"Daddy lets us stay up till 11! "
"Mommy never makes us do all that! "
"Daddy blamed me for the whole thing! "
"Mommy talks on the phone too much! "
Much of what has been written on joint custody of children in a divorce has had relatively few years of experience behind it. However, now that more divorcing couples are trying joint custody, firsthand knowledge can be offered concerning its advantages and disadvantages.
My joint custody experience, involving several years of switching two girls, now teen-agers, back and forth weekly, has made me aware of some important interaction patterns, emotional pitfalls and definite strengths of joint custody.
Joint custody is neither desirable, appropriate, nor feasible for some families for a variety of reasons. But for those parents who have been able to maintain a friendly, or at least courteous, relationship with one another, and who have worked out logistical problems of location, transportation, and scheduling, it can be a satisfactory arrangement.
Joint custody presents some unique and challenging problems, but with a cooperative and flexible attitude on the part of both parents, many problems can be minimized or solved relatively easily.
With frequent and constant changing from one house to the other, parents may worry that children will feel confused and shuffled around. Or they may worry that children will not accept one or the other parent's home.
It is my experience that children adapt more easily than one might expect and come to accept the arrangement as quite normal, often within several months. Younger children may even enjoy the ritual, activity and decision-making associated with packing a small suitcase or bag with clothing and favorite toys to take "to Mommy's" (or "Daddy's").
Older children incorporate this as just another part of their routine with the accompanying nonchalance or resignation typical of their age group. It is much more important to children to know that the reason for these physical transfers is that they are wanted and loved by both parents equally than to worry about any inconvenience associated with the switching.
It also is crucial for children to see that they are not being used as pawns in emotional arguments between the parents. This burden, borne with great pain and frustration by many children of divorce, is one which may victimize them insidiously by forcing them to give loyalty to one parent or the other. While this may not be explicit, a child may perceive the need to take sides to avoid being caught in the middle. Joint custody can greatly diffuse this situation by providing both parents with equal rights and responsibilities.
One potential problem area in a joint custody situation concerns different behavior standards, values and routines in each parental home. When children spend equal time in two places, they also must incorporate and adapt to two life styles. These can be, and often are, extremely different from one another.
While different habits and standards may be confusing to the very young child, it is my experience and belief that school-aged children not only are able to accept these differences, but also to understand them.
Attempts to carry tales between homes undoubtedly will occur from time to time, and all parents, together or not, must be aware of this tendency and refuse to be drawn into such manipulations. It's helpful for both parents to keep in mind that some interactive issues do not concern them and are not their problem. These should be left to the involved parties to solve without interference.
The point is for the uninvolved parent to be helpful and supportive without being drawn in, and to convey confidence that the child and the other parent will be able to work out their difficulties. This mindset is especially helpful to those "superparents" who tend to accept too much responsibility for smooth family functioning.
In a joint-custody arrangement, as in an intact family, it occasionally may be necessary or desirable for the parents to confer about a particular child or about all of the children. Open discussion of problem areas, concerns, observations and reasons for actions taken can do much to clear up any misunderstandings and misconceptions and to cement the knowledge that both parents want only good for their children and are doing their best in this regard.
Another potential problem in joint-custody situations involves coping with the half-time opportunities and responsibilities of two homes, especially as these relate to friends, pets, toys, chores and the like. It can be hard for children to maintain regular access to neighborhood friends, the family dog or favorite possessions when they must live in two homes. They also must handle the double responsibilities of cleaning their rooms or doing dishes at two places instead of one.
Some of these issues have no easy solution, but others can be dealt with so that their impact is less intimidating. Solving these dilemmas effectively requires attitudes of cooperation and willingness to go the extra mile on the part of both parents and children if the solutions are to remain workable and permanent.
For example, in our family, the dog goes back and forth with the children weekly, while one cat stays at Dad's and another cat at Mom's. This works well for all, as the children want the dog with them, the dog cares more about the people anyway, and the cats care more about place and territory.
Friends are less of a problem, as children are resourceful and usually can manage to get together somehow. Between finding someone to drive, using public transportation, riding their bicycles, roller-skating, or even walking, children are not often isolated from their friends because of the particular house they go to on any given week.
Toys, clothes and possessions can be a big problem, however, since the contents of a household or bedroom obviously cannot be transported back and forth in toto. No matter how organized and responsible anyone is, there always is something that is forgotten, some item that is "at the other house" when it is needed.
The first step in dealing with such occurrences is to instill in the children responsibility for their own things. The second is to help them organize and get in the habit of thinking ahead. But even after the system has become second nature, and forgetfulness is at a minimum, the inevitable still will happen. When it does, parent and child must decide together which of two alternatives will predominate--to do without the article, or to make an effort to get it from the other home.
Successful handling of such crises depends to some degree on awareness of the stresses everyone feels, and willingness to make an occasional extra effort. Experiencing the natural consequences that ensue when something is forgotten lessens considerably the frequency of reoccurrence. Though flexibility is important, so also is learning by consequence.
One not-to-be minimized advantage of joint custody, and one especially true when the children are teen-agers, is that at regular intervals, both parent and child legitimately can enjoy a short break from one another. The turbulence of adolescence often is difficult for child and parent; in many homes, tension and bickering are the order of the day. A few days or a week in a different environment with a different parent personality can do much to facilitate a cooling of tempers.
The change of scene also provides a chance to reflect and to put things in more reasonable perspective. After there have been clashes or problems with one parent in charge, going to the other parent's home also affords the child an opportunity, if desired, to talk about the issues and to sound out the other parent's attitudes and reactions.
Parent No. 2, however, must carefully avoid taking sides or in any way intensifying a conflict: Advice rarely is received well unless it is asked for, and often not even then.
A whole new set of problems may arise when additional people are taken into account in a joint-custody situation. These others may include relatives, friends, and, of course, a new partner of either parent whose role and position may not be entirely clear. A special set of problems accompanies the entrances and exits of these individuals into and out of joint-custody family groups.
Solutions are not always readily apparent and may require considerable effort. The attitudes, value systems, ages and developmental stages of children, economic circumstances, emotional climate, degree of maturity, personalities, needs, and feelings of all concerned must be considered.
But despite the pitfalls and problems of joint custody, it can be a genuinely workable, acceptable and satisfying life style.