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Shared custody

June 29, 2010

So my ex-husband went to Crete. There was a scientific conference, which meant his plane fare was paid for; with my encouragement, he stayed to travel and enjoy himself for a while. I wondered whether he’d be unsettled–twenty years ago, as I mentioned in an earlier post, he and I spent a month hitchhiking and camping there. But he is, according to the e-mails I’ve gotten, having a wonderful time. What’s odd is that I, left behind with the kids, who are out of school and not yet in their only-two-hours-but-at-least-that’s-something morning camp, am having a wonderful time, too.

The house, first of all, is off the market. We are living happily among unmade beds and unfolded laundry and rumpled sofa cushions, and I am not at the mercy of anyone’s whim. As my mother said, “Your anxiety wasn’t caused by living in this house. There’s nothing wrong with living here–it’s a wonderful place to live. Your anxiety was caused by showing the house.” And she’s right.

But having my ex-husband on another continent bestows its own peace of mind. When I was a kid with divorced parents, the custody rules were clear: with few exceptions, your mother got custody, and your father got visited. If your dad lived far away (as mine did), you saw him once or twice a year; if he lived closer, he might appear for a weekend here and there. In any case, your mother was nearly always both primary parent and boss. She decided where you went to school, and what out-of-school activities you pursued. She knew your teachers and your friends. She nagged you to do your homework, grounded you when you misbehaved, and drove you hither and yon, provided she was in the mood. For me, just like every other kid with divorced parents I knew, my mom ran the show. I was her kid, and my father was someone piped around the edges of my life.

It wasn’t necessarily simple. I found it disconcerting to relocate for five solid weeks every summer, and it must have been hard on my father as well. It was, I’m sure, especially hard on my stepmother, who ended up chaperoning a strange little girl with a chip on her shoulder while her husband merrily shuffled off to work every day. She definitely bore the brunt of my visits, and suffered from my insufferable attitude, but she was a good sport about it. I’m much older than my half-siblings, so I often babysat, which in retrospect does not seem like fair compensation.

Now, of course, divorced parents turn their lives inside out for their children. My ex-husband and I have what’s called a 2-2-5 custody arrangement, if I remember correctly (we didn’t know it had a name, when we proposed it–my lawyer simply nodded, jotted something down, and remarked she knew plenty of other couples whose children did well with this schedule.) On Mondays and Tuesdays, the kids sleep at my house. Wednesdays and Thursdays, they sleep at their dad’s. We alternate weekends, which begin Friday after school and end on Monday morning. Thus, every week, the kids get a five day (well, five night) stretch of time with one of us. We tweak the schedule frequently–our geographical proximity makes it easy to do so. Next month, when my ex-husband moves into the dream apartment, he’ll be only a few blocks away, and the transitions will become smoother still.

There’s always a modicum of confusion. Schoolbooks and sportsgear need to go back and forth, and something’s always forgotten or misplaced. Yet the kids are, by every standard, thriving. My younger son’s second-grade teacher told us, at his school conference last year, that he seemed completely comfortable with the separation. (Afterward, I wrote her a note thanking her from the bottom of my heart for saying so–in front of my ex-husband, no less. She wrote back that she, too, was divorced. We’re everywhere.) Both kids act as if their bifurcated family is the most normal thing in the world. They continue to do well in school and out of it. They have plenty of friends. They have, or so I’m told, excellent manners. They’re happy to see their father when he comes to pick them up, and they’re happy to see me. They’re not in the least Stepford-like–they fight, and annoy the shit out of me on a regular basis–so I don’t worry they’re overcompensating. Dare I say that they are fine?

Dare I go even farther and say that they’re better than fine? Although they still spend more time with me, they now have the kind of relationship with their father that they never had before, simply because they never used to see him alone. When we were married, whenever he was home, I was home too. They know him better now. When we were married, I dominated; since we split, my ex-husband has managed. I am a bossy and overbearing individual, and I was perhaps a bit too invested in my children to allow their father room to interact. I think they’ve forged something valuable, the three of them, on those nights and weekends I’m outsourced.

Many things have shocked me about my divorce, but nothing has shocked me more than this: My children do not need for me to live with their father in order to be happy. And–most shocking of all–they don’t need me in order to be happy. So what’s the problem? Well, for one thing, the new, child-friendly custody, which dictates that divorced parents stay close to, involved with, and invested in their children, also forces divorced parents to stay close to, involved with, and invested in each other. It’s great for the children, but it is–again, dare I say?–pretty fucking hard on us. Having my ex-husband far, far away gave me a taste of the freedom and autonomy I might have if only he were a seventies kind of estranged dad. I wish I were still in charge of the kids. They were definitely my purview back when their father and I were still married. Deep down, I think I’m better at taking care of them than he is. I’m certainly more experienced. Deep down, I want my children back.

