September is the cruellest month for students, but not for divorce lawyers, as the dusky end of summer brings a swell of clients to their offices each year.
"Fall is back to business time," said Julia Cornish, senior family lawyer of Sealy Cornish Coulthard. The Halifax firm sees two spikes a year – September and January, New Year's resolution time.
"Because we all spent so many years in school, it's a point in our lives when we've been conditioned that this is when we do something new," Ms. Cornish said.
Her office sees double and sometimes triple the normal number of calls in September. These are from new clients, as well as those who had initiated the separation process in spring but let it languish over the summer months.
"People want to get moving," said Greg Walen, family lawyer with Scharfstein Gibbings Walen Fisher in Saskatoon.
"They're back to work, they're back from summer holidays and they're back in town from the lake."
According to Statistics Canada, the country saw 70,226 divorces in 2008, a number that's held fairly steady since 2001. While there's no official exit poll in September, Canadian divorce lawyers seem to agree: the calls come thick and fast this month.
Dinyar Marzban, senior family lawyer with Jenkins Marzban Logan in Vancouver, said empty nests motivate the September divorce spike.
"Fall comes around and children go to school. The category of people who rightly or wrongly hung in there for the children, maybe the last one's gone away to university in September. There's a fair amount of that, people waiting till the last kid's out of the house."
He points out that this brand of waiting game is usually reserved for couples who experience a "general dissatisfaction" in their marriages, not the cutthroat betrayals that prompt high conflict, low patience splits.
Many couples will have stewed for months or years before making the September phone call: "I don't think people's marriages break down then. It's just that they start phoning lawyers then," Mr. Marzban said.
For people waiting it out through a summer of family-filled days, "the dialogue they have with themselves is, 'Can I hang in, should I hang in?' " Ms. Cornish said.
"It's the same thing as trying to get through Christmas: Let's get through this. Unless something catastrophic happens, nobody decides on Christmas Eve, 'Some time today I need to go see a divorce lawyer.' What they say is, 'I'm thinking this probably can't go on much longer. I'm going to get through Christmas and then come January, it's time to make a change.' "
Of course, there are regional differences. Wendy Best, family lawyer with Dunphy Best Blocksom in Calgary, says that while city lawyers do see a jump in September, the real surge comes after July's Stampede.
"We think it's because everyone's out Stampeding having a grand old time drinking non-stop starting at 7 in the morning. There's all these stupid, ridiculous sayings like, 'It ain't cheating, it's Stampeding.' And the other person's going, 'Thanks, I'm done with you.' "
Stampede aside, several factors make summer an unpopular time for initiating a divorce.
"It's not a lot of fun spending a beautiful summer day in your lawyer's office," Ms. Cornish points out.
Mr. Marzban sees it as seasonal lethargy: "People tend not to do anything in the summer. Summer, everybody powers down a bit."
Another more tangible reason would be that all-inclusive getaway you splurged on together.
"Do you want to spring that on your partner before you go on the two-week holiday you've planned and saved for?" Ms. Cornish posits.
She adds that for those itching to split, summer also offers little in the way of momentum.
"It's frustrating if you are trying to get things done, only to hear that your spouse is on vacation for the next two weeks, and then their lawyer's on vacation for the next couple of weeks and then your lawyer's on vacation. Typically courts have a much quieter schedule in the summer as well."
At the same time, Ms. Cornish suggests summer can be the only time left in the year for reflection, a pause that can then spark the September phone call.
"It's an opportunity to step back from the daily grind, figure out what's working and what's not in your life."
How to help kids cope
The Smart Divorce author Deborah Moskovitch offers some basic back-to-school help for parents who have decided to separate in September.
Get thee to the principal's office
To avoid awkward moments between your child and a teacher unaware of the new family dynamics, try to eke out a moment with a principal or vice-principal, who can relay the news. "They know how to handle it with their teachers," said Ms. Moskovitch, adding that this is crucial if pick-ups are being handled by a parent unfamiliar to staff. "Parents often change the guard at school, rather than going to the other parent's home to pick up the children. This way, the teachers are aware of what's happening if they see another parent they're not used to seeing."
Get on the school list
If you weren't the parent manning the school e-mail list, get your own account now, Ms. Moskovitch said. "Make sure that you get report cards mailed to you – register your second address. If there are field trips, you can put your name on the list to be one of the parenting guides. It shows the kids that you care and want to be involved."
Homework for all
Moving out doesn't exempt a parent from helping the kids with their homework, especially if they're particularly strong in a subject. "If you were married, the kids would come home from school, have snacks and maybe some playtime and then they would do their homework." Recreate that discipline at your place.
"A lot of parents use a journal that goes into the kids' backpack as a tool to communicate with each other. It goes back and forth and they send notes about doctors' appointments and assignments at school," Ms. Moskovitch said.
Be flexible with visits
Between mountains of homework and extracurricular events, your children's dance cards will fill up fast. Wednesday night pizza may not always be an option; try a lunch on the weekend or during the week if the school allows children leaving the grounds. "The parent can't take it as a negative if the kids are busy with their friends doing school projects or hockey. They have to be creative in how they spend time with their kids, whether that's driving [them]to the activities or having a quick dinner."
Have the talk – most parents don't
Ms. Moskovitch urges parents to speak with their children about the separation and anticipate their questions: Where they will live and go to school? "You need to give them a sense of security. If they're already going to start the school year with a heavy heart because they don't know what's going on, at least you can try to minimize the confusion by having that conversation."