We’re getting used to it.
You probably figured that out already, but the rhythm of life in its new configuration, up to and including K.’s parenting time and his occasional flakiness (in his defense, he has been no more than ten minutes late recently — the state says after fifteen we don’t have to wait for him). Perhaps even up to, and sometimes including, K.’s parenting, which by all accounts (even his adoring mother’s) leaves much to be desired.
Part of it is that there’s only so long you can rail against something. Part of it is that I’ve developed an acute consciousness of all the other things I have to pay attention to, as well as an awareness of the fact that really, I am very lucky, all things considered. I’m lucky because there has been relatively little caviling and even less serious dispute over terms, because K. acceded to my having the house, sole custody, and nearly 100% parenting time — and to his parenting time taking place only in my house and with no corporal punishment, visitors, or drugs present, per the decree –, because he waived the right to “sixty mile notice,” which means that I can move more than sixty miles distant and not give him advance warning or the ability to protest it, and because his having done so puts me in a good position to defend the rights and safety of the children. Such a good position, in fact, that as any chess player knows, it’s not worth engaging over the more minor points. Eyes on the prize. If he’s a little marginal as a parent, if he’s occasionally passing out and late and verbally aggressive with the children, it might be worth letting it slide to preserve this status quo in which, basically, the power rests on my side. That sounds terrible; it feels terrible too. I want to engage on every point. I want to protest the times he’s quelling, harsh, angry, neglectful. But I know that none of his recent behaviors — at least not the ones I’ve witnessed — are probably going to cause a court to restrict him further, and part of that is because his interaction with the kids is so narrowly and strictly defined. And I’ve learned, in my dealings with courts, that it is probably better for me to simply maintain what is rather than open a dispute that could involve my losing ground — and my children becoming more likely to be actually endangered.
Thayer always says, “you’ve got to pick your battles.” She knows; she’s been in a lot of them. And so, though many of my friends say “Don’t let him see the kids!” “Tell him not to come!” “Scary!”, and though I agree; it is scary, it’s not responsible, and it doesn’t inspire confidence in K. as a parent, I take the part of discretion and try to approach things subtly rather than head-on. When I talked to a lawyer, she agreed. “You’ve done an amazing job,” she remarked, “and it sounds like you’re in a good position to make sure your kids stay safe and happy.”
So when he says, as he did when we first argued about the name change (for which I offered as my central argument the fact that Thing One is living with me and should therefore have my legal last name), “Well, what about a few years from now, when they’re living with me?”, I don’t start enumerating all the reasons why I doubt that will ever happen, which range from the commonsense and general (they need continuity and security, and barring any disability on my part, there’s no reason they’d ever be living with you more than half-time) to the specific and protective (you are a volatile and relatively unskilled parent, and your sleeping, mood, and anger issues make it so that I don’t believe they should ever live with you unless you radically clean up your act). I just nod and smile, nod and smile, and think my thoughts.
But as a more general rule, I don’t actually think it’s good for most kids to split time equally between households. That to me seems kind of like that old biblical story where King Solomon settles the dispute over whose baby it is by threatening to cut the baby in two; parents fight over the baby and end up tearing it asunder, unless the one who can’t bear to see the carnage gives in — because unfortunately, in most custody disputes there’s no King Solomon saying, “Oh yeah, you? The one who’s willing to give up the baby that it may live? It’s yours.”
So I’m kind of surprised when K. alludes to them spending half the time at his house in the future, which he has once or twice. This is all, of course, very hypothetical; it’s meant to happen in a distant, shadowy future when K. has his own house, no roommates, and a more settled life. (I wonder if, in this hypothetical future, he also has a day job and meds for his mood issues, as well as perhaps some parenting classes under his belt.) But it surprises me. Because K. does not, to my knowledge, believe that’s what’s best for children either. The 50-50 split. Because K. has not ever shown a desire to devote that time to his kids, not when he lived with them, not since he left six months ago. Because K. and I used to discuss how tragic it was to be divided that way, constantly shuttling from one home to the next, constantly packing your bag with the things you needed and learning to sleep whereever you lay down your head.
