With the divorce rate increasing steadily over the past 10 years, it’s no surprise that children must learn to adjust to living with one parent while “visiting” the other. Whether justified or not, 84 percent of custody battles are decided in favor of the mother. Where does this leave Dad?
“The feeling of being an outsider in the day-to-day lives of your children can be very painful,” says Lowell R. Dillon, president of Ashby/Dillion advertising and non-custodial father. As with most non-custodial fathers, Dillon has visitation with his children according to a schedule ordered by the courts.
These visitation schedules range in allotted time from a few hours a week to alternating weekends. In most cases, child support is ordered and it is not uncommon for visitation to be severed if it is not paid. While helping to support the child is important, money should be secondary to personal contact and a relationship between father and child.
In a divorce involving children and custody, parents should remember that the children are going to suffer as well. Parents, both custodial and non-custodial, should attempt to make the transition from a two-parent household to parents in two households as easy as possible.
Should Visitations be Entertainment or Everyday Life?
One common mistake that non-custodial fathers make is thinking they need to “entertain” their children during visitation. In all reality, children from divorced families want to know they are still important to both parents.
Kimberly Hemmell, a 16-year-old student from Richmond, Va., explains. “My dad would buy me and my brother new toys, take us to eat and to the park every time we were with him for visitation. He gave us whatever he could, whenever we wanted it. The thing is, we didn’t want it. We wanted him. We wanted his attention and his love, not his money. Giving gifts is not a replacement for telling someone you love them. That’s all we wanted, well at least all I wanted. I wanted him to tell me that even though he and Mom didn’t love each other, he still loved me.”
Non-custodial fathers learn the idea that buying love doesn’t work through their own trial and error. “Initially I went through a period of wanting to really entertain [my children],” says Dillon. “There was a strong desire to make the time be the ‘best visitation ever.’ Maybe I was really trying to win back their love. Over time, however, I realized I couldn’t win back their love through entertainment, etc. I realized that if they were going to be close to me, it would have to be on their own terms. Visitations have become more normal over time. We do regular things like chores and grocery shopping. This is a much better way to handle it, plus it is easier to help them feel comfortable in my new life at [my] home.”
It’s important for a non-custodial father to set boundaries and rules for his “new” home just as he did before divorce. Having a regular routine including rules and restrictions allows children a constant level of stability whether with the mother or father. Pennsylvania State University researchers Paul Amato and Joan Gilbreth published a report based on their research on non-custodial fathers. In the report, Amato and Gilbreth wrote, “Children whose non-resident fathers listened to their problems, gave them advice, provided explanations for rules, monitored their academic performance, helped with their homework, engaged in mutual projects and disciplined them, were significantly more likely to do well at school and to evidence greater psychological health compared to children whose fathers mostly engaged them in recreational activities, such as going out to dinner, taking them on vacations and buying them things.”
Keeping a Civil Relationship With Your Ex
Accompanying many divorce proceeding and custody battles are some common mistakes parents may make. These include inquiring about the other parent’s personal life (“pumping for information” about the other parent), being too strict with the visitation schedule, arguing about or in front of the children and comparing material objects and items between the parents.
According to Geoffrey Greif, author of The Daddy Track, these behaviors can burden the relationship of the children with both parents. “Parents that play children against the other parent are building a wall between themselves and their children,” says Greif. “Children will begin to get uncomfortable with being questioned regarding their parents’ actions and will begin to make excuses for not wanting to talk with their parents or be in their company.”
Taking the Time to Have a Meaningful Relationship
Non-custodial dads can often think that the time with their children is too little to create or keep a meaningful relationship. However, making the most of the time allotted and allowing children to talk about their feelings are both very important in the preservation of that father/child relationship.
Dillon, offering advice to non-custodial fathers, says, “It is important to keep a connection with even the most distant of daughters and sons. Resist the urge to write them off or drive a wedge between you and them and sink hopes for a future relationship. Even the best divorce is tough on children. Being patient with your children is also important. They have to find a level of comfort over the divorce. There is no set time table for this to occur.”
Other Part-time Custody Options
Options are available for non-custodial fathers. With new techniques and plans for custody issues, the courts have developed “shared parenting” and “joint parenting” agreements in an attempt to equalize a child’s time with both parents. This option can be discussed with an attorney, a court magistrate or even with the custodial parent.
The shared or joint custody plans may offer a non-custodial father the chance to increase his time and interaction with his children while allowing them to continue their relationship with the other parent. The important issues continue to be the children and the relationships that both parents have with them.
“I love my dad,” says Hemmell. “No matter where he lives, with my mom or in his own house, he is still my dad. It’s not about anything else but keeping my relationship with him. We have to let each other know how much we mean to each other and that we love each other. That’s what is important. He divorced my mom, not me.”
Daddy’s House: When Fathers Are Awarded Full Custody of Their Children
In the past five years, the ratio of marriages ending in divorce has risen from two-in-five to three-in-five. Of the marriages that end in divorce, 88 percent involve at least one child, resulting in a custody battle. Traditionally, it was assumed that children whose parents were divorced lived primarily with their mother.
