More than child's play

How do divorced dads find ways to entertain their children without breaking the budget or going overboard?

Every other Friday at 4 p.m., Mike McCormick climbs into his Plymouth Voyager, pulls out of his driveway in Sterling, Va., and heads north on an important family mission: picking up his 6-year-old son, Jimmy, for a weekend visit. His destination, 180 miles away, is Somerset, Pa., the halfway point between his house and Erie, Pa., where his former wife and Jimmy live.

About the same time, Jimmy and his mother begin a similar drive to Somerset. Once there, Jimmy hugs his mother goodbye, then climbs into his father's van for the four-hour drive back to Virginia.

"I have 45 hours with him," says Mr. McCormick, an investment manager. They spend eight to 10 of those hours in the car.

This is the world of postdivorce childrearing, where one parent – usually the father – is consigned to the role of weekend host or visitor. It is a domestic universe ruled by calendars, clocks, and court- ordered visitation schedules that attempt to keep both parents connected, however imperfectly, to the child they both love.

Every year, an estimated 1 million children and their newly divorced parents begin arrangements like these. Of the 14 million single custodial parents in 1997, nearly 12 million, or 85 percent, were mothers and 2 million were fathers. In most states, both parents share legal custody.

Noncustodial parents typically see their children only 16 percent of the child's time, according to Jeff Parks, a marriage and family therapist in Natick, Mass. This usually includes one evening a week, every other weekend, and time during holidays and summer vacation.

Although most noncustodial parents do not make the lengthy biweekly commutes that McCormick does, even those who live near their children must find activities they can enjoy together. That challenge intensifies during the summer, when visits can last three weeks or more.

At the same time, fathers must fight the stereotype – mostly untrue, they insist – that they are "Disneyland dads," implying that they entertain children lavishly in an effort to buy their love.

"I don't think the Disneyland dad is a reality," says Bill Zamzow of Quincy, Mass., who sees his 4-year-old daughter, Jacqueline, three times a week. Expensive entertainment, often beyond the budget of two-parent families, becomes even less affordable when parents maintain separate households.

Mr. Zamzow thinks the stereotype is fueled by exaggeration on the part of former wives. "It's sort of a Cinderella thing, that she's home taking care of everything and he's off at the ball. The fact of the matter is, it's a poor substitute for a regular family."

Most divorced fathers try to keep schedules as normal as possible, says Dianna Thompson, executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children. Many enroll their children in sporting activities so they can take them to games on weekends. They also work with children on school projects. She knows one father and son who pack a picnic and go fishing.

Zamzow strives to blend free, low-key activities with organized events. In good weather, he picks up Jacqueline at her mother's house after work and heads to a nearby park to play. When the day turns chilly or wet, they enjoy the children's room at the library.

Because Jacqueline "loves theatrical stuff," ranging from puppet shows to magic, Zamzow looks for offbeat children's theaters on weekends. They attend one or two shows a month. "If it's reasonably entertaining, active, and moving, children may not get it, but they'll have fun with it."

Father and daughter visit the Children's Museum in Boston or the Aquarium once or twice a year. They also enjoy the zoo and the Big Apple circus. He avoids large-scale events. Once a month, he arranges a playdate with one of Jacqueline's friends. They also like to relax at his apartment.

"Don't worry too much about your child," Zamzow says. "It doesn't have to be Ringling Brothers. They're very easily amused." Some libraries offer free or discounted passes to museums and theaters, reducing costs.

Every week, Zamzow compiles a list of family-oriented weekend activities in the Boston area. He distributes it by e-mail to 800 parents, a majority of them noncustodial fathers.

For parents in other cities, he suggests checking newspapers for calendar listings. Local parents' magazines and libraries also offer ideas. So does the website www.gocitykids.com.

In families where both parents have children from a previous marriage, visitation schedules become even more complicated. John Martin, a management consultant in Burlingame, Calif., has a 13-year-old daughter who lives with her mother. His wife's 14-year-old son lives with them but visits his father regularly. The couple also has a 6-year-old daughter.

"It takes some sorting to coordinate three families," he says. "When we want to go on summer vacation for two weeks, we have to call my ex-wife and her ex-husband."

In the years since both were divorced, their relationships with their former spouses have become more cooperative – an essential factor in minimizing tension, experts say. Mr. Martin also stresses the need for flexibility.

"When the maternal grandparents are in town, I give a little of my time up," he says. "And when my parents are here, my former wife is pretty quick to give her time up. We want our daughter to know her grandparents."

Similarly, Martin willingly switched his midweek visit to Tuesday when his daughter's dance lesson conflicted with their usual Wednesday evening time.

Routine is also important, he says, explaining that children who get "ping-ponged" between two households need to be able to expect stability.

After his divorce, when he was a single father, Martin created a sense of normalcy during visits with his daughter by sharing mundane domestic activities – doing the laundry, going to the cleaners, running errands. Afterward, they would play. That way, his daughter didn't think, "Oh, Dad's here, which theme park or movie am I going to go to today?"

