May 29, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
This should be read by every couple that’s divorcing and has kids whose custody needs deciding (Huffington Post, 5/27/16). It’s not because it’s unique or that anyone involved is a superhero. It’s because the opposite is true; everyone in the drama is just another everyday person trying to get through a divorce with a modicum of sanity and, with luck, good will.
It’s written by the family’s mother, Aubrey Keefer, but it’s meant for any parent, and every parent should read it. Keefer describes her divorce. Her husband one day said he no longer wanted to be married, but the issue of what to do with their two daughters stuck in Keefer’s throat. Not only was she the mother, she was the one left behind. So whatever entitlement she felt to her children was only increased by her since that sole custody for her was justified by the “wrong” done her.
Almost two years ago, my world was turned upside down. My ex-husband had confessed that he no longer loved me, and I learned the hurtful truth about our marriage. Sincerely believing that I was looking out for the best interests of our two girls, I immediately filed for primary physical custody. My ex-husband did not fight it, as he himself was lost and trying to find his way, and we agreed that this arrangement was in the best interest of our children. He relegated himself to weekly evening visits with them that first summer, and I devoted myself to being the best mother the girls could possibly have.
In short, the two pursued a fairly typical post-divorce parenting arrangement; she got the kids and he saw them occasionally for brief periods of time. It was not to last.
As the two adults grew apart and into their new non-married selves, his desire to see more of his daughters increased and Aubrey’s relationship with her boyfriend deepened. That meant that, when the girls were with Dad, she wasn’t at home pining, but able to be out with her new partner. The increase in time the girls were spending with their father happened gradually, but it happened. No great decision was ever made; no seismic change occurred either in anyone’s lives or in anyone’s comprehension of what was needed.
As time went on, the girls began spending one day every weekend with their dad. Because of his living arrangements, we agreed that they would not do overnights with him. He had them for seven to eight hours once a weekend and came to our home to have dinner with them twice a week. Sometimes, he stayed at the house with them while I ran errands; other nights, he would take them out for dinner. The girls loved their Tuesday and Thursday nights with their dad, and I began to look forward to having some time to get things done for myself (even if that just meant going to the grocery store without kids). I had spent their entire lives putting them first, and I was learning that it was healthy to sometimes put myself first.
Then the girls voted – with their tears.
Then something heartbreaking happened. The girls started to cry for their dad at bedtime. I’m not talking little I-miss-my-daddy tears. I’m talking full-on hysterics, sobbing uncontrollably, shattering my heart into a million little pieces. They longed for their dad. And while I wanted to blame him and say that this is the reality that he had chosen, that wasn’t fair. He’s their father. They adore him. And while he may not have been the best husband, he was proving himself to be a good, dare I say great, dad.
Such a thing may well happen in every divorced couple with kids. When the children finally realize that the non-custodial parent isn’t coming back, they panic. Lacking an adult perspective, the loss of the non-custodial parent can be heartbreaking for kids, particularly young ones.
But what’s important about Keefer and her ex is not the kids’ reaction, but their own. They did what so few parents seem capable of; they paid attention to the children’s needs, put their own desires second and did the right thing.
A few weeks ago, my ex-husband asked for 50/50 custody. Things are falling into place for him, and he is moving into his own home soon. I can still remember the moment he asked for it. I felt as if my heart had leapt into my throat, and I got clammy and felt as though I might have a panic attack. How could I let him take my girls from me? How could I not be a full-time mom? How could I let them go when I had spent so much time making them my world?
I wanted to say no. I wanted to fight. I wanted to hire a lawyer and prove all the reasons he shouldn’t have our girls half of the time. But then I took a step back. As hard as I tried to find one, I had no good reason to say no. I had no reason to keep the girls from their father. I had no reason to not let them spend just as much time with him as they do with me. He is their father, and he loves them. But more importantly, they love him. As hurt as I’ve been by his actions, he has not hurt them. He has done nothing but love them and be there when they’ve needed him. And who am I to get in the way of that?
Two sentences out of those two paragraphs stand out. “I took a step back.” “But more importantly, they love him.” If every divorcing parent would simply memorize those words and take them to heart, there’d be a lot more shared custody, a lot more equal custody and children and parents alike would benefit.
Post-divorce parenting time truly should not be about the parents, but about the kids. What that means as a practical matter is that the children love and need both parents and adults who don’t realize that and act on it are not being the best parents (or the best judges) they can be. For a system of child custody to be truly child-centric would be for it to order far, far more shared custody than it does. That most used and abused of all phrases - “the best interests of the child” - demands it.
To her credit, Keefer makes it clear that she was not the best parent. She wanted revenge. She felt the children were hers and hers alone. She believed that her validity as a mother demanded that she have the girls full-time. All of that is woefully familiar. But what Keefer didn’t do was act on those selfish and short-sighted motivations. Ultimately, both she and her ex did the right thing.
The beds in the beautiful pink and purple bedroom of our new home are empty just as often as they are occupied. I wake up some mornings with the frantic rush of packing lunches and kissing the girls goodbye, but I wake up just as many mornings to the silence of a house with no kids in it. Half of my weekends are filled with giggles and nail polish and playdates while the other half of my weekends are filled with wineries and romantic getaways (and, while I’m being honest, housework and home improvement projects). And while I worried I wouldn’t feel whole without the girls here, I’ve learned to take time for myself and to focus on my relationship with my incredibly supportive boyfriend.
And that too is the reality of shared parenting for mothers. As surely as Dad gets more time with the children and they with him, Mom benefits too. She has more time to do whatever her heart desires. She can pursue a new relationship, work and earn more, or strike out in a new direction entirely. She can do all that because she’s not saddled with 80% - 100% of the parenting time. All of a sudden, when little Andy or Jenny gets sick in the middle of the night, she may not be the one to get up.
Families with children don’t end when the adults split up. They become more complicated, but they continue. Allowing the kids plenty of time with both parents satisfies their need to love and be loved by the two most important people in their lives. And the parents lead more sensible, less conflicted lives as well.
Thanks to Aubrey Keefer for doing the right thing for her children and her ex. And thanks for letting us read about it. May other parents take note.
#sharedparenting, #equalparenting, #children'sbestinterests