What is your perspective on the "ideal" child custody arrangements?
February 7, 2013 11:38 AM   Subscribe

While recognizing that I'd like your advice on the principles and best practices of a shared child custody agreement. I currently share both joint and physical custody with my daughter's mother, and things are going just fine, but wondering if you know of any resources (online, written, or your own experiences) to help me consider what is best for my daughter now and in the future, and maybe it can serve as a general resource for other parents' looking to establish positive custody agreements.

Details include: my daughter spends (approximately) equal time with me (and my partner and her son) and with her mother. We live about a mile apart / 5 minute drive, and my daughter is in elementary school a walk from my home. Because of the starting time of our respective jobs, I always take my daughter to school in the mornings, and mom picks her up three of five afternoons, and we split weekends. Without specifically telling you her schedule, this does result in her seeing both of us for at least an hour a day, just about every day. She gets along well with both me and her mother; she has some issues with her stepmom and stepbrother. I also worry sometimes she doesn't get enough sleep (I pick her up pretty early for school). But she does well in school, has a good social life - a good kid.

So in general, this arrangement works. But I'm curious for your advice: what should we consider in a child custody situation like this, to make it really best for her... does having her "come and go" so much have a negative impact? I worry she sometimes feels like she's always traveling in between homes. But I also see great value in having both of us in her daily life. I worry that the understandable challenges in her relationship with the step-fam are exacerbated by this - always feeling like she's coming and going. But I feel like that would be exacerbated if she just "visited" in more solid chunks.

So again, there's no crisis here; I just want some resources and perspectives. Much appreciated!
posted by RajahKing to Human Relations (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You don't have to be physically with her for an hour to be "in her daily life." Change some of the back and forth to a regular bedtime phone call. Or be her soccer coach. Or have that hour on the two days you pick her up from school be an hour with you (not the steps) at a coffee shop where you do homework together and share a slice of cake.

A lot of this will change as her activities change and weekends will be filled with classes and parties and teams and friends as much as they are with you and her mom. Since you live in the same area it will be a bonus to her because it won't matter which house she's at.

Bear in mind that when other people casually talk to her, they won't say "are you at home?" they'll say "are you at your mom's or your dad's?" That's minor to some kids and not minor at all to others.

she has some issues with her stepmom and stepbrother

No school-age kid "has issues" with family members in a vacuum. They're not her issues, they're your family's issues. And your wife and stepson (older?) needs to make sure they're not creating issues for a little kid.

And whatever you do, remember that it's not about you and your ex having equal access to the kid. It's about the kid having access to as much love and affection and guidance as possible, from *all* of the adults in her life.
posted by headnsouth at 11:51 AM on February 7, 2013 [12 favorites]

Hmmm I've been thinking about this lately. I think since you live so close together, it makes it really easy for this arrangement to work and equal custody is a lot less problematic than it might be for people who live even, say, half-hour apart; both of you are presumably close enough to school, friends, etc that she doesn't really have to feel like she lives separate lives. Certainly making a mini-journey every day or so would be exhausting for the child. But I don't know so much if two houses in the same essential neighborhood is so bad... I guess my only concern would be that she feels like she actually has a comfortable "safe place" to go back to at any point, and as long as she has that at both homes (and ideally, her own "stuff" at each home as well) then I think you're good. And as she gets older, she can make more of a choice for herself what she wants to do at any given point (i.e. "I want to go back to mom's house after school today") and have the logistics be pretty simple (five minutes, drive her over). If there was more distance I would feel a little more hesitant about this much switching off. But... I'm not an expert, and I'm curious to see what other people say.
posted by celtalitha at 11:53 AM on February 7, 2013

On preview, what the young rope-rider said.
posted by celtalitha at 11:55 AM on February 7, 2013

I guess the main thing is to be flexible. I think that as children get older they may have less of a need to see each parent every day and more of a need to feel settled in one home or the other for more extended periods--something like an alternating week schedule for older grade school or middle school children, and I've known a few parents who went alternating months even for high school students.
posted by drlith at 12:00 PM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

My daughters have had very similar upbringings, and both are happy, harmonious teens/young adults.
Two things they would recommend: get that stuff with the step-family sorted right away, by adressing it directly. And be careful that you dont become a burden, making her worry wether you are ok.
posted by mumimor at 12:05 PM on February 7, 2013

There is no one arrangement that is best, because every child is different and every situation is different. I do think that parents can agree that the following things are best for all children in any custody arrangement.

