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Back when I was growing up, in the 70’s and 80’s, if parents got divorce, the kids almost always live with their mother as the primary residence. They’d go out to dinner with their dads every Wednesday night, and spend every other weekend at his home.

More recently, however, joint or 50/50 custody has become the norm. The idea here is that it is best for children to spend equal time with each of their parents. The courts are supposed to always do what is in the best interest of the child. But is this really about the children?

Is it possible that this really isn’t solely about the children at all? I often wonder if this idea grew more out of the appeasement of the parents and their own narcissistic or even vengeful desires. After all, they would say, parents should be treated as equals, and it their right to have their kids as much as the partner does.

Frequently, this does end up being what is best for the kids. If both parents were involved with the parenting before the divorce, and both have established good parenting relationships with their children, then this is often what is best. But what if the child has anxiety, ADHD, Autism, or any number of other issues that might make the transitions of going back and forth emotionally difficult? It’s not always best.

On that note, I so often hear adults going through adversary divorces say that they’re going after joint custody as a form of vengeance towards the other parent. They feel so much hatred and anger towards their former partner that they are willing to sacrifice what is best for their children. This is a travesty to all involved.

If, for example, one parent has always stayed home with the children, a decision that presumably made together and believed to be what was best for the children, and the other parent works long hours, travels, and isn’t really available to do much of the daily parenting tasks, why does that suddenly change just because the parents have decided to divorce? Are we really looking at what’s best for the children here? Or are we more concerned with the parent’s rights?

I have seen this backfire too many times. While there are many benefits to having two parents that love you and are involved in your life, who says it has to be equal time? It wasn’t equal time when the parents lived together, so why should it be equal time now?

Let me give a couple examples of situations where I’ve seen this backfire. First, a woman asks for a divorce that the man doesn’t want. He is hurt, angry, and resentful. She took the kids when she left, and because she was so angry at him, she didn’t allow the father to see them for weeks, until the dad got a court order. Clearly, she was wrong here, but it just got worse after this.

Because of what she did, he was so full of hatred towards her. He loves his kids, too, and isn’t about to sit back and let her take them from him. So, naturally, and at his lawyers advice, he asks for joint 50/50 custody. After a long battle, full of hatred and evil, he prevails. But all along during the fight, the kids were exposed to damaging comments on both sides. How horrible for children to e put in such a position where they feel they need to take sides defending one parent or the other. What if they just love both?

But now, fast forward a few years. The parents have been sharing 50/50 custody of their children now for quite a while. These children move back and forth between the households every 2-5 days, week after week, year after year. This can’t be easy. Things are great and easy and much like they were in the past at the mother’s home. She doesn’t work outside the home, so she has plenty of time to tend to their needs, driving them everywhere, shopping, cooking, packing lunches, etc..

The father, on the other hand, must continue with his full-time work, often working undesirable hours, making it difficult for him to have time and energy left for shopping, cooking, laundry…not to mention limited availability for being available to drive his kids around or be home when they are home. It is extremely stressful for him to meet all of his work needs and do all of the things that his kids need as well.

This is a case of “be careful what you wish for”. After the years of sharing of custody, the father was unhappy, resentful, and just plain tired. It is hard to do everything yourself. I know, many parents have no choice but to do this, but there was a choice here. The resentment seeped its way into the relationship between him and children, further damaging what had already been damaged during the custody battle.

In the end, his children grew old enough to make their own decisions, and went to live with their mother. Once this father got over his anger about that, he actually realized it was for the best. And for the first time in all those year, had the insight that maybe he was never cut out to be a 50% single parent in the first place. Maybe, just maybe, in hindsight, he realized this was perhaps not what was actually best for his children. Perhaps there was a different way he could have maintained a relationship with his children that would have been more beneficial to everyone,

Another parent I spoke with must travel frequently for his work. What happens with him is that he does not travel when it is his time with his children. That means all of his traveling is done during the time that he doesn’t have them, which also means that here is a dad who never gets time for himself…no time to socialize, to date, to have a life. This is not only detrimental to his well-being, but also harmful to his children.