Ah, but I don’t, I don’t. Not only am I not strong enough to defy the massive cultural juggernaut that declares that children belong with both parents even at the expense of those parents’ individual happiness, but I am also stupendously selfish and scheming. With full custody comes an inexorable tip of the scales; the absent parent is longed for and idealized, while the parent who does the heavy lifting is taken for granted, or even spurned. I want my ex-husband to spend sufficient time with the kids to be as annoyed by them as any sane mortal should be. I want them to sass him when he orders them to bed, to fight and cry and make messes in his house and on his watch. I want them to get sick when they’re with him. I want them to miss me, which they couldn’t possibly do if they saw me all the time.

I’d gladly never see my ex-husband again, or even talk to him. For divorced people, though, we certainly do hang out a lot. I swear I have more contact with him now than I did when we were together, back when days might go by without much meaningful interaction. Time, I suppose, will tell whether our generation’s particular model of post-marital childcare works better for the kids than the previous generation’s default setting. But I’ll tell you one thing for certain: it’s a bitch for the grown-ups to pull off. Given our present custody arrangements, I doubt I’ll ever be able not to think about my ex-husband for more than a day or two, unless he’s in, say, Greece. It seems a waste of a perfectly simple divorce.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Jen permalink
    June 29, 2010 10:40 am

    This is exactly what goes through my head on a daily basis, exactly.

  2. June 29, 2010 7:01 pm

    My husband moved out in April and shortly thereafter, moved 800 miles away to be with his piece on the side. I’m doing it all solo and that has its suckiness, too, especially him whining about how much he misses them. I wish that he was closer, so the girls could spend time with him, but it’s not going to happen. I don’t know that I’d like your situation any better, though. I don’t think there’s really an ideal solution.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 29, 2010 8:11 pm

      No, no, you’re completely right. Thinking “ooh, it’s so peaceful when he’s out of town” is a luxury, and has about as much to do with really flying solo as a weekend away from the kids when you’re married has to do with being childless. I knew old what’s-his-face was coming back, and didn’t have to deal with any emotional fallout from the kids, because he was only on VACATION. Still, I fantasize about having to cope with everything myself, because I hate dealing with him (even when he’s being perfectly nice.) I know full well that I’d never want him to move away and see the kids once a year, because it would be undeniably bad for them, bad for him, and ultimately bad for me as well….

      Still, the past couple of weeks–a temporary respite from constant ex-wrangling–were so very nice.

  3. minoti permalink
    June 30, 2010 2:13 am

    i love your website! your writing is mellifluous. i gain a lot of perspective from you … thank you!
    i am going through a terrible divorce with 3 very young children. after putting up with abuse for a few years i finally got up and made the decision to leave when he started telling the children i’m not their real mother because they were conceived through donor egg ivf.
    i worry tremendously for my children. due to a first crappy lawyer who did not do anything for me, and my own stupidity in believing in her, i’ve lost everything i worked so hard for.
    i don’t know if i’ve commented before on your blog, but reading how well your children are doing gives me hope that mine will be fine too in the long run. my children are so sweet and innocent (even if i say so myself). as much as i hope that they;ll be fine, a part of me is always scared that their dad bad mouthing me to them in subtle ways is eventually going to ruin them. as an e.g. he tells them now that i chose to leave them (i had to move out of his house). and the list goes on.

    i just wanted to say thank you for writing and giving me hope.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 30, 2010 11:06 am

      I think that as kids get older, hearing one parent say terrible things about the other completely backfires on the badmouthing parent…the kids make their own decisions, and are able to see that the bitter, unkind parent is behaving like a jerk.

      That said, my heart goes out to you. Get a good lawyer as soon as you can if you haven’t already. Not a shark, not an attack dog, but a GOOD, kind, savvy lawyer to help you figure out your rights and how to contain the damage that has been done. An excellent lawyer need not even be expensive–my mom worked for Legal Aid for years, which meant that qualifying clients paid nothing. Please don’t hesitate to email me if you want, or to comment more and ask for advice–I seem to have lucked into an extremely smart readership who may be able to offer good counsel. I’m so sorry you’re going through this. Your kids can and will be all right, however. A bad divorce, even a terrible divorce, need not be the end of the world.

      • minoti permalink
        June 30, 2010 11:03 pm

        thank you so much for your incredibly kind words and advice. i truly appreciate it. i do have a lawyer, someone who feels very sad for me because of the mess i was already in. he is working hard to get me a decent custody arrangement, and he is kind and very direct. my ex’s lawyer is a shark. there is no other word for him. but we are not yet close to our final hearing and i hope that will go a bit better than the temporary custody hearing did.
        mostly i worry for the children. like you my friends also try to reassure me that the children will be fine, and they will figure it out eventually. but i can’t help worrying because they are only 5, 3 and 3 and the bad mouthing has been going on for a long time now (in front of me it was terrible, so i can only imagine what it is like now that i’m not there).
        anyway, i do appreciate your offers of help. i really do. thank you!
        will keep you posted.

