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.”

Oh, right.

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.

8 comments:

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  2. A kid's life should not be messed with in favor of catharsis. So yeah, that much is true. And it's ironic how these things invoke the welfare of the child. Conflicts between parents should be ended as soon as possible, so kids won't have to bother with that kind of stuff, and to win a bit of stability for their growth.

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  3. Hello. I found your blog to be interesting. Unfortunately, I am in a horrible mess. First of all, I have 2 ex-husbands who have worn me out this past year and have taken custody of all my kids. My youngest daughter - who is 9 - I have not seen in 6 months. Her father is messing her up and I am too heart-broken to try and fix her. I am trying to work with my other ex though. The courts have ordered me to pay a large amount of child support. I'm not working any longer as I just had a baby with my boyfriend. Nor would I be able to get a job right now to even come close to the amount of child support needed to pay. My boyfriend convinced me not to fight my ex's while I was pregnant. I realized after I had my son how wrong I was not fighting. I am not sure where to go from here. My boyfriend keeps threatening to take my baby boy away from me if I do anything to upset him - he uses the fact that I have visitation with my middle daughter and says that my life is too chaotic for our son and a judge would automatically take him from me. Never in a million years did I ever think I would be living this hell. I don't drink, smoke, do drugs or even go to bars. I am in counseling right now to try and cope as best as I can. Im trying very hard to make sense of what happened to my life in the last year. I couldn't go back to my career of 20 years due to the stress I endured there and raise a baby with a very controlling man. I realized I have made poor choices in the men I had children with. I think all of my kids (3 daughters ages 18, 14 and 9) are suffering. I am a good mom to my infant son and I am trying to help my 14 yo daughter. My 18 yo at least is in college and working a job but she has issues too and know she will struggle. Any advice you could offer would be appreciated.

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  4. I'm apart of the army of mommies and am raising my boyfriend's son as though I birthed him. I will ask you... how could you? Seriously, as a mother, how could you ever leave your children or agree to every other weekend? You have so much to write about your situation, but don't take any steps towards rectifying it? You fail lady. You women make me sick, your children are supposed to be most important ALWAYS, not just after their situation is starting to go downhill. I know too many women in todays day and age that are too busy with their own damn lives. It's disgusting.

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    1. You're a disgusting sick personality disordered person!

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  5. Actually, I have not left my children. Originally, my ex husband and I agreed to split time with our children and the state of Washington requires paperwork to designate one parent as the physical custodian, even if the children share time equally. I am always there for my children, physically and emotionally, it is step mom who actually tells my ex husband, "it is not her weekend", so even if he is working, and she does not really want to spend time with my kids anyway, she will not "let" them come to me. It is not that I am "too busy with my own life", it is that I foolishly thought we could be adults and share the children fairly even though the state required paperwork splitting the time in an old fashioned "divorced dad" sort of way. At any moment, if my ex husband simply agreed, without even going to court or by simply writing up our agreement differently, I could have my children as often as possible, but my ex and his new wife, who is quite controlling, will not budge. I went to see lawyers and counselors who both say that in this particular state, unless the parent volunteers to change custody agreements, it can ONLY be changed if the children are physically abused and have bruises or a record of calling the police about abuse. It is easy to pass judgment though when you don't know the details.

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    1. Sophia,

      Thank you for sharing your story. I am in a similar situation. My husband of 13 years cheated and divorced me. I have no family or support in the state where we live and he refused (and still does) to let me move with them to a place where I have support. We settled our parenting plan peacefully and I had majority of the time with them, until I got laid off from my corporate job and couldnt find a new job. I had to make a difficult choice to either move out of state and see my kids holidays and breaks, or move in with my fiance in the next county over (60 miles away). I chose the next county, but my ex flat our refused to allow my sons to cross the county line. So now I get them every weekend, holiday & we split summer 50/50. I did fight for my kids, but had no more money & no where else to go. My now husband provides 100% and got us a big house and a good school district. But still not enough for my ex. Meanwhile my ex lives in a tiny house with his girlfriend (who he cheated on me with years ago) who has 2 teenage daughters and now they have a baby on the way. Its a less than ideal situation, but he is a good dad who loves my sons. So he has the power because I live in the next county. Im an excellent mother and I still receive so much judgement for not having them throughthe majority of the week. So I feel your pain and frustration. Its an unfair justice system where a spouse can cheat and destroy a marriage and family and still get his way. Amazing.

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