Yours, mine, then yours again
Many divorced couples are trying a more equitable sharing of child-rearing duties. But it's not for all.
Ever since his parents separated nearly two years ago and then divorced, Danny Hechter has become a master of logistics, dividing his time equally between two homes in suburban Minneapolis. Sunday through Tuesday, the seventh-grader lives with his mother, Lynn Sadoff. From after school on Wednesday until Saturday morning, he stays with his father, Rich Hechter. Saturday noon the three meet for Danny's bowling league. Saturday afternoon and evening are flexible.
"We decided on an exact 50-50 split," says Ms. Sadoff, a hospital publicist. "He had very strong relationships with both of us."
Their arrangement makes them part of a growing band of divorced parents trying to create more equitable arrangements to care for their children. Instead of the traditional approach, in which children live full time with one parent - usually the mother - and spend weekends and some holidays with the other parent, these families split their time. Some choose a 30/70 division, while others prefer a 40/60 or 50/50 sharing.
"More and more men are doing more child rearing during the marriage," says Sharyn Sooho, cofounder of Divorcenet.com. "As a result, more men are seeking significant parenting roles after divorce, sometimes asking to be primary residential parents."
No national statistics track the number of parents with shared-parenting arrangements. But Daniel Hogan, executive director of Fathers & Families, an advocacy group in Boston, estimates that joint physical custody is awarded 10 to 30 percent of the time, depending on the state.
"It's increasing," he says.
Eleven states have laws that include some presumption of joint physical custody, Mr. Hogan adds. "Only five states say expressly that it's fine to award joint custody even if one party disagrees. It's always at the discretion of the judge to decide if it's in the best interest of the children."
Even those who generally support shared parenting offer a caveat: Staying with both parents is in the child's best interest "only if it's not dangerous, either physically or emotionally for the child," says Mr. Hechter, a family law attorney.
He finds that shared parenting works best when parents reside in close proximity and in the same school district. He and Sadoff live just eight blocks apart, making it easy for Danny to go back and forth.
Successful arrangements also depend on parents' work schedules, their child-rearing skills, and the ages of the children. "The youngest children need one main home base," says Wendy Allen, a psychotherapist in Santa Barbara, Calif., who works with custody issues.
Some critics argue that many children of all ages need one primary home. Lots of shuttling back and forth can be tough, they say. Supporters counter that having a close relationship with both parents outweighs the disadvantage of two homes.
Some divorced parents actually find that the need to maintain regular contact with each other has helped them to forge a good relationship.
"We've been able to look beyond all the ill will and negative feelings that come up," Hechter says. "Both parents have to put their bitterness behind."
That can be a challenge. "If it's an every-other-weekend thing, you're less involved," says Shari, a mother of two on Long Island who asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her sons' privacy. "If they're going to their dad's house this evening, I have to be in touch with him. It's not easy, when the person you're dealing with is the person you made this enormous break with. It's definitely harder, but for the children's sake I think it's better that they have both parents in their lives."
Her teen sons spend 30 percent of the time with their father and 70 percent with her. Calling her former spouse "a good dad and a good ex-husband," she adds, "Considering the circumstances, this was and is a good solution for the children."
Like many offspring who shuttle between two homes, Shari's boys have two sets of certain possessions, as does Sadoff's son, Danny. "We try to have what he needs at both homes - two computers, two sets of research materials," Sadoff says.
"The child must be very well organized, or Mom and Dad must be willing to communicate well and cart stuff back and forth," says Lisa Cohn of Portland, Ore., who was divorced 14 years ago and has remarried. One recent weekend her 17-year-old son, Travis, realized that his soccer gear was at his father's. "His dad met us at the game with his uniform," Ms. Cohn says.
For them, such meetings are amicable. "Over the years, my ex and I have learned to get along very well," Cohn says. The two sit together at school activities and meet with Travis's teachers together. Last month, when Travis went to his first prom, he dressed at his father's house, then went to his mom's so she could see his first tux.
Not all parents can manage such connections. Isolina Ricci, author of "Mom's House, Dad's House for Kids," refutes a common misperception that shared parenting helps to guarantee that the children will be all right. "It doesn't work that way," she says. "Sometimes it is a very conflicted arrangement. That conflict is not a plus for the children."
Dr. Ricci cautions against what she calls parallel parenting. The parents share child rearing, but she likens them to two separate countries. They do not talk to each other and may not have any conversation about the children. Parents with dissimilar lifestyles can leave children equally confused. At one house, they might stay up until 11 p.m. or later with unlimited TV watching and no homework, Ricci says. The other house might be much more structured, with bedtime at 9 o'clock and limited TV.
"When parents have different lifestyles, when they are unwilling to compromise ... so rules are more consistent, it can be very stressful for children," Ricci says. "It's hard to shift gears."
Although Ricci calls herself a "big supporter" of shared parenting, she cautions that it should not be a catchall for difficult situations. "You can have an old-fashioned parenting arrangement that works just fine."
Ricci sees a push on some fronts for shared parenting to be the norm. But she emphasizes that parents have an obligation "to take very seriously what it's going to take to be an effective parent. It requires more sophistication, more skill."
Some parents who cannot communicate well in person keep in touch by e-mail. Others coordinate children's schedules on special websites.
Even if parents' relationships are strained, Ms. Sooho urges them to make every effort to be pleasant during pickups and dropoffs. "If the parents are reasonably calm during the transitions, if they are mature and gracious, and say 'Hello, how are you?' [to the other parent], children are usually fine with it."
Mr. Hogan expects that in the short run, passing legislation on shared parenting could be "very tough." As fathers'-rights groups become better organized and more vocal, he says, opponents are also gaining strength. But in the long term, he thinks supporters "will gradually be able to convince the legislatures that shared parenting is a good idea."
Last Thursday evening, nearly 200 members of Fathers & Families turned out in Boston for a meeting on the issue. "Without the law behind you, you don't really have shared parenting," said Michael Paolino of Hampton, N.H., a participant.
As attitudes toward postdivorce child rearing change, so does the vocabulary. Instead of "visitation schedule," some divorce lawyers and judges now say "parenting schedule," Sooho says. Rather than "custodial and noncustodial parents," they refer to the "primary residential parent" and the "nonresidential parent."
"The words 'custody' and 'visitation' belong to prisons and hospitals," Ricci says. "This may be useful language for the legal system, but not for families."
By whatever name, these complex arrangements produce varied opinions. Neil Gussman of Philadelphia, who was divorced 10 years ago and is remarried, has two teenage daughters who take a positive view. They leave for school from one parent's house and go home to the other.
"I have asked several times over the years if the girls would like a different arrangement, but so far, seeing both parents nearly every day is very important to them," he says.
Shari is cautious: "My sons do get tired of having two of everything," she says. "I don't think we're really going to know how they perceive it until the storms of adolescence pass. But they see, on a regular basis, how their parents put forth the effort to continue this over what is now a very long time."
Looking back over the past eight years, she adds, "It's been an interesting ride. You have to be really committed to it and be willing to do the work to make it happen. But I think it's worth it."