On Joint Custody

This piece was originally published at the Good Men Project. Republished with permission.

I was a fifty-fifty child. After the divorce, my parents divided custody down the middle; my 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?—but in retrospect 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. They arrangement they created established stability, maintained our routine, and most importantly, preserved our relationships with both parents.

I was nine and my brother was five when my parents separated and my dad moved into a duplex in the next town over. He picked us up after school on Wednesday and returned us to Mom’s house on Saturday afternoon. Though a seven-day week is hard to equitably divide, they made every effort to split the school week and the weekends fairly. Both parents had the opportunity to drive us to school, carpool us to soccer practice, and make pancakes on the weekends. Major holidays were traded off from year to year, and vacations planned accordingly.

My family had a lot of luxuries that all divorced households don’t have, and I’m well aware that this arrangement wouldn’t—or shouldn’t—work for everyone. The kind of work they did allowed for them to be present and involved more than many parents are able. However financially challenging it was, they maintained two households in close proximity to each other, to our school, and to our social lives. Some of these advantages are the result of the affluent suburb in which we grew up and the professional flexibility afforded people with as much education as our parents have, but some of them were very conscious, very difficult choices they had to make. We were—are—lucky in so many ways.

Many families like mine, however, don’t make the same parenting decisions that my parents made. 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.

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. At the very least, my mom passed up the full custody that a Massachusetts court would almost certainly have granted, and I can’t imagine what a painful decision that was.

Courts want to provide children with stability, a worthy goal in any uncertain post-divorce atmosphere. Awarding sole custody, however, almost always comes at the expense of kids’ relationships with their fathers. If you have two parents that are committed to hands-on parenting, that are willing to make the professional, personal, geographic, and financial sacrifices it takes to co-parent from a distance, then the convenience of a single homebase is quickly trumped by the opportunity to develop relationships with both parents.

There are circumstances where this is not possible. I would never advocate for children to stay in abusive households or dangerous environments. But there are many cases in which the father can offer as safe and healthy a home as the mother, and both parents are able to separate the acrimony of their relationship from their responsibilities as parents. For these circumstances, courts should help facilitate joint custody, not deprive either parent of the mundane, but wholly necessary, daily trials and tribulations of raising kids.

The notion that, when push come to shove, children are better off with their mothers is a dangerous stereotype that jeopardizes dads, does a disservice to kids, and creates a culture that constantly undermines the value of fatherhood. We worry that kids can’t handle a two-household existence, but we forget how remarkably adaptable kids really are. Work hard to give them a routine, and they can adjust to anything. We were fifty-fifty kids, and we adjusted just fine.

Emily Heist Moss is New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works at a tech start-up. She blogs every day at Rosie Says, and writes regular features for The Good Men Project about dating, relationships, sex and gender. She has also been featured on Jezebel and The Frisky. You can reach her at sayhitorosie@gmail.com. Find her on Twitter @rosiesaysblog.

Photo credit The Real Estreya/Flickr

Related Links: