Why I’m Grateful for Joint Custody

Like clockwork, Emily Heist Moss split her time between her dad’s house and mom’s house after they divorced. Here’s why she’s glad she did.

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.

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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.

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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.

Photo: corsi photo/flickr

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About Emily Heist Moss

Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works at a tech start-up. She's a serious reader and a semi-pro TV buff. She writes about gender, media, and politics at her blog, Rosie Says. (Follow her: @rosiesaysblog, find Rosie Says on Facebook). 

Comments

  1. Tom Matlack says:

    Emily thank you for this. It is a topic very close to my heart. My kids were six months old and 2.5 years when I got divorced. They are now 15 and 17. I have never been allowed equal custody. I have done everything humanly possible to be a good father. For the first two years after the split I did not work because I wanted to learn how to take care of two little kids on my own and be there as much as I could.

    The good news is that my kids are really two of the most amazing young people I have ever met. They each have had their struggles but I adore them each in their own way and I am confident they are going to do great things in the world. Over time, I have been able to mostly put away the resentment that as a father I was not allowed equal time with them. I do think that a relationship with your child is not solely determined by the amount of time but how you approach what time you have together.

    I really admire what your parents did and certainly can relate to the devotion of being a parent, and a child, in a divorce situation. It can bring children a wider perspective on the world despite the inevitable hardship of lugging crap around all the time. But I sometimes think to myself that my children have been granted so many blessings, financial and otherwise, that while I wouldn’t have wanted it this way the challenge of having to navigate our family life has brought them wisdom and maturity that will serve them will down the road.

    Just a plug for dads. In your story I most respect what your mom did by allowing your father split custody. Legally she most likely didn’t have to do that. But I am sure that your story would have been different if she had chosen a different path.

  2. As a divorced mom of 3, I would have loved to have the chance to give my childrens’ father equal time with our kids. It would have been hard, but I would have sucked it up and done it. However, he made the decision to keep contact to a minimum. He sees them for dinner 2 nights a week for 2.5 hours each, and while he has every-other-weekend, he only keeps them for 24 hours on his weekend. Again, those are his choices. I do hate the impact it has had and will continue to have on our children. You are blessed/lucky. Kudos to your parents for putting you and your brother at the #1 spot on their list of most important stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  3. In many cases 50-50 is ideal. I’m always surprised to hear that dads have trouble getting it. I guess it depends where you live, but in my state dads generally get equal custody if they want it. It’s just not a given here that moms will get primary custody. I have primary custody of my daughter and have offered her dad more time with her, but he hasn’t taken me up on the offer. He has essentially full custody of our son, but that was a recent development that occurred largely due to my ex’s bottomless cash reserves.

    • Morrisfactor says:

      Pauline,

      I’m curious which state you live in that has such equitable custody allowances?

      According to the US Census, women get custody of the kids 82% of the time and men only 8% (the balance goes to foster homes, relatives, etc.)

      In my home state of Washington, men only get custody 2% of the time. Washington is a very feminist state and men have no chance at getting shared custody. Joint custody is often granted, however, in our state (as in many others) joint custody means the man gets the children four days a month and every Wednesday for 2.5 hours. So the term “joint custody” doesn’t really mean anything like one might think.

      Shared parenting should be the default custody situation.

      • hi i live in pa ive been fighting for shared custody for over two years now for my three children 5, 9i, and a 10 yr old with aspergers syndrome. it seems the courts here and the lawyers still believe that the father is just a by product of making children. the only fathers i know , who have shared custody are the ones who the mothers allowed it. i have 6 overnites in a 14 day period and the 7th night i pick up the children from school do homework make dinner sometimes when in season coach softball then take them back to moms house at 7.pm. when i wanted to get my overnite for the 7th nite, my exes lawer filed a counter suit that during the school year i only have the kids every other weekend. so it was all dropped. what choices do i have and how does one obtain shared custody? it should be automatic. and its not fair to the kids, any sugestions?

    • Black Iris says:

      I think when the author was growing up, the laws were different. In the past, I think there were actual laws that gave the mother custody unless something was wrong or she gave it up.

      At this point, the laws have been changed so that gender is not a deciding factor.

      This is an issue that is hotly debated. Women tend to get custody of their children, but when fathers sue for custody, they win 60% of the time. So I think the main reason more women have custody is that most fathers go along with splitting things that way.

