But can parents predict down the road what will be important to them, or even what they will believe, to the level of certainty that can be expressed on a piece of paper that can be enforced by a judge?
“The thing that has to be impressed on parents is, you don’t want to confuse your kid,” said Darcy Shoop, a Rockville divorce attorney who recently crafted a settlement that bars one parent from celebrating Christmas with her children in their home. “You have to be careful with this stuff.”
For the 14 years Marsha Lopez, who is Jewish, was with her former husband, a Catholic, their different religious backgrounds played out in scenes like this: a wedding led by a priest-rabbi team, Star of David Christmas tree ornaments made of pipe cleaners, interfaith holiday cards.
Not a lot needed to be said, the 38-year-old Bethesda epidemiologist recalled last week. “We were on the same page.”
The custody agreement the couple worked out last year gets a lot more specific. The document bars either parents from speaking critically of the other’s faith and from “sharing their religious experience” in a way intended to make the children think they are “one or the other,” either Catholic or Jewish.
Although such detailed agreements might seem cold and awkward, they help families of divorce, parents and divorce professionals say. They can stave off fights and ease more challenging periods, such as holidays.
December has its own set of sometimes heartbreaking faith issues for separated families.
Lopez bought herself a Christmas present this year after her 5-year-old daughter worried that there were no gifts for Mom under the tree. Because Lopez is Jewish, her own family didn’t give her Christmas gifts, but Lopez still puts up a tree because that’s what she did for years with her ex.
“She said, ‘Isn’t Santa going to bring something for you? You don’t have anything,’ ” said Lopez. “I got myself a to-go French press coffee cup and wrapped it.”
The most painful aspect of the holiday, she said, was when her 7-year-old son asked how Santa would know to bring presents to her house Friday morning, when Lopez celebrated Christmas with the children because they would be with their father for the actual holiday.
Religion is, of course, just one topic in the new, more exhaustive agreements. Others include plans for education, parental dating, discipline and whether medication can be given for a yet-to-be-diagnosed learning disability.