These are just a couple example of why 50/50 custody may always be what it’s cracked up to be. Sure, often it can be wonderful, and truly what is best for the children. I’m just saying that it’s not always best, even with two seemingly competent and loving parents. It’s complicated and complex and should be treated as such. Here are some tips for negotiating and navigating custody:

  1. Ask yourself what is truly best for the children. Not for yourself, but for them.
  2. Be aware of your anger and resentment and don’t let it cloud your judgment. Get professional help to work through this, so you don’t allow it to damage your relationships with your children.
  3. Be open-minded and flexible. Be willing to try out different options, even some that might be unconventional. Sometimes the best solutions are the most creative and wild ideas. No matter what the arrangement ends up, be willing to revisit and change what isn’t working.
  4. Just because you can do something, doesn’t always mean you Sure, if you go after 50/50 joint custody, you will likely get it awarded. That still doesn’t necessarily make it the best option.
  5. Empathy and understanding goes a long way. Try to imagine what this is like for your children and even your ex-partner. Really put yourself in the other’s shoes and ask why they might feel how they do.

Most importantly, figure out how to co-parent in a respectful and positive way. It benefits you AND your children more than you will ever realize.

If you and your spouse are thinking about getting a divorce – or if you already have – you may have realized that this split between you two has a tremendous effect on your children. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t get a divorce – maybe it makes sense. But it does mean you have to take some time to think about your children and how this will play out for them.

First, consider these “don’ts.”

Don’t think they don’t care. Even babies are aware that someone important is missing when grownups go their separate ways. Both parents need to stay involved in children’s lives, even in an infant’s life. And, if your babies are long grown up, remember that even adult children will be upset by your divorce. Yes, they are better able to understand the conflicts and, yes, they aren’t so dependent on you as they were when they were little. But divorce tears the family fabric. It matters to everyone in the family, at every age.

Don’t think they’ll agree with you. Children necessarily are loyal to BOTH parents – after all, they share DNA from you and their other parent and they’ve grown up learning to respect and appreciate both of you. Even if you think you are the injured party in the marital fracas and even if you think your children will naturally be on your side, don’t count on it. And, what’s more, don’t try to enforce it. Telling your kids all the nasty things your ex did in hopes of winning children’s support is unfair to them and unkind.

Don’t think they’ll get over it. They won’t. Divorce is a trauma and its effects will linger like the effects of a car wreck. Yes, life goes on and things will assume a new normalcy. But the fact of the divorce can never go away and that means the impact of the divorce can’t go away either.

Divorce is a serious matter and it will affect you and your children now and into the future. Sometimes divorce makes sense and is the only way forward for you and for your partner. Sometimes a divorce clears the path for progress and is better for the children than stayinmediationg together would have been. It’s impossible to see all ends, but you can at least help to make the best of a bad situation for your kids.

Here’s how:

Opt for divorce mediation instead of a trial. Some attorneys enjoy the conflict of a juicy divorce but that doesn’t mean you have to provide their entertainment. Seek out an attorney who is committed to  mediation and who does everything she can to keep you and your family out of the courtroom. You and your ex want to make the decisions – you don’t want some judge to make them. The way to stay in control of what happens is to use mediation, not litigation.

Be nice to your ex even if he or she isn’t nice to you. Divorce mediation will help you and your ex stay nice, because it dampens the adversarial conversation in favor of constructive problem-solving. But even if your ex insists on a trial and is as nasty as can be, do everything you can to be sweet. Your children are watching how you treat their other parent. What they think of you depends on how well you behave.

Respect your children’s connection to your ex and do nothing to get in the way. Your children love and need their other parent. It’s important that these feelings are honored and that kids are afforded ample opportunities to express these feelings. When a parent makes visits and vacations with the other parent difficult or makes snide remarks about the other parent, the child is caught in an impossible situation. For the sake of your kids, do nothing to ruin their relationship with their mom or dad.

Realize that your ex has a perfect right to attend your children’s events, to volunteer at their school, to be present at their graduations and birthdays and weddings. For better or worse, your former spouse is in your life for life. You cannot sweep this person under the rug, as if he or she never existed. Your ex is the parent of your children, just as you are, and your ex has as much right to be included in your children’s events as you do. So put on your sweetest smile, include your former love in whatever is going on, and be a grownup about it all. Being controlling and unpleasant only confirms to your ex that it was smart to dump you. Make your ex realize what a gem you are instead.

Government statistics say that about half of children under the age of 18 have experienced their parents’ separation or divorce. If this includes your kids, then they have plenty of company. But being common doesn’t make divorce normal. It will have an impact.

Do all you can to soften the blow.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, is available in bookstores now.