Fathers and Families advocates for reform of our family courts. Among other things, that means increasing fathers’ parental time after divorce or separation. Ideally, it means equal parenting, where that can work.
As with anything that seeks to increase the power of fathers in family courts, any effort toward equalizing parenting time is routinely met with kneejerk resistance. The usual claim is that fathers are abusive and therefore any effort to increase fathers’ parenting time inevitably results in greater child abuse. The anti-father crowd relies on that claim despite the fact that mothers commit twice the child abuse and neglect that fathers do, according to the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
But those opposed to children spending time with their dads make other claims too. Their big gun is the claim of child abuse, but they’ve got other weapons, one of which is that equal parenting isn’t workable and leads to instability for the children who inevitably suffer.
Now, there is a great deal of social science that contradicts all of those claims. In fact, joint parenting tends to ameliorate conflict in the parental relationship and produces better outcomes for children. It’s also overwhelmingly preferred by the children themselves who don’t want to lose their relationship with their father, the anti-dad crowd’s anguish notwithstanding.
Still, studies are only studies; they lack the “real world” immediacy of the personal stories of those who’ve experienced whatever is being studied, in this case, joint parenting. So it’s nice to read a personal story like this one (The Good Men Project, 10/12/11).
Entitled “Why I’m Grateful for Joint Custody,” it tells the story of its author, Emily Heist Moss. She and her brother were children of parents who split up when they were young. They lived in Massachusetts, so her mother could easily have gotten the usual parenting order of 12 days with Mom and two with Dad. But Mom and Dad agreed on their own schedule, splitting each week equally – 3 1/2 days with one parent, 3 1/2 days with the other.
Now to me, that sounds far too hectic. Why not a week with one and a week with the other? I can’t guess, and Moss makes it clear that it wasn’t easy.
[M]y younger brother and I migrated like clockwork between their homes every three and a half days. It was logistically exhausting–which house are my cleats at? Where”s my science textbook?
…The arrangement my parents made was not perfect. It was hard on everyone. My brother and I carried the burden of frequent travel, constantly carting duffle bags of crap back and forth, but my parents didn”t have it easy either. I don”t know what professional sacrifices they made to stay close to each other for our benefit, or the gerrymandering they did to make the most of their schedules.
But the technical difficulties of equal parenting were more than made up for by its benefits.
I wouldn”t have had it any other way. This essay is a thank you note to my parents, an attempt to express my gratitude that they made that unusual decision fifteen years ago. The arrangement they created established stability, maintained our routine, and most importantly, preserved our relationships with both parents.
Moss makes the point so many people seem to ignore – kids are adaptable. Give them a schedule and they’ll adapt to it. Moss and her brother had a taxing schedule from the time she was nine and he was five. But because it was regular, they adapted and it worked out just fine. That’s mainly because it preserved their relationships with both parents. Neither child lost dad.
With the benefit of her experience, Moss says a lot that I’ve tried to say countless times. Most importantly, about half her friends were kids of divorced parents, and essentially all of them had the typical parenting arrangement – 12 days with Mom, two weekend days with Dad. Moss saw the results.
Although we were one of the first families I knew to go through a divorce, we weren”t the last. By middle school, about a third of my friends” families had followed suit. By the time I left for college, any group of peers was inevitably half and half. Most of those kids ended up following the every-other-weekend model, living with mom and visiting dad twice a month. The kids stayed with their moms twelve days out of every fourteen, and on the last two they disappeared for 48 hours into the twilight zone of “dad time’. Mom”s house was “real life,’ and dad”s house was that condo where they went to hang out every once in a while.
I can”t speak to the reasoning behind those specific custody arrangements. I can only say how grateful I am that my parents took a different approach. The every-other-weekend model means that dads miss out on the bread and butter of parenting. They miss the opportunity to quiz their kids on the periodic table, to pack lunches, to argue about wardrobe choices. By the time the kids show up for their weekend, so much time has elapsed that when dad says, “What”s new?’ kids say “Nothing,’ when the real answer is, “Everything’. They feel light years past the tough midterm they took the week before, and the fresh pain of a missed field goal is old news.
The every-other-weekend model makes dad”s house a vacation destination. Since time is so limited, dad wants to make it special with trips to the zoo, extra desserts, and extended curfews. It”s understandable, but treating that weekend as separate and different from daily life only serves to push “dad”s weekend’ further away from the ins and outs of everyday parenting. There”s so much pressure on that weekend that kids have to curb their social lives to accommodate time with dad. Nothing fuels adolescent resentment faster than telling them they can”t do that thing that everybody else is doing. They”re not going to invite friends over either, since that would infringe on sacred together time, so dad never gets to meet the friends.
It’s all there, plus some. Under the typical court-ordered arrangement, Mom becomes the “real” parent while Dad becomes a placeholder, time with him becomes the “twilight zone.” Because he doesn’t see his kids for two weeks, and then only for a short time, he wants to make the time special, so he becomes what sociologist Susan Stewart calls a “Disneyland Dad,” more of an entertainer than a parent. The important parenting decisions are for Mom. She gets the important confidences.
Then Moss adds something I’d never thought of; the obligation to be with Dad interferes with the child’s social life, breeding “adolescent resentment.” If the kids were with Mom, they could go to the movie, the party or just hang out with their friends. But no, it’s Dad’s weekend, and he understandably wants the kids to himself. After all, he only sees them 14% of the time. So being with Dad gets equated in the kids’ minds with missing out. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the usual custody order.
Moss understands that her situation isn’t always feasible. Her parents made special efforts to make it happen. They lived close to each other and perhaps made professional sacrifices so neither of them was lost to their kids. Plus, inevitably, they worked as a team to make sure their kids were put first. Needless to say, not all parents do that.
But Moss’ essay puts the exclamation point on all the social science on shared parenting. Where it can work, it’s best for kids, and the kids – if not the courts – know it.