custody), you can divvy up the kids' time in a variety of ways. Sometimes you get the weekdays or the weekends. Sometimes it's divided one-third/two-thirds. Sometimes (and this usually works best when the kids are older and ready to dictate their own movements) there's open times between homes, and the kids come and go as they wish.
Half 'n' Halfer
Many times, divorcing parents have their children spend equal time in each house. In some ways, this is the fairest and most reasonable approach, both for the parents and the kids. But in other ways, it's more stressful for the kids, especially if they are shifting houses every week or more than once a week. When kids have two houses all the time, they can begin to feel like nomads, never quite sure of where they are or where they belong: “If this is Thursday, this must be Mom's house.” On the other hand, some kids love the flexibility of always having another place to call home, especially if they get into trouble in the first place!
Here's something to be especially aware of: If a child is totally in charge of when he goes where, he may use this freedom as a threat, or weapon against you. Say John wants to stay up late at your house, and you want him to go to bed. John may say, “If you don't let me stay up late tonight, I'll stay at my dad's all the time—he lets me stay up as late as I want!” Open houses only work when there is good communication between the two bioparents (and there is more on this in How to Deal with the "Evil" Ex, and Don't Compete with the Ex).
Isolina Ricci, author of Mom's House, Dad's House, describes the various types of time splits, and says that half-and-half arrangements work best when they're balanced:
Little children and infants need a primary residence, a predictable and comforting routine, and as much time as possible with each bioparent—daily, if possible.
- Overnights. Kids should have overnights with each parent and get the reassurance of waking up in a place they feel they belong.
- Outside activity time. It's important to spend time together doing sports, music, dance, and/or community activities.
- Holidays, special days, entertainment, and recreation. Have special occasions together, whether planned, high-budget, low-budget, or impromptu.
- Time away and time together. Lots of most kid's time is spent away from both parents, at school, daycare, or work. Be careful that there is together time with your child in your life. Your stepchild (as well as your own child, if you're a parent) needs it, and so does your family.
Half 'n' Half and You
As a stepparent, you have some real advantages in having the kids half—and only half—the time. You get the pleasures and relief of both private time and family time. On the other hand, it's easy to start feeling schizophrenic, especially if you are having a hard time with the stepkids. Here you are, relaxed, on top of it, and lovey dovey with your partner. The stepchildren arrive, and suddenly you're snarling inside. It's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde time!
Because the stepchildren are with you half the time, you are definitely a part of their lives as a parental figure. Talk with your partner about the role you most feel comfortable taking (review Defining Your Role as Stepparent). Work together on discipline issues, too (check out Setting Your Stepfamily's Rules and Limits).