Updated: Sep 4, 2021
“We started out right away with a week on, week off. My ex pushed for this right away, and I agreed too quickly. I’ve since realized it probably worked for him because it worked with his new girlfriend’s schedule. But it is too long of a stretch for my kids, and shorter visits at each house would have been better all around at the start.“
(Tracy, age 43, separated three years)
If you’re in the midst of planning or negotiating a separation as a parent, you’ve likely already encountered the bewildering array of terminology and schedules out there to choose from.
You might have asked your divorced friends what they’re using, or started with a basic internet search, but got back mysterious coded answers like “2,2,3” and “5,5,2,2” mixed in with a choose-your-own-adventure decision-making tree based on whether you have a split, shared or sole parenting arrangement.
And if you’re like most of us, this is the point your brain immediately shut off and numbed out. But we’re here to help ease the scheduling overwhelm with lessons and insights we learned the hard way—through the trial and error of our own experiences.
There are SO many options, and every family will have one they prefer. In our experience, it’s great to ask people what they use, but also why they like it. You might find that what works well for one family is because of something specific to their situation that may or may not apply to yours: the age of their kids, how many activities they have in a week, how much travel time is involved to transfer kids between each parents’ house, work and holiday schedules, and many, many other factors.
It’s also good to keep in mind your family’s and children's needs will likely change over time so, if possible, you may want to revisit and adapt your parenting time schedule as your children get older.
Parenting time 101
First off, it’s important to note that in the spring of 2021, changes to the Canadian Divorce Act included changes to some of the terms around custody and parenting. Notably, the terms “custody” or “access” have been replaced by “decision-making responsibility” and “parenting time”.
We’ll use the new terms here too, based on the following definitions from the Canadian Department of Justice:
Shared parenting time refers to situations where a child spends at least 40 percent of the time with each parent. (Shared parenting time was formerly referred to as shared custody.)
Split parenting time refers to situations involving more than one child where each parent has the majority of parenting time—over 60 percent—with at least one of the children. (Split parenting time was formerly referred to as split custody.)
Majority of parenting time refers to situations where a child spends more than 60 percent of the time with one parent. (Majority of parenting time was formerly referred to as sole custody.)
So your parenting time schedule—the rotation of when care of the kids is transferred between their parents—will ideally be logical, fair and follow your parenting agreement. It will also ideally put the best interests of the kids first.
And remember, parenting includes time the kids are in your care but physically at school or camp. It can also include holidays and special occasions such as birthdays, Mother's Day and Father's Day, and religious and statutory holidays.
Also keep in mind that spring, winter and summer breaks from school can give you added flexibility when creating your parenting schedule. If you live in a different city from your ex, or the nature of your work makes it tough to pull off a weekly rotation, you might be able to consider using longer stretches of school vacation time to make a parenting schedule that is still fair and equitable.
Choosing a parenting schedule
“We have tried everything in the last three years, all the short routines and also a week on and off. We schedule the rotations three or four months in advance, and make changes if it’s not working for us. We also currently split the summer break into 2-week stretches so we can each take the kids camping or to visit friends or family and not feel rushed.
We have the flexibility with our jobs to experiment and a decent enough co-parenting relationship to be able to request and discuss changes as needed. It’s confusing to everyone, because the kids are seemingly randomly appearing at one of our houses on any given day, but I just keep a big calendar on the side of the fridge with the dates marked for the kids to see, and we just try to go with what works best at the moment.” (Alex, age 39, separated for 5 years.)
If you have 50-50 shared parenting time, you will have the most options to choose from. You’ll need a schedule that makes sure the time with the kids is split evenly between you and your ex.
We found that a good place to start this decision-making process is giving some thought to longer (e.g., alternating week-long stretches) or shorter rotations (between 2 and 5 days at a time with each parent).
Things to keep in mind as you consider these options is the age of your children and how much time they can handle without seeing one of their parents.
