Friday, November 18, 2011
The Real Cost of Custody Battles
This piece first appeared on Fathers and Families.
For the past eight years, I’ve adopted and grown into both the idea and reality of being a role reversal model of the mother as the non-custodial parent, but if current trends continue, the percentage of non-custodial parents will shrink. That is because recent trends indicate that more progressive state laws are defaulting to split custody scenarios between divorced parents. Of course there will be exceptions to this rule, but don’t children and their capable, loving, non-abusive parents deserve the right to equal parenting time?
That wasn’t the case seven years ago when my ex-husband and I agreed (with a handshake deal) that, based on our schedules and the better schools where he lived, it made sense for the kids to live with him during the week. I failed to protect my legal interests in the matter. I made the mistake of thinking that, because I believed it to be the status quo, one parent assumed the role of bread winner while the other parent filled the role of “main” or “custodial” parent. I have joint legal custody of my children, but it really never occurred to me that I could (or should) have demanded and worked toward joint physical custody back when my ex and his new partner hired an attorney and put a very lopsided parenting plan in front of me to sign.
As my new reality sank in, I counted myself as one of the distraught and broken mothers who “lost custody” of their little ones. I sought comfort online in forums and groups for mothers like me. On those sites, I found comfort and camaraderie, but few solutions. The women vented and prayed for each other, but there was little dialogue about a hardcore strategy for reshaping one’s co-parenting landscape into something more fair. Frustrated, I recently turned to sites for divorced fathers who were trying to get shared custody of their children.
After finding a particularly noble and helpful forum for divorced fathers, I naively announced my arrival on their site.
“Hi guys! I’m like you because I pay child support and only have my kids every other weekend and one night a week!” (I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the gist).
They swiftly corrected me.
“You are not like us. Most of us have fought hard in court for the right to have our children at least 50% of the time.”
To add insult to injury, even my kids’ stepmom reprimanded me for not starting a legal battle for custody years ago. She took a verbal jab at me over dinner one evening as I tried to find a cooperative middle ground between us – the two women in my children’s lives.
“If they were my kids, I would have fought for them.”
She’s not alone – there’s an army of mommies out there incredulous at my adoption of the non-custodial mother role. “How could you…?” is always at the root of their thinly veiled questions.
The parenting climate that my children are living in at their other house has deteriorated over the years. I’ve always taken the high road in the co-parenting role to keep the peace for the sake of my children, but they now need my help, so I’ve had to figure out how to use my joint legal custody status for leverage in negotiating with my ex-husband. The forum for divorced fathers that I found has provided what I need, and that is actionable advice. In only two months time, I’ve picked up ideas, strategies, and tactics to employ in trying to level out the playing field in my co-parenting situation to bring it closer to what is fair and what is best for our children.
I believe in exhausting all avenues of negotiation before involving attorneys. Once you “lawyer up,” even if the tone is civil, it’s hard to pretend that the peace process hasn’t been forsaken for all-out war. For years, divorced parents have assumed it’s their duty to go to court to battle for custody. Countless children have carried this cross, limping between broken homes as dinged and damaged trophies.
In the U.S., the divorce rate is commonly thought to be around 50% (www.divorcerate.org shows it being between 40% and 50%). That divorce is such a hot button topic should be no surprise – it affects so many people in such a profound way. Add to that (1) the way our legal system does not discourage, and essentially encourages, frivolous lawsuits, and (2) the 24-hour-sensational-news-cycle culture that pumps out books, blogs and news sites that splash titillating headlines on their covers about the who’s, why’s and how’s of every divorce from you to Maria Shriver – and it’s no surprise that so many divorcing and divorced people have a hard time turning off the noise and focusing on what is best for their children.
But if the nationwide trend towards shared custody continues, divorced parents could serve their children well by getting used to the concept and realities of cooperative co-parenting. If the emotional well-being of the children is the agreed upon goal (and how can it not be, I have to remind myself with clenched teeth and fists quite often), then as adults and loving parents, we need to agree to terms and rules for a new reality – one in which our children are not the spoils of war. The battlefield needs to give way to neutral ground where a broken family can lay the groundwork for fair and just terms that benefit, not hurt, the children involved. Hopefully this trend towards shared physical custody will help pave the way.