My separation and divorce wouldn’t make for great television. We were off a hundred or so dollars in child support, a point on which I finally caved. The legal fees would cost more than winning the compromise. She and I divvied the furniture, pictures, and Tupperware with little friction.
My son had just turned eight months old when his mother exclaimed on a November evening, after six years of marriage, she wanted a divorce. My daughter was little more than two. Both thought it fun that mommy and daddy were now sleeping in different rooms. Our Christmas tree stood as judge while we debated if she would go through with her plan. Things climaxed in early January.
That summer I had planned a Vail ski trip for her 30th birthday. It now carried the added element of a marriage life jacket, a week of snow capped bliss to retreat, reconnect, and sort things out. She didn’t feel the same. At the suggestion of her attorney, or perhaps for fear of making her future husband jealous, she didn’t go. I enjoyed the Rockies alone. Between navigating the wedge stop, pine trees, and that infernal ski lift I spent hours on the phone arguing, and sometimes pleading, for her to reconsider. On the night before my return she announced her decision.
The divorce was final 45 days later.
But not everything was so neat and tidy. From the moment I was served she made one point clear– she would have ‘physical custody’ of our children. There would be no ‘shared’ or ‘joint’ arrangement. The designation of ‘sole’ became especially important. In fact, this was so resolute and unwavering it almost seemed that her loosing that one battle would mean forfeiting the entire war. A decade later, even after my cynicism has been washed away with time, her motives seem no less obvious.
Whether through conversations with counsel or drinks with girlfriends, she became convinced that to be a custodial parent was a financial windfall. She reasoned that more time meant more money. Perhaps the greatest travesty of the family law system is the direct interplay between children, time, and cash. It’s a dynamic that results in one parent’s gain being proportional to the other’s loss.
Saving face was apparent. Choosing to divorce with children so incredibly young isn’t without a check on one’s mental health and perhaps moral soundness. This is made more obvious knowing the particulars of the married life she left. Appending every explanation for her new family status with, “But I have physical custody” must have been a balm to her conscience, proof she wasn’t a lunatic narcissist, and a subtle indication that I, demoted to ‘visitation’, was really the bad guy.
Ironically, her explanation for this hard line approach was our children, particularly how they were just too young for anything other than a visiting dad. The less disruption in their daily lives the better, she said. As such, every other weekend should be sufficient for my needs and wouldn’t interrupt their delicate constitutions. I was quickly becoming a timeshare dad.
The most insulting aspect in her ‘offer’ was how it signaled in crystal terms that my value as a man wasn’t constancy in fathering our children it was consistency in writing her checks.
Fighting for sole custody could do more harm than good and, as my attorney warned, would be nearly impossible to win. Joint custody would be none the easier and either decision would cost me thousands of dollars – and more if I lost. The better alternative, she believed, was finding an arrangement that altered the facts without changing the perceptions; allowing me more time while letting her keep the ‘primary’ label.
We eventually agreed on my ‘visitation rights’ – perhaps the most insulting two words in the English language. I accepted every other weekend and picked up Tuesday and Thursdays evenings from 5-8. It felt incredibly unfair and uninspiring, but it was now my life. Unsurprisingly, she relinquished all custody in figuring out the logistics to make it all work. I’ve easily clocked 30,000 miles in the last decade making the fourteen mile round trip between her home to mine – all in my efforts to be a dad.
While everything about our initial arrangement has changed in the years since, one element remains the same – to this day she is still the ‘primary’ parent.
I’ve had time to reflect on how that part of my life played out and what I would do differently were it to happen over again. When I consider what I know today and weigh how my children responded to those changes, what I arrive at might be as surprising to read as it is difficult to admit.
Regardless of the motivations, giving her sole custody was the right decision, at that time.
As I’ve written before, the influence of a mother and a father isn’t equitable. What I mean is, a parent’s importance changes with time and circumstance.
The necessity of motherhood cannot be overstated, particularly for younger children. There is a natural and necessary jaggedness to fatherhood that is undeniable and often clashes with the warmth and nurturing that young children thrive under. Most men don’t do well kissing boo-boo’s and lack the patience for cutting crust from bread. But young children desperately need that sentimental affection and attention. They need to be babied, fancied, and coddled – and they need it consistently. My children, when younger, would crave their mother by the end of my weekend no matter how good a dad I might have been. They wanted to be mothered by her. To this day, my ten-year-old son seeks out his mom above all others in certain times of anxiety and worry.
It’s not that men are incapable of being so delicate and sensitive. They simply are unable to at the level of a child’s mother. They don’t possess that Providentially bestowed mothering spirit; which is something men – and women – would do well to recognize, accept, and be grateful for.
Yet pendulums swing both ways. Soon, that same sweet motherly delight so longed for in his youth turns bitter. If you doubt me, observe how the typical teen, and most notably teen boy, responds to being mothered, coddled, and babied. It waxes repugnant to him and he will do almost anything to avoid it. By his early teens he runs from the mushiness with the same velocity he once ran towards it.
The older the child gets the farther that child gravitates away from motherly softness towards something more rough and coarse; something more representative of the real world they are entering into. And woe is the child who never leaves the gentle soothing waters of motherhood to experience the wild rapids of a father. To remain there leaves the child in danger of being wrecked upon the rocky shores of reality when the storms of life rage.
Perhaps this is best explained by how children respond to a father’s absence. It’s not coincidence that most children seem impervious to a father’s vacancy at two or five years of age. His mother supplies all of his needs. But that changes dramatically at twelve and thirteen, which seems the universal turning point when a child looks away from the softer things and towards those more rugged. To continue being mothered reminds him of the child is trying to leave behind. A father’s absence may be no stronger felt than in those tween and teen years.
I recognize now that her being the primary custodial parent was the right decision for my kids, at that time, though that wasn’t her intention in that moment. I accept the positive impact that choice had on both of them. At the ages of eighteen months and two years, they needed that motherly foundation to be strong, and to deprive them of that because of selfish personal motives would have been a travesty with lasting consequences.
Custody isn’t one size fits all and there is no magic number to aim for. A toddler and young child needs as much time with her mother and she can get, allowing the necessary space to lay brink by brick that motherly wall of love, protection, and security that will comfort her through life. In the same way, older children, tweens and teens especially, must have greater margin with a father, experiencing that masculine jaggedness and learning through it to thrive in a jagged world.
It takes an abundance of humility to accept that our importance as parents, and what our children need from us, changes with time. It takes courage to willingly sacrifice our own pride and shelve our egos and personal hopes for the sake and betterment of our kids, especially when doing so is to the benefit of a ex spouse.
But to do so is an affirmation that a father and a mother can yield a bounty of fruit – each in its season.