As native from central Florida, when I moved to Atlanta one of my immediate goals was to get immersed in the local culture, including the local sports teams. And like many other young Atlantans during the 2014-2015 season, I found the Atlanta Hawks to be a quality source for entertainment. The Hawks had a historic turn-out of representation in the All-Star game that season and the announcer for that event described performing in the All-Star Game as a “lights-on” moment, where the players were not just representing their team but themselves as individual players. I thought a lot about that expression in life outside of basketball and what “lights on” moments we all have in our life, particularly how it applies in family law.
In your everyday life, no one is looking over your shoulder watching your interactions with your children. The words you use, the things you teach, your methods of discipline, are all a part of your everyday life, but frequently not one that is being “graded”. That is, until you find yourself in litigation over family law matters – and that is when the “lights-on parenting” begins.
All the sudden, a parent who has displayed little interest in spending time with their children will be in the campaigning for Parent of the Year – which can be quite frustrating to the other parent. While that is extremely annoying, there are some important things to consider:
1) There is a level of safety there.
If you are concerned about the bad behavior of your co-parent and how that will impact your child, the bright shining lights of the eyes of the Court usually keeps each parent on their best behavior. This could actually present a good opportunity for your child to get some quality time with their other parent, and you can take solace in the fact that everything that happens can be shown to the Court. If you are concerned about your co-parent doing something outrageous, know that the Court can immediately become aware of it, and, if necessary, take action against it. And that outrageous conduct will help your overall case.
While it is natural to worry about your children and that relationship, it is important to take a step back and think about whether your co-parent would actually take those risks with all the lights on.
On the other hand, your co-parent will sometimes become a better version of themselves - so the fear of what could happen diminishes. Try to keep an open mind. Just because someone was not the best co-parent in the past does not mean that they cannot turn over a new leaf and now genuinely want to be a constructive part of your children's lives. Sometimes that happens.
2) "But I have seen this all before."
As stated above, this type of parenting tends to be a pattern. It repeats. It is okay to show that to the Judge and prove it as a part of your case but proving the previous patterns of behavior is challenging without coming across as unwilling to co-parent. Some parents will keep a diary or log of the visitation actually exercised by writing down each time that visitation occurred versus when it was missed, and what notice the other parent provided that they would miss visitation. If you receive texts or e-mails from your ex about why they did not use their visitation time – save them. You do not need to tell the other parent, the children, or anyone else about your log or the saved texts and emails, until the lights come on and you share the log with your attorney.
You an also benefit from an unbiased observer who can testify about their observations of the other parent. Babysitters, sports coaches, tutors or teachers who maintain a close relationship to your family are always handy.
3) Prepare for when the lights turn off.
You know the pattern. A parent who seldom exercises their visitation now wants to spend all the time permissible with the children and is even begging for extra time. This can be very hard on children who may not understand why their parent comes and goes like a revolving door.
So when the lights turn off and the other parent vanishes, it is tempting to want to run back to Court and say “Look, Judge, it was all an act!” Instead of rushing to turn the lights back on, focus on how to convert the children's renewed rejection into a positive experience. Reminding your children of their value in your life, emphasize that the other parent is the one who is missing out, and make back-up plans when the promises of the other parent consistently fall through. The best way to combat lights-off absentee parenting is to focus on what you can do to support your children versus emphasizing what the other parent is has failed to do.
Overall, the key to “lights on parenting” is to not let it get under your skin, and remember the truth is generally revealed. This too, shall pass. Stay patient and focus on your relationship with your children – your attorney can handle the rest.