When divorced parents take on camp visitors' day

For those who've split acrimoniously, it can be a nightmare

You, your kids, your ex, his lover

Photo illustration by Sarah MacKinnon

For parents, visitors’ day at overnight camp is an important day that connects them with their child’s camp experience. For many camp administrators, it has become about placating divorced parents who can’t play nice. “Acrimoniously divorced parents usually avoid each other completely,” says Sue Cook, a counsellor with the Divorce Team, a business that helps people navigate separation and divorce. “Both strongly believe they have a right to visit on visitors’ day.”

“We started fighting about visitors’ day even before my children went to camp this month,” says one woman, whose kids attend camp in Haliburton, Ont. “We’ve been divorced for almost three years and always have the same argument. I want to drive up there with him, because I think it shows solidarity to the kids. But he doesn’t want to do that. I hate to say it, but I do try to get up there before him, so the kids see me first. It’s childish, I know. But so is he.” Another dad was furious at his ex-wife after last year’s visitors’ day, because she didn’t tell him they could bring goodies for the kids. “She bought an entire laundry basket of comic books and junk food and made sure our daughter knew it was from her and her only. I felt like such a chump.” This year he plans to do the same. “It’s awful that divorce becomes a tit for tat thing, but it brings out the worst in adults.”

One mother who talks to her ex only via text and only about the kids, refuses to tell him when visiting day is this year. “It’s not hard to figure out. Call the camp yourself, moron,” she explained. “Why should I tell him things he should already be aware of?”

To avoid awkwardness, overnight camps are making adjustments. Mark Diamond, director of Manitou, a high-end overnight camp near Parry Sound, Ont., offers alternative visits the day before.“We are very sensitive to the needs of both the child and each parent to be treated equally,” he says. Manitou tries to make it “normal and natural” for parents to visit on different days. “This means the same staff being available,” and the same activities, says Diamond.

One sensitive issue is new partners. “It’s of course up to each parent, but sometimes children may not feel comfortable to express how they truly feel about it,” he says. An extra day gets around that. “Visitors’ day was never a problem before,” says one man, whose wife left him last year. “But now, to see another man visit my kids as if they were his own is so insulting. And it’s not even a choice for me if he comes. He’ll be there.”

Corey Mandell, owner of Camp Timberlane in Ontario’s Haliburton Highlands, says his camp doesn’t have a formal arrangement for divorced parents, but typically one parent will visit the weekend before. Some divide the day, but he admits there are issues with this. “If someone is late to arrive or depart it can be uncomfortable for the child,” he says. More and more lawyers are asked about visitors’ day too. Alexandra Seaton, a sought-after divorce lawyer in Toronto, says it’s “become a greater problem in high-conflict custody cases in recent years. It is best to be as particular as possible and for parents to live by the details in the agreement. Who gets visitors’ day? Who gets New Year’s?” Seaton has managed calls to kids at camp by parents who feel left out of the process.

Not all experts agree with more than one visiting day. Tina Tessina, a family therapist says, “If your ex is a pain in the butt, show up for your child. If you are so selfish that you’re willing to ruin your child’s experience because you’re unhappy about the other parent, that is a real shame.” She says camps should set a code of behaviour and “let the parents deal.”

Not all kids like it, either. They may not want to miss out on camp activities, says Deborah Moskovitch, author of The Smart Divorce. “And their parents’ divorce becomes a public issue.” She’s divorced, and when her kids went to camp at Timberlane, she went on visitors’ day and their dad went on another day. “We did on one occasion try to split the time but this didn’t work for our kids.” All agree visitors’ day should be about the children. Unfortunately, there will always be adults who act like children.