1. Both parents respect each other and show that respect in every circumstance.

2. Both parents love the child and demonstrate it regularly.

3. Parents can do social things as a family with the child, even if they aren't 'together'. So joint birthdays, holidays etc. Your child won't feel torn between two families, but part of a big, happy family.

4. Children shouldn't have to deal with adult problems. To that end, don't worry your kids with money, relationship or work problems. That's grown-up stuff.

5. Both parents should be equally involved in the child's school.

You get the idea. Some families live together and have no problems. Some parents are on different continents. The actual physical situation doesn't matter as much as the relationship with the parents and their new partners.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:09 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We have a similar arrangement - my sons were 4 and 5 when their dad and I divorced. They're now (almost) 16 and 17.

During elementary school years, we did something similar to what you are doing; they were with us two nights, with dad two nights, etc etc etc. I did a lot of the school shuttling, because I was physically closer and have a more flexible work schedule.

We worried about the same things you worry about - too much change, to be specific - but it was never any real trouble. My guys were (and are) pretty adaptable. Only weirdnesses were things like "I left my winter coat at dad's." So be prepared for an extra level of difficulty in coordination as they get older and more involved in school stuff. (We found shared Google calendars to be a godsend.)

As for the schedule itself, what we did was to ask them periodically (yearly?) how they felt about the schedule. Was it too much moving around? Did they want a change? About middle school age, they wanted less change, and we went to 3 days/4 days and then in high school, they wanted less again, and now we're on an alternate week plan.

We found the approach of the school year to be a good time to ask. Everything is in flux then anyway, so it seems to be a good time to change things up.

And if you haven't read Mom's House, Dad's House already, it's a good resource.
posted by agentmitten at 12:36 PM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: A couple of things from a former split custody child:

- Moving between houses or beds very rarely felt like a burden. What was problematic was having two separate homes. It was an unspoken rule that my belongings were never to leave the household they were purchased at, including things like clothes. I had to make sure that I retrieved all of the items I arrived with and I still remember the pink bag I used to lug back and forth for years. Waiting awkwardly to be picked up on Christmas morning and having to leave all my new gifts behind was a ridiculous way to live.

- In a morbid way, I was grateful that my father was no longer in my life when I entered high school (he died in an accident). My extra classes, vibrant social life and wholly-engrossing relationship with my first boyfriend left little room for anything else. Our father-daughter relationship would have been strained, to say the least, if he had been around to insist on his mandated visits when all I wanted to do was to eat pizza and play video games with friends at my mom's house.

Obviously, my father is not you. I hope respect her opinion as she grows even though you find you may not agree with it (without guilt trips). This will hopefully give you a better relationship in the long run.

- I never got along well with my step-family. I was endlessly admonished about not giving relative strangers the same love and respect as my existing family (up to calling my new step mother "NAME-Mommy" which in hindsight is horrific). Give her time (and reasons) to respect the people she lives with if you want to foster a real relationship. It will take effort and you may need to be willing to admit that sometimes people never develop deep bonds. (My blood sister and I have never been friends or bonded as "sisters", despite years and years of forced closeness. You really can't predict these things.)

YMMV, but these were a few of the pitfalls of my parents' custody arrangement. I turned out ok, but there are a few significant things I wish I could change.
posted by Vysharra at 12:46 PM on February 7, 2013

Have you considered asking her?

I grew up alternating between France and the US (my father living in the first and my mother the latter). When I was 10 I told my parents that I preferred my life in France and wished to stay put. Parents and professionals absolutely refuse to listen to children in these cases, claiming that they are unable to make these kinds of decisions for themselves (and that asking them to is inappropriate and cruel). So they refused to listen to me, and launched into a vicious custody battle that lasted over 2 years. The conclusion? Joint custody, all over again. But by the time I was 14 (a sophomore in highschool) I insisted I'd be staying put -- which at the time meant living in the US until I graduated. And I did, and was very happy.

I am now 28 years old, and I think I came out all right. I'm emotionally balanced and "on top of my shit". I've always been somewhat precocious in that regard, and it's probably due to increased exposure to people/places/cultures etc. BUT. But... I can objectively say that they should have listened to me when I was little, instead of accusing me of being influenceable (as my mother so often did), and thereby discrediting my opinion. The guilt and the feeling of powerlessness fucked me up more than the irregularity of joint custody.