However, the number of fathers who are awarded full custody of their children has risen from 7.5 percent in 1995 to 15 percent today, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census.
A generation ago, parents who were experiencing marital trouble would stifle their feelings and remain married “for the sake of the children.” This trend has changed tremendously. Another trend that has changed relates to parental custody of the children. More fathers are now fighting for full custody of their children when a divorce occurs.
“I supported my children during the entire marriage,” says father Carlton Stell. “Just because their mother and I couldn’t live together doesn’t mean I don’t and can’t live with my children. I want them with me and feel they should be with me. I guess I was right, because they are with me.”
Stell’s experience with the domestic court may not be the common one, but is quickly gaining ground. With fathers requesting and fighting for custody rights, the domestic courts of the country are beginning to listen and go against the old standard.
According to Geoffrey Greif, associate dean at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, “Most fathers are awarded custody by mutual agreement or by the mother turning over custody of the children. It wasn’t so much that there was a battle. In fact battles over children which result in fathers getting custody are much more rare than the mother just agreeing that the father should have custody of the child. Additionally, the children may pick the father, for whatever reason, so more and more dads are getting custody of their kids.”
Other situations in which fathers may be awarded custody are when the father has been determined to be the better parent, have a more financially secure environment, the mother has abandoned the children or the mother wants to pursue a career.
“Getting custody wasn’t as easy as it sounds,” says Stell. “I had re-evaluate my hobbies and interests as well as my old way of thinking. The hobbies and outside interests changed when I decided I wanted my kids to remain with me. The things I do now are whatever my kids do and my main interest is them. I still have my own time, friends and outside activities, but I honestly would rather be with my kids.”
Making the Transition to a One-Parent Household
Divorce can be very stressful on children, especially if a custody battle is involved. Fathers who are awarded custody also are given the task of making the transition from a two-parent household to a one-parent household less frightening and uncomfortable for their children. This is not always easy.
Depending upon the circumstances of the divorce, the issue of transition from one situation to another can be quite complicated. “A lot is going to depend upon the reason the father is raising the children and the age of the child as to how a father can lessen the stress of the situation,” says Grief. “The circumstances are going to help set the stage a little bit for things a parent should do and whether or not the mother is still staying involved with the child will also be another reason to look at in terms of what kind of interventions are best.
“Regardless of reasons, the father has to present himself as a secure, solid person who should not overly burden his child with out-of-control emotions that he might have related to either the break up of the relationship or having custody of the child. If his behavior is inconsistent or unpredictable, if he is too emotionally upset, it is going to make it hard for the child who is looking to him for security and for reassurance to have a smooth adjustment.”
Back to a “Normal” Life
A famous movie, Kramer vs. Kramer, offers a look into a father’s plight of making a life for his child in the absence of the mother. Greg Hawkins of Worthington, Ohio says, “I didn’t really think anything about the movie until it actually happened to me. My wife left. My two boys and I were alone. I was scared and didn’t know what to do. So, for my boys, I continued to do what we always did. We went to the grocery store, did homework, took baths and read bedtime stories. It was hard for a while, but we managed. Now, the kids see their mom once a month for a few hours and they are learning to deal with us not being together.”
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding a marriage, fathers have come to learn that they, too, can obtain full custody and offer a stable, secure life for their children. The numbers of fathers that want, request and are awarded full custody of their children after divorce increases yearly — with no end in sight.
“I’m proud to be a father,” says Hawkins. “When people ask me where the boys’ mother is, I tell the truth, I have custody. I get all kinds of looks and comments but I always answer with the same thing, ‘Why shouldn’t I have custody? I am their father.'”
Shared Parenting With Your Ex : Putting the Kids First
When a couple divorces, it’s natural to have negative feelings. If the divorce was a difficult one, lingering feelings of resentment may make communication difficult. You may feel like you never want to see your ex again. But when there are children involved, you can kiss that wish goodbye.
You’ll have to negotiate custody, support, visitation and major and minor events in your children’s lives. “For some people, having ongoing contact with their former partner is very hard,” says Jeannie Piekos, who runs the Family Education program at Chrysalis, A Center for Women, in Minneapolis, and coordinates programs for divorcing families. “But there are still doctor appointments, recitals and parent-teacher conferences. While the best advice is to be mature and adult about it, this is not always easy. The essential thing to remember is that both parents are important and valuable to their children.”
Drew Morris* found having to be around his ex-wife, Julie, very painful. After Julie* left him for another man, Drew had to deal with feelings of hurt, anger and betrayal. Working out the joint custody arrangement was difficult. “I still loved Julie, and I also hated her,” he says. “I couldn’t stand to be in the same room with her, but at the same time, I missed our life together.”