  4. I had the same experience, spending equal time with both parents (Monday/Tuesday Dad, Wednesday/Thursday Mom, weekends every other). I could not be more grateful! Sure it was a pain having to constantly remember to bring my books over on Wednesdays but as a result I am super organized and have a good relationship with both sets of parents. I am so glad that my parents decided to do this. Dads get such a bad rap but my dad was at every basketball game, every birthday, and even drew cartoons on my lunch bag when I brought my lunch to school. I feel bad for kids that only get to interact with their father’s during summers or two weekends a week.

  5. Anonymous Male says:

    “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. ”

    Yes, yes, and yes. Thank you for putting that out there. This seems like obvious wisdom to me, but for some people it sounds really radical.

  6. Thank you. My child is in a similiar situation, spending one week at a time with each of us, traveling to the other parent on Sunday afternoon.

    I have wondered if this would a bad effect, but it has in fact been good. I get breaks. My ex- has learned _real_ home responsibility. And the child gets to know both of us: the good, the bad, and the ugly!

  7. Thanks for sharing your story. It sounds as if your parents did the best they could under the circumstances. Your story demonstrates, to me, how important it is for couples to keep their marriages intact if they have kids.

    Ensuring that you have a solid and stable marriage helps to facilitate easier and more effective parenting since you can be with them 100% of the time. Making the best possible use of 50% is great. I commend people who do. But, it’s clear that working to keep your marriage strong is one of the very best things parents can do for their children.

  8. Just because it worked for you does not mean that it is good for all. Many children are subjected to domestic violence. All of the propaganda pushing joint custody and co-parenting crap has had a terrible consequence. A very very large number of children are forced to spend time with a abuser parent. This 50/50 idea is horrible. It only benefits abusers. If 2 people divorce and there is no domestic violence it is quite likely they will agree on arrangements that work for their situation. Do victims of abuse a favor and stop promoting joint custody and let people make their own decisions. Giving preference to a mother should be natural as they give birth and it is what nature intended.

    • From the post:
      “There are circumstances where this is not possible. I would never advocate for children to stay in abusive households or dangerous environments.”
      – Reading is obviously not one of KT’s strong suits. Though stereotypes and sexism obviously is.

    • “Giving preference to a mother should be natural as they give birth and it is what nature intended.”

      And what if the abuser is the mother, KT, as is statistlcally more often the case?

      • Black Iris says:

        Sexual abusers of children are more likely to be males, physical abusers of children are more likely to be females.

        Domestic abusers of the spouse are more likely to be males.

        Although what matters is what is happening in the particular family.

        The important argument here, though, is that pushing joint custody on all families can lead to abusers getting custody.

    • Morrisfactor says:

      KT-

      “A very very large number of children are forced to spend time with a abuser parent. This 50/50 idea is horrible. It only benefits abusers”

      You are spreading horrible lies! No judge or child agency would knowingly allow a child to spend time with an abusive parent, especially a man. You are repeating propaganda put out by radical feminist groups.

      There is absolutely NO proof of anything happening like this at all. Men want to spend equal time with their children because they love them – and the kids love them back.

      • Black Iris says:

        No one would knowingly do it, but when a woman accuses her spouse of doing it during a divorce, courts sometimes assume she’s just doing it to get even. I don’t know what the numbers are, but I believe there are children out there being forced to spend time with abusers. A doubt it’s a very large number, but even a few is way too many.

        And of course, most men want to spend time with their children because they love them and are good fathers. That doesn’t get around the problem of how to sort out the truth in a divorce. If a woman discovers her children are abused she should get divorced, but if she talks about it, she could lose custody. If she shuts up about it, he may get joint custody. It’s a horrible catch-22.

    • Janet Dell says:

      Interesting perspective since every major study in the last 25 years show that mother commit at least 60% of child abuse and yet they get custody over 80% of the time.