You should also consider how much time you can handle solo parenting—and don’t feel bad if the answer is “not seven days in a row.”
It doesn’t work for everybody. But mid-week visits or overnights with the other parent can ease the burnout from a biweekly schedule, as can carpooling or having the non-resident parent help out with the chauffeuring to and from kids’ activities.
Schedules with shorter rotations can be great for 60-40 shared arrangements, for easing the transition period in a new separation or divorce, for nesting arrangements, and for younger kids, as they get to see each parent more frequently. They are, in our experience, a bit of a nightmare to schedule and sort out—at first. You’ll be amazed how quickly you’ll go from viewing “2-2-3 and 3-3-4-4 routines” as some kind of algebraic IQ test to a new parenting language you can speak fluently and passionately about. This article does a great job explaining what these shorter rotations look like.
These shorter rotations can be nice because you can alternate weekends, seeing your kids frequently (but also getting some essential time alone regularly too). However, with something like a 2-2-3 rotation, it can feel busy, with a lot of travelling and shuffling between houses.
And, your friends and family will not be able to keep this straight, so they’ll never know when you have your kids. Just be prepared to start every conversation with “But wait, when do you have your kids this week?”, or do what we do, and share a picture of your calendar with your besties so they always know when you’re free for a walk or wine night.
If you want a little regularity and longer stretches with the kids, but not a full week on and off, then something like a 3-3-4-4 or 4-4-5-5 routine are happy mediums.
What about when parenting time is not shared?
There are a lot of reasons that parenting time may not be a simple 50-50 split: one parent travels for work or lives out of town, one parent has health issues that make it difficult to care for the children for long stretches, or it may even be court ordered that one parent is the primary caregiver for the children. If your parenting arrangement isn’t shared, then you will likely not be able to use an “off the shelf” schedule. If the matter of custody has gone before the courts, the judge hearing your case will likely decide the schedule for you. While this takes the guess work out of it, it also doesn’t usually take your own schedule into consideration and you will have to make it work with your other obligations such as work.
Often, if parenting is not shared, the parent with less time will have the children every other weekend. It could also include a mid-week sleepover to minimize the amount of time between visits.
Usually holiday and summer breaks are also factored into this type parenting arrangement, either designating a portion of the breaks into a regular schedule year-to-year, or using the breaks as the time the children spend with the other parent.
“When it became clear that I was headed to court to determine custody, I had to accept that a judge who really knew nothing about me, my ex-husband or my children would be making the final decision on parenting schedules. I was awarded the majority of parenting time, with holidays split 50-50. It’s a lot to manage, but has gotten easier as the kids get older.”
(Roberta, age 46, separated for two years)
Factors to consider
In choosing a parenting time schedule, all the resources we consulted advised us to think about the age and development stage of our kids, the stress involved for parents and kids with the physical transfer and transition between houses, and the realities of our daily lives that we would now be managing on our own. There are pros and cons to all these schedules, and what can work one year, may not work the next.
In other words, when you wade into this messy stew of scheduling options, just try to keep top of mind what is going to work best for you and your kids right now, in light of your legal parenting arrangement, and as you adjust to your new normal. If your relationship with your ex is civil, it is a good idea to stress that the schedule is subject to change as the children grow, so there is no expectation that the schedule decided upon today is written in stone.
It’s our opinion that there’s no such thing as perfect when it comes to separation and divorce and that includes a parenting time schedule—and parenting for that matter. Being patient and kind with yourself as you navigate these changes and decisions is half the battle.
More resources for custody schedules
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Other online resources
Making plans: A guide to parenting arrangements after separation or divorce (from the Canadian Department of Justice)
Co-parenting During the Holidays, During a Pandemic with Michelle Dempsey-Multack (from The Divorce Survival Guide Podcast) with Kate Anthony
Shared Parenting Schedules: tutorials and templates (from Our Family Wizard)
Note: Some of the names and identifying details have been changed or left out of this post to protect the privacy of women who share their stories here.