Drew avoided situations where he and Julie were together. “Instead of calling Julie about arrangements to pick up or drop off the kids, I’d send messages through the kids. And sometimes I’d say things like, ‘Tell your Mom if she’s not too busy with her boyfriend, she can pick you up at six.’ I refused to communicate with Julie directly.” It took an emotional scene with his 8-year-old daughter for him to see how his feelings were affecting his children.
“I told Dana that I couldn’t come to her school play, and she started to cry,” Drew recounts. “She said that she wanted me to be there, that she wanted both her mom and me to be there. I realized that my behavior was hurting the kids. It took a lot of work on my part to be able to be comfortable around Julie and her new boyfriend. But I kept reminding myself that my kids had been through a lot and that they needed both their parents. Whatever problems we have, she’s still their mom.”
Piekos couldn’t agree more. “It is imperative to allow your child to continue to love without exception both parents,” she says. “Not putting your children in the middle of your battles with your ex-spouse is critical. Communicating directly and effectively with the other parent will take the burden off your child and place responsibility with those who should have it: the parents.”
Eric Korten and Sara Bickdorf figured this out early on. When they divorced, they agreed on a joint custody arrangement. While their daughter, Jenny, missed having both Mom and Dad there, she also told her parents that she was relieved to have peace from the constant conflict between the two of them. “The last year of our marriage was pretty much nonstop fighting,” Eric says. “It seemed like anything would set us off. I was so absorbed in fighting with Sara that I never realized how unhappy Jenny was.”
Sara, an elementary school teacher, says that having space and separate lives makes things easier. “For example, Eric is really messy,” she says. “Well, I don’t have to deal with that because I don’t live with him. On the other hand, he’s devoted to Jenny. And we are determined to both be in her life. We have agreed that no matter how hard it is, we won’t criticize each other to Jenny. I have seen how it tears kids up when their parents try to get them to take sides. If Eric and I have an issue, we solve it between us, and not in front of Jenny. Jenny sees that we care about her enough to keep her out of our arguments. She witnessed enough of that when we were married!”
Piekos thinks that this kind of agreement is crucial to the children’s well-being. “It is easy to get caught up in games and egos,” she says. “It is difficult to make unilateral sacrifices. Just remember: the better you communicate and resolve issues with your ex-spouse, the better adjusted and happier your child will be.”
Common Parenting Conflicts for Divorced Families
According to Jeannie Piekos, these are the most common conflicts in shared parenting:
- Disneyland Parenting: This happens when the non-custodial parent doesn’t do the hard work of parenting. Because this parent spends less time with the child, he or she doesn’t want that time to be consumed with parenting issues like discipline and homework. Piekos says that children are smart enough to figure out that this isn’t real parenting. If the parents are able to discuss this issue, this is an option, as is waiting to see if things change over time (they often do).
- Different Rules in Different Parents’ Homes: If there is no physical or emotional abuse or neglect involved, it is best not to worry about the house rules at the other parent’s house. When confronted by a child decrying injustice because some rule is not that way at Mom’s, your only response should be to reiterate the rules at your house and let your child know clearly what is negotiable and what is not.
- Blended Families Can Be a Challenge: It is important to have faith in the bond you share with your child and not feel threatened by relationships your child may have with your ex’s new partner. If you act too defensive or curious about your ex-partner’s new date, you may be sending your child a very different message than you intended. Healthy adult relationships are important to your child. A child may talk a lot about a new person in their other parent’s life. It is best to keep your responses focused on your child. Saying such things as, “It sounds like you really like Dan,” or “You seemed to have a lot of fun biking with your mom and Dan,” will allow your child to see new relationships as non-threatening and healthy. Although this may be hard for you to do, again, it is in the best interest of your child.
- Wanting Nothing to Do With Your Ex: Children will be happier and will better adjust to their changing family if they see that their parents can be in the same room together. The children will not stop needing both Mom and Dad just because the parents no longer love each other. Even if you have to grit your teeth to get through it, it will be worth it for your child to see that the two adults she/he loves best can still communicate and be present when it is important.
- Putting Your Child in the Middle: The important piece here is to never expect your child to communicate for you. If you ever catch yourself saying, “Tell your mom …” try to find a better way. Even the simplest messages can make your child feel like they have been “put in the middle,” not to mention that what actually gets communicated might be a lot different than what you intended.
- Difficulty With Shared Decision-Making: Although there are a number of divorces that result in joint legal and physical custody, it is more common for one parent to have physical custody and for both parents to share legal custody. Legal custody addresses education, religion and medical care. Hence the really important decisions should be shared (another reason to keep those communication lines open and operational!).
Communication is Key
How parents decide to communicate on important matters is subject to personal style and how much they can stand being together. For some parents this is hardly an issue, and phone calls and conversations happen easily. For others, it might be easier to write or e-mail or even let your voicemail boxes handle the bulk of conversation.
In really difficult cases, parents may need to talk with a mediator present. Normally, mediators are used early in the divorce process to work through some of the tough issues. However, it is not uncommon to meet with a mediator years after divorce to iron out sticky issues.
*Name changed to protect the individual’s privacy