Do you really win or lose child custody in Virginia?

Last week, I wrote an article about dads in response to a really interesting TED talk I listened to recently. It’s not that often that I come across content so closely aligned with what I do, and I always think that it’s both interesting and instructive to listen to what the other side (in this case, another family law practitioner, but one who represents men only) has to say about the shifting dynamics in family courts.

This TED talk, though interesting, was a sort of pie in the sky piece about how dads are important for kids, and how kids who don’t have present dads really struggle later on in life. One of my points, in my earlier post, was that it might be less about whether or not a dad is present and more about whether a mom gets what she needs, economically, out of a divorce settlement. Studies have shown that single mothers, especially single mothers of color, are more likely to be below the poverty line – and the children that grow up in those homes suffer the same fates that the kids with no dads suffer. Is it the absence of a dad, or the presence of poverty, that harms children?  (And that both of those things ignore the damage that two very unhappy parents inflict upon the children that live with them!)

It’s probably both, to varying degrees, but my main point was that a mom shouldn’t neglect to use the time to prepare for a divorce, to understand her rights and entitlements under the law, and to never fail to advocate for herself, especially when her ability to provide for her children is directly dependent on it.

A good dad is good, but there are many other dads out there who are not good. It’s not that a dad – any dad – is better for children. So, although the TED talk makes good points, I do think that it over simplifies a really complicated issue.

I’m not an anthropologist or a economist or a pediatrician or a child development specialist. I’m a family law attorney so, at the end of the day, I’m really only qualified to give my thoughts on the divorce and custody system (and, even then, only in Virginia), and how it impacts families and children.

I came across an article the other day that I thought was really interesting. I shared it on our Facebook page right away, but wanted to share some more things as well. In case you haven’t read it yet, I’ll link to it here.

The main premise of the article is that assuming that mom will be responsible for the majority of the childrearing responsibilities after divorce is anti-feminist. Though most moms think of having the most time with the kids a major win – and, admittedly, it gets harder and harder to get primary physical custody all the time – it’s holding them back.

When it comes to a mom’s ability to be successful at work (again, that economic component), having the children all the time, and bearing almost sole responsibility for them, holds her back. It also assumes a “mom as caretaker” and “dad as breadwinner” dynamic that most of us don’t really want to model for our children. Most of us believe that a man and a woman should take on more equal roles within a home, so it stands to reason that the same logic would apply even when the nuclear family unit breaks down. Just because dad lives over there and mom lives over here doesn’t mean mom should still be saddled with 90% of the work, right?

It overly burdens the mother, creates a difficult coparenting dynamic (because, come on, who doesn’t feel rage at a child’s other parent who isn’t pulling his weight?), and the child support obligation doesn’t really offset this. (Not to mention that going back to work doesn’t necessarily decrease the child support you receive!)

Though this may be the furthest thing from your mind at this point, it also makes romantic relationships and even friendships more difficult to maintain. While dad has time to engage in these non-kid-related pursuits, a mom who has the children the majority of the time does not.

So, how do you feel about your custodial schedule? What would an ideal scenario look like to you?

I think it’s true that we do have to let go of the ‘mom as mother goddess’ dynamic. It’s not really a real thing, and it’s harmful — to moms who feel they can’t live up, and to dads who then don’t even try. We beat ourselves up when we don’t live up to what we think a mother should be, and it deprives a dad of the opportunity (and obligation!) of providing caregiving. It shows our daughters what we probably don’t want for them, and our sons that women should bear the weight of it all.

I haven’t had a client ever express this exact sentiment to me. Most moms tell me that they want all the time they can possibly have. And, if I’m being honest, that’s probably what I would say, too, if it were me. But this woman, and this article, makes some excellent, and incredibly compelling points, and they definitely bear considering.

 

Another point in her favor, I think, is that the divorce isn’t fresh. She’s not grappling with the idea of divorce AND being quite so articulate; she’s got the benefit of several years of distance and experience with a different coparenting dynamic that didn’t work for her.

I’m not saying that you know immediately what you want to see as far as custody and visitation are concerned, but it’s worth considering the possibility that, as a woman and as a mother, you might be happier, better, and more successful if you set up a different framework. The article says it’s good for dads – frankly, that’s not my concern – as well as good for kids, too. If it’s possible for everyone to be happier and healthier, then it certainly is worth at least mentioning.

Maybe it’s not the solution for you. Maybe you’re just not there yet. Maybe you really are a mother goddess (will you teach me your secrets?) and it’s really better for everyone if you just do what you were meant to do, because you’re awesome at it. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ in divorce and custody, but there are different ways of thinking about the same problem.

You’re not less of a woman or less of a mother if you share 50/50 parenting time. It doesn’t mean you’ve lost. In fact, if you read this article, it might mean you’ve won – maybe even in more ways than you can imagine right now.

I admit, this is a new way of thinking for me – empowerment for women through more egalitarian parenting plans. Of course, this is assuming that dad is a good guy, not an abuser, not a drug or alcohol user, not suffering from undiagnosed or untreated mental illness, or a total deadbeat, so I’m not suggesting at all that it applies to all people in all situations. Just that it’s a different way of looking at things.

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