        • Banannie permalink
          July 2, 2010 1:40 pm

          for Minoti,
          In addition to being a single parent, I was raised by one. My father was a raging alcoholic (although dry for 35+years post divorce) who I thank my mom for having the courage to get away from. Over the years, my fathers actions spoke louder than his words against my mother, and I so respect her for biting her tongue, and just letting me see what was before me. It wasn’t until I was about 16 that I really understood who he was(n’t). You might have to hang tough through many thankless years–but we’re moms, we’re well trained for that! Now, in my 40’s I have SO much respect for my mom not only because I’m struggling myself, but because I understand the frustration of an EX, and the temptation to shout from the tallest tree a proclamation of their “A – – holeness”.

  4. July 1, 2010 9:40 am

    in my experience as the child of a very protracted and ugly divorce, it’s what goes on between the parents (both in person and when each is alone) that matters most. my mother and stepmother hated one another, and let everyone know it, but mostly me. i was the target that their assorted bitterness coalesced around, and my father was the nonentity who did nothing about it. the result was that my every-other-weekend-and-part-of-summer arrangement probably did me a lot more harm than if my father had just vanished, or made random, rare appearances in my life. being cordial, civil, and adult toward your spouse is like giving your kids permission to continue to feel whatever they want to feel about each of you, without having to take on any of the baggage of your emotional conflicts. which i can only imagine is excruciating–but absolutely worth it.

  5. July 1, 2010 8:45 pm

    Have been through a divorce as a child, I totally see your point. I was just telling my friend the other day – who’s afraid of leaving his horrible wife because of the kids – that living with her is WORSE for the kids than living separately. I may just send him here so he knows that it’s good for him to get to know his kids without her constantly yelling at him in front of them. 😦

    Thank you.

  6. Banannie permalink
    July 2, 2010 1:33 pm

    Again, you write so perfectly, a story similar to my own. My ex spends more time with his daughters than he did when we were married, pats himself on the back for being an awesome dad, all the while pointing his finger, and telling his family that “she left me”. He shops with them, cooks meals, cleans house, etc. While married to him, he was married to work, and so my begging for his time with his wife and children fell on deaf ears. My sadness over the marriage, and frustration toward his finally “getting it” (he even sits on a school board position now) make me long for the good old days where I could just raise them myself, yet at the same time this is better for them. Overall, they seem well adjusted, and I believe better off than they would have been had we stayed married (no abuse or alcoholism). Overall, I want them to see loving relationships, and their parents didn’t have one. Hopefully they also will know that “do overs” are not character flaws.

  7. Makhs permalink
    February 5, 2011 7:10 pm

    Dear irretrievablybroken, thank you for this most eloquent and satisfying article.

    I have a question which you might be able to help me with. My husband decided after 10+ years of marriage and two children that he did no longer love me and we divorced having joint physical and legal custody. However, because of his job, we move often, and as a matter of fact, during our 11 years together, we moved no less than 7 times. Now he is planning to move again because of his job requirements. Although in 0ur divorce decree we agreed that every time he moves he will pay me a full year of my last salary ($50,000, he makes $250,000+ and we agreed on no child support too) and 3 months of rent as well as cover my moving expenses so that I can move, I feel that there is something profoundly wrong with the compensation he is asking me to accept. I will lose yet another job, I will lose yet another seniority, I will again spend many months job hunting, and at my age, I am 48, finding a new job keeps getting harder and harder.

    Can you help me by defining a better compensation deal for my acceptance to move so that we are both close to the children?

    Thank you so much, and I wish you well.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      February 10, 2011 12:39 pm

      Hi–I’m not a professional by any stretch of the imagination, but my divorce agreement stipulates that if one person chooses to leave the state (for, say, a job), the custody arrangement changes completely. In other words, were I offered the job of my dreams in another state, I would not be able to take the children with me (unless my ex-husband agreed–not likely). Every state is different in the US; other countries have different laws. Your situation sounds extremely vexed to me and if I were you I’d hire a lawyer–find one, if you can, willing to work with you on an hourly basis, perhaps, instead of having to pay a big retainer up front?–to help puzzle out what is best. Unfortunately, though, if you agreed to something it is awfully hard to undo it.

      Please email me privately if you like ( I’m not sure I can be of any help, but perhaps some of my readers can? If you don’t object, perhaps I could put some of your details up on the main page of the website and see whether anyone has any insight. Let me know. And good luck. How old are your children? What would happen if you did not move and your ex-husband did?

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