12/23/2013 10:12 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2014

Letting Go of the Custody Agreement

In August of this year, my lovely stepdaughter turned 18. We celebrated by squeezing in family dinners, shopping for dorm room bedding and snapping photos for posterity, all the while wondering how it zipped by so quickly. With all of the excitement swirling around my stepdaughter's entry into adulthood, another big event took place, but we were too busy rushing around to take notice.

It was the end of the custody agreement.

I'm surprised we didn't throw a separate party for this momentous occasion. In the 14 years my two stepchildren migrated back and forth from their mother's house to ours, a wrinkled, coffee-stained paper copy of the divorce decree dictated where the kids should be and when. The schedule is so complex I'm convinced the attorneys who wrote it up did it during a drinking game where each time a schedule change happened, somebody drank, and when it was finished, they were sloshed.

It went a little something like this: We never had the kids on Mondays or Tuesdays. Every other week, we had the kids on Wednesdays and Thursdays. On the opposite weeks, the kids came home Thursdays through Sundays. It's a miracle we lived this schedule for that many years without forgetting to pick up a kid. My husband committed the schedule to memory from day one, because after his divorce, his primary goal was to have as much time with his kids as possible, so those days were priceless to him. When I entered the picture, I found the schedule so baffling, I sat down for several hours at the computer, muttering obscenities and inhaling Oreos, and created the world's most complicated Outlook calendar just so I could keep up.

Knowing all the back and forth wasn't easy on the kids, my husband worked hard to give them a sense of consistency whenever possible. For years we celebrated Thursday nights by going out for pizza so we could spend some distraction-free time catching up. When it came to holidays, we worked through the every-other Thanksgivings and opposite Christmases by reminding the kids how lucky they were to have extra people to love them, and extra experiences to enrich their lives. However, the holidays weren't easy. For divorced parents, every other holiday is delightfully rich when the kids are home, and painfully hollow when the kids are gone.

My husband and I have several divorced friends who were able to work out their kids schedules without involving the courts. We kind of hate them. When parents can work amicably with their former spouses, the kids reap the benefits. In our case, open communication between the two households wasn't in the cards, so the decision-maker when it came to scheduling (or anything else for that matter) was written in the divorce decree. My husband didn't think all of the bouncing back and forth was good for the kids, but that was our reality. Through the years, the kids handled it with grace and learned to adapt to life in two households. We managed our schedules without being terribly dysfunctional. When both kids passed 18, the passage into adulthood also meant the freedom to choose where to go and when.

Well, not exactly.

When my stepson turned 18, it was nearing the end of his senior year of high school. We anticipated that he would come and go as he pleased, finally free of a schedule that gave him zero control. Instead, he stuck with the schedule he'd known for the majority of his life. With his younger sister following the same schedule, it was easier to keep things as they'd been. With a few minor exceptions (travel with friends, family commitments), the custody agreement stayed in place until my stepson left for college.

This year marks the first holiday season where my stepchildren have a true choice in the matter. They have both expressed that they feel partly compelled to "stay with the schedule," because for them, that schedule prevents conflict and feelings of guilt about where they should be and when.

For now, we're all adjusting to the changes, and supporting the kids in deciding how they spend their time. Luckily, the kids want to spend time with all of their parents, so we must be doing something right. In the meantime, we're learning how to play it by ear. We also realize that one day, the kids may decide to marry. When that happens, we may dig out the wrinkled divorce decree to figure out how to include in-laws. Until that time, we'll enjoy every moment we can get.