My suggestion to you: talk to your kid, ask her what she wants. Make sure she knows you love her no matter what she tells you she likes best. Give her time to change her mind. Maybe try and lengthen the alternation periods to one month at a time, test things out. If she has any half siblings, maybe start this test with her living with them. That's my one real regret: getting estranged from my French half sisters during high school in the US. Unless she dislikes her half siblings, in which case she should start out living away from them.

Either way, you are really lucky that you and her mother live so close by, because either way I think she'll be fine.
posted by qzar at 12:50 PM on February 7, 2013

Best answer: You asked about the day-to-day but if you are also looking for holiday suggestions, I highly, highly recommend not alternating holidays at all.

My children were still quite small when their father and I divorced and one thing we really did right was to keep them in the same beds every single Christmas Eve, so that every single Christmas morning has the same memories for them. Their stockings, their tree, their traditions that have built up over time. At his house, their cooking rituals, their tree, their ornaments. It started because his family's Christmas celebration began with a big family dinner at about 3, so by default they spent Christmas Eve/morning with me and Christmas night/Boxing Day with him. We walked to a local lot and brought our tree home in a wagon every year; they went out on his family's farm and chopped down a stinky old cedar. Traditions on both sides.

Our arrangement was for them to spend Thanksgiving with my family every year because we traveled, and Easter with his family every year because they were religious, and (most importantly) Halloween every single year was where their friends were, because that's not a family holiday, it's a kids-having-fun-dressing-up-with-their-friends holiday.

This really worked for my kids. No awkward rearranging of tables because you're sometimes there and sometimes not, or feeling like a guest.
posted by headnsouth at 12:57 PM on February 7, 2013 [5 favorites]

Sounds like you're doing things really well, and have anticipated most of the challenges that I ran into as a split-custody kid. As has been said above, make sure that she has her stuff at both houses, but also that nobody's weird about stuff moving around. It's important that she always have the things she needs, but also that nobody freaks out if a toy or garment that was bought by one parent ends up living at the other parent's house.

In contrast to headnsouth, my parents alternated holidays (one year one parent would have Thanksgiving and the other would have Christmas, the next vice versa), which worked really well for us. Having two big Christmases in one day can be exhausting, and having two Thanksgiving dinners is next to impossible. Our arrangement was also good because I had one set of grandparents who were very far away, and it meant that we could visit them for Christmas some years, since I had spent Thanksgiving with my other parent.

It will probably be a while before this is an issue, and maybe the closeness of your homes will mean it never is, but bear in mind that as she gets older, if she prefers one home, it probably doesn't mean that she prefers that parent, just that it's easier to organize your life if you have one home, and the home that allows you greater access to your friends/school activities/coffeeshops/pets/whatever is likely to be the one that's preferable. My parents live about an hour from each other, and even now (I'm 30) I spend more time when I visit home with the parent who lives in the place I went to school, in part because I still have some friends in that city, while I have almost none in the other city. (Also, there are better restaurants and I can bring my cat, but that's neither here nor there, just an illustration of the way these things can be influenced by factors that are not at all about which parent I'm staying with.)
posted by dizziest at 1:08 PM on February 7, 2013

Best answer: I know this may not be what you want to hear, but I think switching between homes is often really bad for the kid, no matter how well-intentioned the idea might be.

My daughter used to, with the best of intentions, spend some days regularly elsewhere. I didn't realize how much it was hurting her until it stopped. Within a few months of the stability - single home, single rules, etc - she improved radically.

However, if you both agree on rules and don't mind things transferring between houses, this might be much easier.
posted by corb at 1:12 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Profoundly - but respectfully - disagree with corb. The most important thing to a child of that age is the love of and spending quality time with both parents.

The 'single home, single rules' approach corb advocates sounds to me like a recipe for the minimisation of the other parent's role which is, to my mind at least, far more likely to be damaging in the long term.

Sounds like you're doing well and managing to be grown up with your ex. You're lucky to get spend as much time with your child as you do. Suggest you watch what you say about step parent and step sibling. I worry, like headnsouth above, that that's you being reflected back.

Even so though, pat yourself on the back. This is about as well as these things can work and you sound like an excellent, positive parent.
posted by dmt at 1:50 PM on February 7, 2013

I think what corb is describing is situational. Not from my own experience, but from what I've seen in other families, different rules and expectations and constant routine-changing and using discipline or lack thereof as a power play between parents is pretty damaging and that sounds more like what corb means. In that case I can well see how the kid staying put with one stable parent might wind up better for the kid, albeit not ultimately ideal.

