What Back-to-School Looks Like When You're a Divorced Parent

When I was a kid, new shoes and a brand-new outfit for the first day of school brought confidence and energy of newness. My shoes, so clean and perfectly fit, felt like a fresh start, and I was beaming in the annual photo with my sister.

Back when I started fifth grade and my sister started second, there was a back-to-school-eve shopping catastrophe. Inside a shoebox were sneakers worth waiting weeks for, but there was a problem: there were two left shoes. I imagine my sister and I scanning the aisles of shoes at the store, looking for our shoe sizes, then trying on a bunch of pairs. I imagine my divorced mom hurrying us to pay and move on to the next item on the checklist: school supplies, lunchboxes, backpacks and the cost of it all. Did checking the shoe box to assure there was a right and left shoe get missed?

My mom says the three of us rushed to the shoe store to ask desperately if the other correct shoe was somewhere, maybe in the back storage room, or if it was possible to make an exchange that moment for another pair if they had my sister’s size. It was there — the right shoe was found. It was a miracle to our hearts that evening, a hilarious story now, but what a mini nightmare it must have been for my mom, who just wanted to have something special to wow us and remind us we were ready for the first day of school.

As a divorced parent myself, I appreciate this story — and the shopping “whoops” — even more.  Before the divorce, I didn’t have to factor co-parenting into the mix; now I do most of the back-to-school shopping myself, and I take a cue from how my mom made it a memorable part of my childhood.

After divorce, my back-to-school preparation starts earlier and can involve some careful planning. About a month before school starts, I focus on my weeks with the kids and designate two of those weeks for shopping, purchasing clothing and shoes, supplies, and backpacks, and ordering whatever else online. Otherwise, when it isn’t my week, I would have to resort to text messages and screenshots of backpacks and have phone calls with my children to decide what lunch box, shirt, or sneakers to purchase.

This year, my kids helped with shopping: my son Phoenix with the fifth grade list, my daughter Vivian with the list for second grade. They hunted for each item, organizing their things in separate sides of the cart, and I dropped over $200 — and that doesn’t count haircuts, socks, underwear, and all the other mundane necessities. As a divorced parent, it’s important to include all those back-to-school expenses in your parenting plan, as these can add up very quickly and become a huge cost not only at the start of the year but throughout.

Deciding who will handle the shopping, or how it will be handled for both homes, can save money, time, and stress. For example, parents could split the back-to-school costs, or one parent could handle it during odd years and the other parent during even years. I regret not including these important expenses in my own divorce settlement agreement. Instead, for now, when I buy supplies throughout the year, I send a screenshot of the receipts to my co-parent — but without it being in the legal agreement, there is nothing “official” that says the other parent must contribute to this need for our kids.

Of course, there’s more. The beginning of the school year is just the tip of the iceberg, because there are expenses throughout the year as well, from yearbooks to teacher gifts, school fundraisers, picture packages, and more clothing and shoes as kids grow. There are costs for after-school childcare, extracurricular programs, and sports fees. And don’t forget about the cost of lunches! During the past couple years lunch has been provided to students for no cost at my children’s school, but this year that will change, so it’s another expense thrown into the mix that we have to decide who will pay.

Some families may decide to split costs when it affects both families, such as a donation to the PTA. Or during the holidays or at the end of the year, another option may be for each parent to just do their own thing in terms of teacher gifts.

Additionally, my kids have cell phones that they keep in their backpacks — a purposeful purchase I made last year as a safety tool and to connect, no matter whose week it is, so if there are any issues with transportation or a forgotten lunch, homework assignment, or anything else, my kids can reach both parents. I would have probably waited a few more years for the phone purchase if I hadn’t been a divorced parent.

Of course, there are logistical concerns that come with coparenting during a school year too, not just financial. After the kids start school, there are parent-teacher conferences, and deciding if these should be done separately or together with both parents. I like to confirm with the school and teachers that they have both emails for both parents and that communication will be sent to both of us. Also, every year I confirm bus or transportation plans, depending on which parent’s week it is with the kids, so everyone is in the loop.

Sometimes it can feel like more work now as a divorced parent, and even more emotional with the back and forth to different homes, but one thing remains steady: during the school year, my kids’ teachers see them more than I do. I try not to sink into the sadness of longing, but it is a part of divorce and sharing time with my kids. I focus on the comfort their school day brings — a constant schedule for my kids and a routine, which offers a peace of mind for me that I value even more as a divorced parent.

The back-to-school morning may not be perfect or go as planned — lessons will be learned for everyone — but you can bet I will be checking to make sure both a right and a left shoe are there in the box, with plenty of time to spare.

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