Don’t get me wrong; I think children should spend time with both parents. I think they should have relationships with both parents and access to both parents. And I think they should be able to rely on the involvement of both parents. But I also think — and I think this in part because I was a child of divorce who shuttled back and forth — that they need a primary home, a base, a place of their own. Of course there are exceptions; my friend Joaquin, for example, has a 50-50 split. But in his case, it’s less that exactly half is the best for his daughter and maybe more that it may be the best he can get; he’s told me that he’d love to have his daughter all the time, and from the sound of things that might be better for her, but his ex won’t give up any of her time and it may create more strife than it’s worth to try. But as a general rule, I think it’s better for kids to have a primary place to live. I’d love for K. to become someone who could have the kids at his place ten or twenty or maybe even thirty percent of the time. But I think that’s enough.
And to look at overnight percentages as a measure of parental involvement strikes me as reductive in the worst way. Because, as any of us who’ve conducted important relationships with people we’re not living with know, there are other ways to stay in touch. There are other ways to stay involved. You can come by. You can call. You can leave notes or text or email or get involved with school. You can do all manner of things.
K. has done none of these things. Thing One is certainly old enough to talk to his daddy on the phone, but K. never has called. Not once. Not even when Thing Two went to the ER with pneumonia on Friday, and I called K. to tell him, did K. call later that night or the next day to see how she was. He waited until he came over. And I know that he probably doesn’t think he should, necessarily call. But I think he should. I know I would. And I also know that you can say a lot of things about men and women and different communication styles blah blah blah, but the bottom line is this: the kids don’t know he thinks about them when he’s not here if he doesn’t call. So if he wanted them to know, wanted to touch base, wanted to feel connected, that’s what he would do.
What K. may be responding to, in his projection of this hypothetical 50-50 split future, is the concept of equally shared parenting, which I wrote about in the predivorce section of these pages and which advocates for both parents having equal involvement in work and kids. That was what I wanted from our home life. I talked about it. I read the book Halving it All. I advocated. Yes, I wanted K. to spend as much time with the kids as I did. Yes, I thought we should have equal weight and importance in that regard.
But that was then, in the context of the four of us as a family. In the context of the four of us as two families, I don’t believe that’s what’s best. There’s a wealth of literature that supports that idea — particularly at this young age, many children are better adjusted if they only sleep in one place, and one study shows that babies and toddlers who have two cribs in different home may develop attachment problems with both parents — as well as common sense. Is it important for kids to spend time with the nonresidential parent? Yes. Should the time be split exactly evenly? Nothing indicates that it should. Quite, in fact, the contrary.
So the subtext of all of this — the paltry time K. does now and the massive time he hypothesizes he might spend in the future — isn’t anything I’m on board with. And the unfortunate thing is that K. doesn’t even know it, that he doesn’t see that by choosing the life he’s chosen now, he’s made it very, very unlikely that he will ever have his children for even close to half the time, unless something catastrophic should happen to me. And that is unfortunate. Because there may come a time when he is a little stabler and a lot saner and when he wants that time, and he probably won’t get it. Not because I won’t “give” it to him, but because the children will have lives by then, they’ll have routines, and while they will probably want to shift and flex those routines to spend more time with their father, they won’t want to give them up entirely.
Postscript: This post grew out of the events of last Sunday, which were disturbing and somewhat tragic, at least affectively: returning from my customary work time, I got a call from my old friend Shane. Shane is a book dealer who’d come across a copy of Joint Custody with a Jerk and brought it by for me. He was calling to find out if I was home, because he had, in fact, seen my car outside, but when he’d rung the doorbell he’d heard a sobbing Thing One approach. Thing One had opened the door, sobbed, “I want my mommy!” and shut it again. Shane heard th esobbing retreat. Then he opened the door back up, thinking that K. must be right behind Thing One. There was nobody to be seen. “I had thought you were home because of your car,” he exlaimed to me on the phone, “and when Thing One opened the door and said ‘I want my mommy’ I wondered where the adult was.”
I still don’t know what, exactly, happened. K. says he was upstairs and had sent the sobbing Thing One downstairs because he misbehaved. But if Thing One is going to be opening the door to anyone who rings, maybe that’s not such a good idea.