What does child custody look like in a separation/divorce scenario these days?
Obviously, this question must be answered on a case by case basis. Take a look at your kids, their ages, their specific issues and interests. Look at your spouse/co-parent, each of your living situations, career obligations and realistic time commitments.
Many clients come to me even in this day and age with the assumption that shared custody will be like it was when they were growing up; kids with dad every other weekend and one night mid-week for pizza or burgers and drop off before bed. That is so not how it works any more.
Custody in a Modern World
First of all, the roles of mom and dad have evolved much differently since we were kids being shuttled off to Dad’s for the weekend to watch cartoons and eat way more sugar than mom would have allowed at home. Our generation has seen the advent of stay home dads whether they are the home-maker spouse or simply based on career choices. Many more people dads and moms have occupations which allow for work from home. This gives more time for hands on parenting for both parents. Look around the elementary school; these days as many dads are room parents, field trip chaperones and attending the daytime plays, presentations and musical performances as there are moms. Also the sharing of responsibilities is different than it was when our dads were coming home from a long day of work to mom’s home cooked meal and clean house (if that even ever happened). Many or most families have two working parents which means that the kid stuff has to be more evenly distributed.
This often means that when a family is transitioning into a split, things are easier (or can be) as both parents know how to do things to care for their kids.
Plenty of couples come to my office with custody already resolved. This is a huge accomplishment and speaks volumes as far as how this divorce will go down.
The more traditional couples where one works (or works more) and the other has always been the primary child care provider things get tricky.
I have a friend, we’ll call him Andrew, who works his ass off and has generally left the child rearing to his wife, Marisa. When they were thinking about separating Andrew called me in a panic, “Marisa says she is going to get primary custody of the kids because I work all the time and don’t have the first idea about how to take care of them.”
“Is that true?” I queried?
“No! I mean I work a lot but they are in school for most of that time. I totally hang with them in the evenings and on the weekends and we have a nanny who is with them most days after school.”
If a working parent is able to adjust his or her schedule to allow for time with kids a couple of nights each week and the kids are in school full days (8-8:30am – 3-3:30pm) and/or you have after school activities or child care, there is generally no reason why a shared custody schedule would not be in the family’s best interest.
The Benefits of Shared Custody
It will take some doing but in the end, kids may really benefit from being able to experience home life with both of their parents. The old saying about one door opening and another closing applies here; many working parents actually become much better parents once they are forced to do it on their own. If the rules and boundaries in each home are similar and enforced and parents cooperate to insure comfort and stability, kids move back and forth happily and with ease.
Now how to accomplish this if you are the heretofore, primary care giver?
First of all, we know, no one will do it as well as you do, right? Maybe, but who cares? If Eli doesn’t brush his teeth every day at dad’s or Olivia’s packed lunch is an apple, two pieces of string cheese and a granola bar which expired last week, is this good cause to restrict custody? Isn’t it still better to facilitate a relationship with dad?
Second of all, what if they don’t want to go? Fix it. Or try. Make going to the other house or apartment a fun, exciting change and adventure. Do whatever you possibly can to facilitate comfortable transitions for your kids. This may mean helping set up new bedrooms (if asked by your co-parent), separating out toys, games and books and having a positive attitude about the new environment.
Finally, what do you do when the kids are gone?
Non-custodial period 1.
OMG. They are gone.
What will you do with yourself? It is too quiet.
You miss them so much.
Ok, you have 15 minutes to wallow. Go sit in their room. Inhale the scent of them on a stuffed animal or blanket, imagine their sweet faces when they are asleep, whimper, worry about them, worry about you, take a deep breath (this time without the teddy bear in your face) and….get ON with it!
They’ll be back tomorrow (or the next day) and now its YOU TIME.
Relish the silence for a moment. Yes, you miss the giggles and pitter patter of little feet coming down the hall in the morning but I’ll bet you don’t miss the arguing, screaming, crying or yelling “MOM?” (or “DAD?”) at 7 second intervals until you get up from whatever you are doing and go to the source of the yell.
If the silence is too much, go turn on some of YOUR music, whether it is classical or alt rock, its yours and you can play it in every room of the house as you, fill a bubble bath, open a bottle of wine, brew a cup of tea, curl up with a book or a movie and soak, sip, read or watch WITHOUT INTERRUPTION. (I know, its almost too good to imagine, right?)
Non-custodial period 2.
You may actually be ready for interaction with other humans. Schedule a poker game, a group movie watching or a dinner party and have your guests stay as late as you want them without the need to quiet down or censor anyone’s subject matter or language. No little ears are listening.
Non-custodial period 3.
It may be difficult to imagine at this juncture, perhaps you will need until non-custodial period 7 or 8 but you will get there, dating and eventually (or immediately, shit you're an adult) SEX. My friend John had been married for 10 years and not had sex for the last 6 of them. Once he and his wife separated he spent pretty much every moment of his non-custodial time getting laid. He was on Match.com, Tinder, Bumble and JDate (and he’s not Jewish!) and reported that the process of getting out there, re-creating and presenting himself and yes, having numerous sexual encounters was as therapeutic and healing as it was enjoyable.
Most importantly, the times he spent blowing off steam enabled him to recharge, refocus and be the best parent he could be when his kids came back to his house on Wednesdays, Thursdays and every other weekend.
This is the bit where I assure you the single parents with good co-parenting relationships are the envy of their married friends. You get your fantastic children and time off from them to play all with a built in baby-sitter who loves them as much as you do but you do not have to pay by the hour. It truly can be the best of both worlds if you are considerate of your children and your ex and create a schedule which works well for everyone.
Will it always be smooth sailing? Hell no! But what ever is? Do your best, approach things with an open mind and positive attitude and put your kids first. The rest will generally fall into place and your family (yes, you are still a family even if you are not all living under the same roof – remember that) will benefit.