Either you have been ordered by the courts to attend mediation or you and the other parent have agreed to private mediation. Either way, there is a lot that can be done in advance to prepare for the upcoming mediation. Below are some things to consider and ways in which to get ready. These ideas presume that parents and children are safe and that parents are able to negotiate on their own behalf (mediation when there's been domestic violence or child abuse is too serious and complicated of a topic to cover here).
Is this conflict “ripe” for mediation?
Mediators use the word “ripe” to describe when the timing is good for mediation. Usually that means that the people participating in mediation are emotionally ready and motivated to deal with the practicalities of a parenting plan. That’s not to say that parents can’t bring intense emotion into the mediation; mediators help parents with intense emotions in mediation all the time. It just means that parents need to be essentially in agreement about some basic facts; primarily that any romantic relationship between them is over. If parents aren’t in agreement about this, then couple’s mediation or marital mediation may be appropriate prior to mediation of a parenting agreement. Couples therapy can also be helpful when parents aren’t sure about ending the relationship. Another obstacle to mediation at this stage might be if one or both parents are just too angry at each other to deal with parenting plan particulars like a schedule and how decisions will be made about the children. Some anger is fine in mediation and there are certainly opportunities to vent, but anger to the point of immediate flooding (Andra Medea, Conflict Unraveled) and an inability to eventually shift to problem-solving and listening means mediation will be less effective. Same is true if one parent is really depressed, to the point of struggle with daily functioning. Support groups, individual therapy, talking to a spiritual leader, developing an exercise practice or finding creative outlets may be helpful to relieve some of this expressed anger or serious depression prior to mediation. A fantastic mediator, Bill Eddy, also has some great suggestions on pre-mediation coaching that parents could implement, including what he describes as “managed emotions.” To use this strategy, a parent will “memorize short encouraging statements that you can tell yourself as you are going through the process.” If the timing isn’t ripe for mediation, you could always request that the judge or mediator postpone it; for this request to be taken seriously, consider and present some steps you and the other parent might take to get yourselves emotionally ready for mediation.
What do I know about how to negotiate?
Maybe you’ve bought a used car before or you’ve had to negotiate with your child’s school district. Certainly you’ve had to negotiate with your own parents over the years not to mention with your own child. When it comes to negotiating with the other parent, however, some of those basics quickly and easily fly out the window in the heat of the moment; that’s why preparing is so important. Just because you’ve had a romantic relationship with the other parent doesn’t make mediation any less of a negotiation. In fact, it may require even more preparation because you and the other parent probably developed understandings and patterns of communication (perhaps some healthy and some not) that you fall into immediately even though you’re no longer together. There are some great books on negotiation such as Getting to Yes by Fisher and Ury. For example, it can be helpful to understand the ways in which integrative negotiation is different from distributive bargaining. Usually when you’re buying something, you want to get the best deal possible which makes for distributive bargaining. It’s a win/lose situation where the more money you save means the more money the other person loses. When you’re dealing with your child’s other parent, you don’t want to enter into a negotiation with a win/lose attitude or the person who loses the most is your child. Since your relationship with your child's other parent is ongoing (as opposed to the used car salesman whom you’ll never see again) you do have to consider their interests in order to successfully meet your own needs and interests. For example, if the other parent has a need to be acknowledged by you as important in the child’s life, to do so may mean that the other parent can finally acknowledge the ways in which you put your career on hold for the sake of your family.
What’s my position and why does it matter?
You need to know more in advance than just your position. A position is often that statement that a parent makes regarding what they want the outcome to be. They repeat it often and firmly, making it clear that they will not budge. For example, a lot of parents walk into my mediation stating clearly that they want “sole custody” or “joint custody”. When I ask them what that means, or ask specific questions about residency or decision making, they often don’t know how to respond. Usually parents choose a position based on emotion. Sometimes it’s something their attorney tells them they deserve or that they would definitely “win” in court. Sometimes a grandparent or other family member tells the negotiating parent that they “have the right” to some aspect of the parenting plan. Never walk into mediation with a position that you can’t support or that you don’t truly understand. Educate yourself on the difference between physical custody and legal custody. Understand what it truly means to have sole legal custody versus joint legal custody and be able to articulate why either of those matter to you. For example, maybe you and the other parent have very different opinions about how the children should be educated and that is why you don’t want to try and make educational decisions together. On the other hand, maybe you feel you ‘ve been the one “making all the decisions” because the other parent worked all the time so you think you deserve to have sole legal custody. When parents are in a relationship, there is usually an agreed upon—either explicitly or implicitly—division of labor that works, at least for a while. Keep in mind that when you decide that your romantic relationship with the other parent has ended, both parents must then fill multiple roles in child rearing. Relying on the past to make arguments about the future can be self-defeating. You're better off figuring out all of the things you, your children, and the other parent need and putting the pieces together in a way that fits, like a puzzle.
What is my bottom line?
Understand what options you have if mediation doesn't work out and you are forced to go back to court on one or all parenting issues. Will an attorney be assigned for the children? Will there be home studies? Psychological evaluations? How much time will be missed from work? To what extent will strangers be talking with your kids? To what extent will strangers be making decisions for you instead of you and the other parent maintaining control of the parenting plan? Before you suggest to the other parent that you will “take my chances in court” or that you’re “better off having the judge decide” be very clear about what that really means. Going to court can be costly in terms of time and money. It will certainly further strain your relationship with the other parent. Your “day in court” may not happen for months or even years, after a lot of time and money has been spent, and when—totally out of your control—the outcome is decided you may not be happy with the results. Instead of using threats of court to try and get your way or to intimidate the other parent (they may just call your bluff) consider instead what is truly worth fighting for in court? This is your bottom line. You don't need to share it with the other parent, but you do need to learn it and understand it.
Between my position and my bottom line, what do I need to learn and what do I need to be prepared to share?If you're not sure what you really want right now, do some research and write down some potential proposals to bring into mediation. For divorcing parents, www.uptoparents.org has some wonderful resources available. For never married parents, www.proudtoparent.org can be helpful. In your parenting plan you will need to decide how and when the children will spend time with each parent, including summers, holidays and other vacations (winter/spring). Usually there is one residential parent so you'll need to decide who that will be, or if you think you want to share residency/physical custody, you need to consider a) how far apart are you or do you plan to live from one another b) where will the children attend school c) what financial implications may shared residency have d) how would the kids do with shared residency e) how effectively do we as parents communicate with one another and/or how can we become better at communicating. You will also need to determine how major decisions (education, religion, health and extracurricular activities) will be made, either together or by one parent. There’s a lot of talking that needs to happen between your initial position and your bottom line. If you would prefer that you and the other parent maintain control of your parenting agreement rather than have a judge determine it for you, then prepare in advance by knowing what you want and why and be open to communicating with the other parent in mediation. Take the time to listen which is how you’ll learn what they really need in order to reach an agreement. Get all of the pieces of the puzzle before you try to put something together Try your best to explain what’s important to you and why. Try to enter the mediation open to this process. Having a third party assist you to talk and listen can be extremely empowering. On more than one occasion I have had parents say after mediation: “If we had only talked like this when we were together, maybe we wouldn't have split up.”