Learning to cope -- when a parent gains custody by default, not by design

THE number of fathers actively seeking custody of their children in divorce cases is rising, and proponents are outspoken in stating the case for their right to raise their children. But there are also many fathers who become custodial parents by default rather than by design. Like the father in ``Kramer vs. Kramer,'' they may feel totally unprepared for their new role, and their lives may have to undergo many adjustments before they experience a sense of security and accomplishment.

Abel Mora of Framingham, Mass., is one such single father. For the past nine years, he has raised his son, Kishon, by himself. The closeness, shared interests, and well-ordered life they have established have evolved over the years out of Mr. Mora's sense of commitment, compromise, and caring. But it didn't come easily at first.

``When we were in the process of getting divorced,'' says Ecuadorian-born Mr. Mora, ``Kishon was given to me. He was two and a half. My ex could not take care of him, so she called me and said, `Next Saturday when you come to see him, just come and pick him up.'

``I really ended up with something that I didn't quite expect. There were a lot of things I had to learn.''

Although at first Mr. Mora tried to take care of his small child, hold down a job during the day, and go to school at night, he soon found that he simply couldn't cope. The solution proved to be placing Kishon in an informal ``foster'' home in a nearby suburb. The three years he spent with this family -- with visits from his father every weekend -- were happy ones for Kishon. Now 13, he remembers his foster family fondly and occasionally stays with them when his father is away.

Kishon's mother, on the other hand, has played no role at all in his upbringing. ``She comes by seasons,'' says Mr. Mora. ``Sometimes in the spring she used to make contact. She'd see him two or three times, and then she'd disappear.''

Over the years, Mr. Mora and his son have discovered that they have many interests in common. The basement of their house is a testament to the pleasure they take in joint activities. Aside from containing a washer and dryer and an orderly array of laundry baskets full of clothes, the area is a workshop, where they build and repair things and where the mechanically minded Kishon works on his ``inventions.'' And arranged neatly under the workbench are four pairs of ski boots, two each for downhill and cross-country skiing.

Would Kishon have wanted his father to marry again?

``Yes and no'' he replies. ``If my father was busy, then I could talk to my mother. But I think all of these years we get along good and I get a lot of good things. I get to go hiking and camping and boating, learn how to sail, and I got an organ.''

Does Mr. Mora feel that his life has been inhibited by bringing up his child?

``Oh yes, definitely,'' he says. ``I'm sure that when you talk to any man or woman who has children the answer is the same. You take the joys and you take the sorrows with them, and there's been probably as many joys as sorrows. I suppose more joys. But quite often there have been instances in which you wish you didn't have to be in that situation.

``For instance, every so often you may have a week or a weekend in which the child is a little more active than usual and you wish you could go out, maybe Sunday night. And that Sunday night comes and you have a baby sitter lined up, but at the last minute the baby sitter calls and says she can't come and you can't get another baby sitter. But as time goes by you learn more and more what you can do. You learn that if you really want to go someplace you should plan way in advance and you should also have a backup baby sitter if one babysitter is going to fail.''

But in spite of such occasional frustrations, Mr. Mora decided long ago that Kishon's welfare is his top priority.

``Right now I believe that I have another very important -- perhaps 10 years which are concerned with my child's development. I think that I'd rather sacrifice whatever I can now to have him be a really balanced and productive adult, and then later worry about other things.

``There have been some temptations as to whether I could pack up and get a better position and move to a different area -- but I always thought, that can come later. As it is right now, I'm also going back to school for a master's degree in business administration. I can do that here. But I delayed that intentionally for quite a while because I wanted to make sure I wasn't taking time away from the time I owe him. The child comes first.''

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