As everyone always says, there’s no book on how to be a good parent. The nurses at the hospital didn’t send you home with a manual. There are books and online courses and old wives tales, but there’s no consensus on how to raise a child in the best way possible.
We all screw up every single day in a million ways, both big and small. For most of us, its just part of the learning process.
If you’re in a custody case, though, there are suddenly a lot of potential issues surrounding almost each and every single parenting choice you make. It’s not easy living under a microscope, or knowing that, whatever choice you make, your child’s father is going to try to spin it into something that it isn’t.
I sat in court the other day beside a mother who has been tackling solo parenting for the last three years. Her children’s father made no real attempt to see his three children in that time, and then finally decided that, rather than actually talk to their mother, he’d just go ahead and file custody petitions with the juvenile court.
We went in for an initial appearance, which is normally the first appearance in court in a contested custody case. As far as hearings go, it’s a relatively minor one, usually where just the trial date is set and a Guardian ad litem is appointed.
The judge in this case, though, wanted the parents to have completed a coparenting class already – before their first time in court – and ordered (specifically ORDERED!) that the parents watch the Virginia State Bar’s “Spare the Child” video before the trial.
The judge went on, telling my client (and her ex) how important it was that they did the work beforehand. It’s about 4.5 hours worth of their time; the 4 hours in a coparenting class, and a little less than 20 minutes in the “Spare the Child” video. He said he’d ask them questions at trial to make sure that they had watched the video, and that there’d be no way to answer correctly if they hadn’t.
He said that what he liked best about the video was that it featured adults who, as children, went through a custody case. They talked about the impact of the case on them, and the judge went on to discuss how ‘broken’ a family can become if the parents continue to fight about custody.
Though reasonable minds may differ, I don’t think there’s any question that, when it comes to custody, it’s the fighting that makes or breaks the arrangement for the kids. The damage doesn’t come from separating, it comes from high levels of conflict in the family. Kids are super resilient, but they also learn a lot from their surroundings – and witnessing the fighting can have really negative impacts on the outcome.
I had never been to a hearing before where “Spare the Child” was specifically required, but I certainly understand it. I also think its worthwhile to ask yourself how far you’re willing to go, what you want to achieve, and what cost you’ll pay to get yourself there.
One of my friends and fellow attorneys, Lorna Rhoades, was talking to me the other day about a case she has, where she told the client that only she would know when enough was enough. I had never thought of it in exactly those terms, but I thought it was really wise.
As attorneys, we’re only there to help manage your case procedurally and to give you strategic advice for how to achieve the goals you’ve set out to achieve. We don’t make the goals, we don’t set the limits – our clients do that.
So, one of the most helpful things I think you can do, as you prepare for a custody case, is to ask yourself what your goals are. If you could design your perfect custodial arrangement, what would it look like? How likely are you to be able to achieve those goals? Is there a little wiggle room?
That’s not to say that you have to be flexible, or that it’s your fault if you can’t be. There are lots of reasons you might fight to the death, so to speak, over custody and visitation – where you might say that enough will never be enough, or that you’ll never agree to give him any more parenting time than you absolutely are forced to allow. That may be completely reasonable, depending on the circumstances. And, hey, even if it’s not reasonable, that may be your choice to make. You may not be able to achieve the results you’re after, but you may not be able to rest easy at night until you’ve tried.
But maybe – just maybe – you don’t want to go that far. You want something that may or may not be possible, and you’re willing to push for it, but you also don’t want to go past a certain point to get it. There’s some flexibility in your approach. It’s worth thinking about what that might look like to you.
An exercise: what if you think to yourself about three different parenting arrangements – one where you have what you want, one where you have what you dread, and one where you have something in the middle. Sit with them. Really consider your life in each of those circumstances. What would you do? What would it look like? Can you name specific advantages and disadvantages?
I’m not saying your worst case scenario will come to pass, but if your worst case scenario is 50/50, maybe you find that it doesn’t sound so bad after all. In most cases, ‘losing’ custody isn’t that common. It’s not like I think most good moms are going to wind up with their child’s father’s having almost 100% of the time. Without some pretty serious bad facts, that’s unlikely and uncommon.
Consider it, though. Talk to your attorney. Talk to your therapist. Watch the ‘Spare the Child’ video. Attend coparenting classes.
There’s no one size fits all, but there is often some wiggle room.