The smell of freshly sharpened pencils is in the air, brand new backpacks have been picked out and the sound of papers rustling can be heard throughout the house. That’s right, school supply shopping is underway and that can only mean one thing: back to school!
The start of the school year can prompt lots of excitement, as well as anxiety. For families with two households, back to school might bring about a change in the parenting schedule, cause confusion with alternating holidays and vacations and bring challenges to co-parenting in light of necessary school-related activities, such as organizing school pickups and after-school activities.
Even in the post-marriage equality era, some LGBTQ parents may face unique challenges, and understanding your rights and obligations as a parent is paramount. In preparation for the upcoming school year, here are a few things LGBTQ parents might want to put in a “parenting backpack”of their very own.
School calendar and shared folder
Often times, for parents with a parenting schedule (i.e., custody agreement or order), the parenting time during the school year will differ from the parenting time during the summer or holidays. At the start of the school year, take the academic calendar and plan out your parenting schedule for the upcoming academic year. First, write-in the “regular” parenting schedule (i.e., the default schedule). Then, place special or holiday parenting time over the regular schedule. If you have a custody agreement or order in place, be sure to review it carefully, paying attention to special and holiday parenting time because, often times, this special time will supersede or replace the regular parenting time, but does not reset it. Think about it like an overhead projector — place the regular parenting schedule on the overhead, then place the special or holiday parenting schedule atop of it in order to compare the changes based on the special/holiday time. By setting forth the parenting schedule for the academic year, especially in light of how the school observes holidays and children’s time off, parents will avoid confusion and conflict.
After you have completed your parenting calendar, think about creating a calendar with your child. Children also benefit from knowing when and where they will be during the week. You can print out a calendar or buy a fun wall calendar that your child can help you fill in. Make it an arts-and-crafts project to alleviate the potential stress of putting focus on being in two separate households. Try using different color markers and stickers to denote the parenting schedule, holidays and activities. Your child can even add in their own play dates, birthday parties or other activities they are excited to partake in.
When you are purchasing those school supplies, it may help to buy an extra folder to be designated as a “shared-folder” between the two households. Just like a take-home folder at school, a shared-folder should be used to transfer copies of important documents and information, such as school forms, signup sheets, progress reports or medical forms. Using a shared-folder that your child brings back forth to each of their homes is a great way to exchange information that both parents need to be aware of. Again, make it a fun arts and craft project — encourage your child to decorate and personalize it to make it their own special shared-folder.
Accidents happen, be prepared
No parent wants to receive a call that things have gone awry, and their child has been hurt on the playground. But with kids, it’s bound to happen at some point. For LGBTQ couples, that call can be even scarier — especially if one parent ends up barred from seeing their injured child. From the school perspective, this can be alleviated by each party agreeing or being required to fill out the appropriate information on the school’s emergency contact and other access forms to give both parents equal access to the child while at school. The forms should include both parents’ names, contact information and relationship to the child. To prevent an issue with emergency medical care or hospitals, one tool that LGBTQ parents may want to consider if their significant other is not considered a legal guardian under the eyes of the law is the use of a short-term medical power of attorney, or health care consent, that designates a person as a limited agent to provide medical consent when necessary for your child’s care. It is also a good idea to provide these forms to your primary medical providers — pediatricians, dentists, etc. — so that they are aware in the event of an emergency.
Bullying and your child
A 2008 study by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network found that many children raised by LGBTQ parents either experienced or witnessed some form of homophobic harassment at school. Children of LGBTQ parents often report facing significantly more prejudice and discrimination because of societal homophobia, specifically at school. However, perhaps most commonly they reported feeling excluded or isolated because their schools or classrooms did not acknowledge their family makeup.
LGBTQ parents may want to reach out to their child’s teacher, or administrators, to ensure an open line of communication is maintained surrounding expectations or concerns you may have. Additionally, it may be a good idea to identify a therapist, or school counselor, that your child has access to if the need should arise. Whether you are an intact family unit or no longer residing in the same home, it’s important for current and former spouses or partners to attempt to have a united front on how to handle their child being bullied or excluded, putting the child’s well-being and needs at the forefront.
Back to school can and should be an exciting time for you and your children. No matter what your family looks like, when you’re packing their new backpack with school supplies this season, don’t forget to use these helpful tips to ensure you face the first co-parenting test of the school year ready to get that A+ grade.
info: Amanda Brisson Cannavo and Robin M. Lalley are Family Law attorneys at Sodoma Law, P.C., based in Charlotte, N.C. and with 5 locations across Mecklenburg and Union Counties, NC, as well as York County, SC. Like Sodoma Law on Facebook, follow them on Twitter (@SodomaLaw) and follow Managing Principal Nicole Sodoma (@NSodoma).