Still, Susan Stewart, a family demographer at the University of Richmond in Virginia who has written about "Disneyland dads" and "Disneyland moms," finds that nonresident parents are more likely toengagein leisure activities with children – picnics, movies, sports – than in school events and homework.

Even conversation can be tricky. When noncustodial parents and children talk, she notes, "a lot of stuff is off-limits, like talking about the kids' mom."

Still, at least these families stay connected. About 40 percent of children in single-parent homes have not seen their father during the past year. Some custodial mothers refuse to comply with court-ordered visitations. In other cases, noncustodial fathers live far away or gradually drift out of their children's lives.

Sometimes custody arrangements are reversed. Last September, Debra Gordon, a writer in Nazareth, Pa., became a noncustodial mother when her 14-year-old son, Jonathan, went to live with his father in Virginia Beach, Va. He wanted to attend a larger high school and have access to the ocean for surfing.

When Jonathan visited during spring break, he played golf with his stepfather. Now mother and son are planning a weeklong trip, perhaps to the New Jersey shore, during his summer visit.

Still, Ms. Gordon finds her new role somewhat awkward, saying, "Teenage boys don't just hang out with their moms."

During their months apart, e-mail and instant messaging help to bridge the miles. Gordon also compliments her former husband, Jonathan's father, for keeping her informed. "He e-mails me every week with updates," she says.

To minimize postdivorce problems, some states require divorcing couples to take a class to learn how to make divorce and visitation easier for the children.

Martha Arthur, a social worker who teaches state-mandated classes in Quincy, Mass., acknowledges the difficulty both parents face in a divorce. But over the years, she says, she has come to appreciate "how difficult it is to be the noncustodial parent, to develop a comfortable relationship with your children, since you're not seeing them every day."

One struggle comes when a noncustodial parent remains lax about disciplining a child because their time together is so limited.

Weeknights can also pose a challenge. A Wednesday evening visit with children during the school year can be very rushed. "They pick them up, have a meal, help them with their homework, then take them back to their other parent," Ms. Arthur says.

She recommends keeping meals simple and anticipating homework needs. She also urges both parents to be in contact with the child's school.

That kind of cooperation can help to ease the anguish of separation. But even when visitations go smoothly, some noncustodial parents see a basic flaw in the system. They want a more equal division of time.

"The every-other-weekend schedule is not beneficial for either parent," says Ms. Thompson, of Lake Forest, Calif. "Mothers during the week are going to have to be the ones telling children to do their homework, do chores, and keep them on a disciplined schedule. Then on the weekends, the fathers are going to want to make the best of the limited time they have with their children."

By contrast, she says, shared parenting makes family life more normal. "Both parents will be disciplinarians, and other times they'll do fun things. Neither parent will be considered the bad guy when it comes to discipline or the duties and responsibilities the children have."

Mr. Parks, another advocate of shared arrangements, offers an example: "If the father spent from Friday afternoon to Tuesday with his children, he could have a much more active role, helping them with homework, discipline, and structure."

At minimum, Parks advocates parallel parenting. "There are two different homes, but the parents continue to be the best parents they can be. Each parent is respectful of the family the child is now in. They respect the needs of the children first, and adhere to schedules as much as possible."

That is the attitude McCormick and his wife, Tracy, take when Jimmy comes for the weekend. Noting that his wife's three children live with them, he says, "We try and just act and function as an intact family with four kids. Whatever we have going on, Jimmy just becomes a part of."

Sometimes they visit museums in Washington or enjoy a picnic. Springtime Saturdays might include a softball game. On Sundays, they attend the early service at church so they have time for lunch before leaving at 2:30 to take Jimmy back.

"It's a hassle to make the drive, but it affords Jimmy and me a great deal of time to interact and catch up," McCormick says. "We have a great time on the trip." They play CDs, sing, and talk about school. "We just spend the time letting each other know that we enjoy each other, and strengthening our bonds for the two weeks coming that we won't be seeing each other."

Whatever the visitation arrangement, family advocates urge divorced parents to put aside their acrimony. "No matter what the difficulties between you and your ex might be, remember that your kids love both of you," Thompson says.

Zamzow offers other advice. "I don't think divorce is such a good idea," he says. "But if that's what you're going to do, the best thing is to set up a good schedule, be truly honest about upholding it, be ready to make adjustments to accommodate the child, and obviously don't dispute things in front of the child. And don't give each other the third degree about what's been done while the child is elsewhere."

Whatever the obstacles, McCormick urges noncustodial parents to spend as much time with their children as possible. Noting that one year he drove 25,000 miles to see his son, he says, "As much as it gets to be a struggle, don't quit. Don't ever give up on your kids. They need you. If you walk away from them, you're going to regret it, and they will, too. Do what it takes to stay in their lives."

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