I still think the ideal for separated parents though is both of them being there for the child, in whatever capacity possible, and trying to maintain as much consistency and stability and love in the child's life that they can however that winds up looking from the outside.
posted by celtalitha at 2:39 PM on February 7, 2013

Adding to dmt. Everything you write seems good.
Shared custody is a relatively new thing, and formally I don't even have it with my ex - we just act as if. But contrary to a lot of research and advice, it's working very well.
I think it is important that we share most values. We never argue about school or related issues. We live close to each other. And we are true friends, in that we see each other like we do with all other friends. We never, ever involve our kids in adult stuff
posted by mumimor at 2:42 PM on February 7, 2013

Also, children are different. Some really do not do well going from place to place. I know children like this. They freak out on vacations, go crazy on holidays from daycare, start acting out when their bedtime gets switched over by an hour. Some don't really care as long as ("person I love and trust") is there and they have their favorite toys. Some are little bohemians who would wander anywhere, stay anywhere, do anything and not seem to care. This is why I think "listen to the child" (in age-appropriate ways) is always a good idea.

P.S. My own child is one of the ones who thrives on routine. I, by personality, am more of the laid-back bohemian parent, but I have had to realize that my child actually does better when I am more consistent than it is my nature or wont to do. And it's more important for her to be happy and healthy than for me to be "myself" in that aspect.
posted by celtalitha at 2:43 PM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

An alternative note: an old friend of mine has three children. When she and her husband divorced, the kids kept the house! The parents are the ones that trade off weeks at the house. My friend has an apartment in town, and I think her ex-husband stays with his brother when he is not at the Kids House. I don't know how the financials work (I don't think the house is paid off) but it apparently works very well for the kids - especially their autistic son. From what I understand he did NOT take well to going back and forth from Mom's to Dad's. I've never heard of another family doing this, but I can see the advantages.
posted by Elly Vortex at 5:16 PM on February 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I grew up doing split custody (for as long as I can remember). By the time I was in elementary school my parents had a schedule (MT:Dad, WTh:Mom, every other weekend) so we had a pattern of 2 days, 2days, 5 days, 5days. The best thing about that was that friends could learn the pattern and know where to call us (I usually just wrote the schedule down along with both phone numbers). So I highly recommend having a clear day of the week schedule that you can hand out along with contact info. When I was in high school we switched to doing full weeks at each house and it was actually harder -- more consequences to forgetting things at the other house. I also had a harder time going back and forth after my sister went to college, and eventually just picked a house to stay at. Seconding that it's nothing personal, it's just hard to move as a lifestyle. And much harder if you're the only one moving.

The more you can agree on routines to keep between houses (such as when bedtime is) the better. For years I had horrible insomnia at my Dad's house and I didn't realize until I was grown up that he set bedtime much earlier than my Mom. And if you can either celebrate holidays together or truly trade them off, that is so much easier than having to celebrate everything twice.

It helps to have duplicates of as much as possible. So if she likes art, markers and paper and stickers at both houses. There will always be some things that move back and forth, but the fewer things that have to, the better.

I'd recommend trying family counseling for the issues with step-mom and step-brother. Issues at the start can linger for years.
posted by Margalo Epps at 6:25 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I spent a few months in 50/50 split custody before my father passed away. I was 16, my siblings were 12 and 10. We found it MUCH easier to do a one week at dad's, one week at mom's, routine. The other parent would still help shuttle kids to activities after school and we lived within walking distance of the elementary school (I bused to my high school) so that process was fairly easy. I liked this routine because it let us settle into a weekly routine depending on each house and I find it a lot easier to process larger chunks of time like this rather than a jerky day by day change. If your daughter likes your current routine, by all means stick to it, but I was adamant about this schedule when given the choice.

Try to set identical rules at both homes, particularly about bed time, TV time, friends coming/sleeping over, etc. Let her have HER stuff that can go to whatever house she wishes and be understanding when she leaves something necessary at the other house by accident - this might alleviate feelings about not having anything that's hers. Check in with her about what she wants fairly frequently, especially when she has mood shifts or seems stressed. Don't treat her problems with step-fam as problems that don't involve you - you put her in this situation, you deal with it actively.

It also helped to be completely secure in the knowledge that our rooms were OURS. Our parents wouldn't go into them (unless absolutely necessary) on weeks we weren't there. They wouldn't clean or move or touch anything. We were allowed to decorate them as we wanted and chose different "themes" for the two houses to make them feel different instead of as bad copies of each other. My brother and I even shared a room at our dad's and that was fine.
posted by buteo at 9:43 AM on February 8, 2013

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