    • What happens when the mother is the abuser, why is it that the man are automatically the bad guy when it comes to DV.
      I would get up at 430am to go to work and do the morning feed change and prep things for the day IE, bottles, nappies, ETC. then go to work for 7am start, then work a 10hr day to come home and have a coffee cup or similar thrown at me, I would then cope the verbal abuse with threats of every sort over the course of hours, till I cracked, (Not saying I’m a saint). All the time doing my best to shield my boys from the worst of the abuse.
      For whatever reason, when I did finally did leave the situation, (after years of trying to find some middle ground). I took my two boys with me, could not leave them in that, was then taken to court by her, only after I applied for the sole parent pension which she was getting at that time, the lies that were told in court were outrages. The system here seems willing to believe anything that the woman says as truth, while the man is a lying, abusive, perverted @$^$#$#^%&%^#@# that need to be contained.
      I was given 5 minutes with the boys in front of a phyic’ after not seeing my boys for at least 3 months, who’s assessment was vital to my access to my boys, while my legal rep told me she was willing to go to any lengths to see the boys where safe. On the day of the court case I was told by her to take whatever I could, (was offered), the legal rep for the best interest of the children could not even tell me their name’s, nor did they even ask my boys what they wanted. When I told them the child rep’ she was DV one in the relationship, I was told not to make false allegations, and that MEN are the perpetrators of DV, this seems to be the commonly held belief among the FLC community, a community that seems unwilling to question its own value system in the face of growing evidence to the contrary, this denial which has lead to the death of so many men. Men that are / were genital loving fathers having had the same experiences, both in the privacy of their own homes and in the public space of the FLC, felt so humiliated and dishonored and worthless that they felt the only option left to them was to make the ultimate sacrifice. With all honesty the only reason that I did not follow them in their choice was the knowledge of the harm I would be doing my boys in the long run, the understanding that they would need me to be there for them when they become MEN themselves.
      My main contact with my boys at the moment is via play computer games with them as an anonymous ( they know who I am) friend over the Playstation network. It’s what I need to do right now to keep contact with them. So please don’t invalidate me and my boys more by saying things like women have the right to the kids because they gave birth.

  9. @KT
    I Know at least half of a custody cases do not involved any domestic violence and when you consider the cases in witch both partners are involved in DV….

    “If 2 people divorce and there is no domestic violence it is quite likely they will agree on arrangements that work for their situation.”
    I wish that were true, but many Men that should seek custody undervalue themselves and deiced not to seek custody. That is also harmful. The point of this article(as I take it) is to help remind these men of their worth as a father.

    If I recall the topic DV and Custody correctly a great deal(nearly all) of “abusive”(under what ever context you derive abuse) fathers seek custody of children. Sometimes just to force the divorcing wife through more misery. I don’t see articles like this one suddenly prompting abusive men already perusing “harm” to suddenly become more vigorous. That’s just ridiculous…They aren’t motivated by their worth as a father they just want to continue harm.

    This post is not about changing divorce laws or anything… Its about stereotypes surrounding good men.
    “Giving preference to a mother should be natural as they give birth and it is what nature intended.”
    Stereotypes you appear to believe in.

    Taking a position against articles like this one is not going to chase abusive fathers away…its just not… It will only chase the good ones away. Good day.

  10. Black Iris says:

    The problem is that most people who are getting divorced can’t “separate the acrimony of their relationship from their responsibilities as parents.” Most people who are getting divorced can’t get along. They don’t start liking each other just because the legal system gets involved.

    My experience seeing a friend fight a long, nasty court battles make me think it’s better to go for sole custody from the get-go. I think joint custody only works if both parents actually want it. In most cases, I think kids would be better off in a sole custody situation so they don’t have to deal with ongoing arguments.

    Although you were glad to have a 50-50 parenting situation, there are other kids who didn’t like it. You should ask some of the kids who experienced only seeing dad twice a month if they would have preferred splitting their lives like you did. It may be that they feel they turned out well despite the disadvantages and are now glad that they didn’t have to spend so much of their time going back and forth. I think the real problem is the kids who end up seeing dad almost never.

    Joint custody doesn’t always mean splitting the child care 50-50, either. It can just mean splitting the right to decide the child’s religion and schooling, etc., but with one parent having the kid most of the time.

    I don’t support women getting automatic custody, but I do support the principle that the primary caregiver should get custody unless they are an abusive parent. I think the stability of staying with the primary caregiver is usually better for the child.

  11. Black Iris says:

    I guess I would say I suspect the reason things worked out for you was that your parents could get along and agree about what should be done. That’s what really helps kids – and what’s really rare.

  12. I love the idea of consistency from a 50/50 parenting point of view; but I’d like to see it taken one step further:

    The kids should love in one, stable house, while the parents who couldn’t get along do the schlepping.

    This one simple (not easy) change tells the kids it is not their fault or doing that the parents are divorcing, and that the parents are taking responsibility for their choices and not putting the onus of a constantly disrupted life on the children.

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