There’s so much wrong with family courts, that it’s easy to dwell on the problems parents and children face when they deal with divorce, custody and the aftermath. Face it, there’s a horror show every day, usually more.
So it’s good to read a piece like this (Marin Independent Journal, 10/11/11). It’s a deeply moving portrait of a family that blew itself to pieces early, but, for the sake of the child, ultimately made it work. It is, in other words, a description of how divorce and custody can – should – work.
Like so many such stories, it’s based on a single simple concept – that a family is not destroyed by divorce. The relationships remain regardless of the legal definitions, regardless of the living arrangements. Dad and Mom may no longer be husband and wife, but they’re still the parents and the child is still theirs to protect, care for, nurture and shepherd to adulthood.
And that’s what author Katie Wigington means when she titles her piece “The Day She Became a Single Parent.” My guess is that most people who read that title immediately conclude that Wigington either had a child out of wedlock, or got divorced and therefore became a single parent. In the usual sense of the term, they’d be right; Wigington split up with her son’s dad when she was only three months pregnant. But she didn’t become a single mother then, even though she thought of herself that way.
My son’s dad and I split up when I was three months pregnant, so I always called myself a single mom or single parent. After a contentious custody battle; ending with shared custody, our relationship mellowed and our goal was to be Team Nick; to make sure our son was happy, healthy and above all else, safe.
And throughout Nick’s growing up, they shared custody of him and worked together – literally – to give him the best and the most of each of them.
We worked the Little League candy shack together, and attended all football games, school events and numerous holidays as a family. He fixed my car and my plumbing, and took my dogs for walks; once we took a class on genetics and studied together nightly for weeks.
Once Nick was out of the nest, he joined the Marine Corps and did a tour of duty in Iraq. During all that time the two joined in concern for their son’s welfare. When he returned stateside, they both went to see him. They continued to communicate with and about him. They travelled across the country together twice, ferrying each other’s belongings, pets, etc.
My son’s dad died unexpectedly this January. He was 53 years old. I realize now I was never a single parent. He and I had a strange but enduring relationship. I miss him more than I ever imagined, but more than anything, I miss having a partner in worry. The key element of our relationship was probably having someone to share the fear and constant concern, without having to explain why.
I was not a single parent all those years while Nick was growing up. Now, there isn’t much parenting to do for a 26-year-old. I worry by myself, or call my sisters, or even Nick’s uncle. It’s just not the same though. Now, I’m a single parent.
I love her perspective on her life as a mother without her son’s father beside her, but with her all the same. It’s undeniable that Wigington and her ex weren’t like many divorced couples. Few former spouses stay as close as they did or share as intimately their children’s growing up. But her understanding of her situation has deep and powerful resonance for all divorced or separated couples.
Its wisdom is that the family remains. It remains because the father will always be the father of the child just as the mother will always be its mother. And the child will always be the son or daughter of the parents. Those things don’t change just because Mom and Dad no longer share a residence. They don’t change, that is, until one of the three passes from this life as Wigington’s partner did. As she says, then and only then did she become a single parent.
Family dissolution. That’s what family courts say they’re doing. They’re not. What they’re doing is family rearrangement. Maybe if more judges understood that simple concept – the one Katie Wigington so clearly gets – they’d see their job differently and all of us, fathers, mothers and children would be the better for it.