Two houses, One home

Most children rank summer as the best time of the year. School's out, the pool's open, and ice cream becomes part of the daily diet. But for some children of divorced parents, the season may also include a temporary move to their other parent's home or some tweaking of the school-year visitation schedule.

Such a change doesn't have to be problematic. Take it from soon-to-be fourth grader Zack Ewing, who earlier this month went camping for a week with his dad. It was a last-minute idea that wasn't built into the schedule his parents had already set up. But Zack's mother, Shawn Lowe, was happy to let him go, even though it meant rejiggering her plans.

Flexibility and cooperation are key to the success of any joint-custody arrangement, say the experts. Zack is just one of thousands of children across America whose parents share custody, both physical and legal, of their child. As adults continue to separate or divorce, joint custody is an option often chosen by those who want equal time with the child, equal participation in his or her life, and equal opportunity to make decisions regarding the child's welfare.

Children as top priority

But a 50/50 arrangement isn't for everyone, says Judith Wallerstein, renowned author of several books on the American family and founder of the Judith Wallerstein Center for Families in Transition in San Francisco. "Joint custody is extremely difficult," says Mrs. Wallerstein. "For it to work, parents have to make their children top priority - often amid a changing cast of characters," says Wallerstein, "And," she adds, "joint-custody parents remain intimately connected to one another. This can be especially difficult if you are trying to forge other relationships." It also takes a certain type of child - one that is adaptable, organized, and emotionally strong, Wallerstein says.

It hasn't always been easy for Mr. Ewing and Ms. Lowe, who divorced six years ago when Zack was 2-1/2. After many "fits and starts" in the early days, however, they got through one of the biggest hurdles: deciding where to live. At first, they were shuttling Zack from one home to the other and to school via the heavily trafficked Los Angeles freeway. It sometimes took hours. They quickly realized this wasn't good for anyone, especially Zack. But neither parent wanted to move. They finally agreed to give up both of their homes for new ones no more than three miles apart. This way, Zack could go back and forth easily, and he wouldn't have to miss birthday parties, play dates, and other important events with his school pals.

Zack now spends half of his time with his mom and half with his father and stepmother, Lois. And in some ways, he is the envy of his peers. He has two bedrooms full of toys, two computers, and two TVs. But even he realizes having twice as much stuff as his friends isn't the bottom line. "Best of all," says Zack, "is that I get to see a lot of both my mom and my dad."

When Lois Ewing, Zack's stepmom, entered the picture three years ago, she was impressed with the parents' cooperative spirit. But, she says, they hadn't yet worked out a schedule, so she became "the logistics person." She helped iron out a schedule that they all have stuck to: Zack spends every Wednesday and Thursday night, every other Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night, and every school-day morning with his dad and stepmom and the remaining time with his mother.

"This wasn't entirely unselfish," she says. "A predictable schedule helped make my life much easier, too." Now home during the days with their 18-month-old daughter, Lois is the one who's there for Zack in the afternoons.

With 75 percent of divorced parents remarrying, the stepparent is often crucial to a harmonious home life for the child. "A stepparent can be an amazing middleman if the biological parents have decided to cooperate," says Ms. Ewing. But stepparents may have to first insist on a few ground rules, she adds, mostly that they are included in all major discussions regarding the child. Ewing definitely has a voice in raising Zack. All three adults in his life attend school conferences and meet to discuss issues as they come up. They have such close ties that Lois and Scott call Shawn "our ex-wife."

Of course, not all divorced adults get along so well. And the Ewing/Lowe relationship has taken time to evolve. Standards of discipline and order still differ slightly in the two households. And they still experience an occasional snafu, like when Zack "leaves all his pants at his dad's, and it's the middle of winter," says Ms. Lowe.

Keeping track of everything - from toothbrushes to homework, can sometimes be challenging for kids who shuttle between two homes. This is one reason Sandy and Amy Chervenak are glad their parents live less than a mile apart in Brimfield, Colo. They can bike back and forth to get forgotten backpacks or pajamas.

Stick to one schedule

Unlike Zack's parents who stick to the same schedule most of the school year, Dick Chervenak and his ex-wife, Lynele Jones, negotiate it weekly. This allows for up-to-the-minute flexibility, but it can also be a bit too loose at times. "When my friends ask where should I call you tonight, sometimes I have to tell them I just don't know," says Sandy, who's going into the seventh grade. This doesn't bother her older sister. "They just call both places. And e-mail helps."

Most of the time these sisters stick to one schedule, living with mom and dad on the same days. But one of the perks of this arrangement, says Amy, is that when both parents are home, they can go separate ways, allowing for a break from each other and one-on-one time with each parent. "We couldn't do this as easily if our parents were still together," she says.

For holidays, sporting events, and some social occasions, Lynele, Dick, and Mary, Dick's girlfriend of six years, are all together. "It's an unusually compatible arrangement," says Ruth Fearon, Lynele's mother, reached by telephone at her lakefront home in Maine where she was hosting her granddaughters for a week.

"We can still be critical and raspy with each other," says Ms. Jones. "But we always come back to our fundamentally good intentions for the kids and for each other."

She acknowledges, however, that more than good intentions is needed. It's often the willingness to work hard at the arrangement because of love for the children that counts most. This is exactly what Wade Horn has observed as president and founder of the National Fatherhood Initiative, a five-year-old organization that supports children and their fathers. "If you want a successful marriage, you have to work at it. If you want a successful divorce, you have to also work at that," he says.

Mr. Horn says the quality of children's relationship with their parents is much more important than where they live or the composition of their family. "It's critical, he says, "that both parents remain involved in their children's lives."

Avoiding pitfalls and glitches

Ms. Jones has found from her six-years of experience with a joint-custody arrangement that there are many pitfalls to watch out for. First of all, clear communication about scheduling is key. She, her ex, and his girlfriend are all accountants, a job synonymous with long hours. They often work late, and have learned, after a few glitches, to inform everyone when the girls' schedules change.

But too many changes make everyone a little uncomfortable. So, she says, as much certainty as possible is important. Most of all, it will make the children feel more secure.

It is also imperative, she says, to bite one's tongue when tempted to criticize the other parent. And even to put in a good word now and then, says Jones. "Sometimes I might say to my girls that 'I know your dad gets a little cranky when he's working so much overtime. But he really loves you guys.' "

The toughest challenge, says Jones, can be making choices regarding location, livelihood, romantic partners, activities, and other commitments that will not only benefit the parent, but also the child. "Single-parent friends of mine who have made major choices that underplay their parenting role have regretted it," she says.

If the parent's heart is in the right place, the commitment to making such an arrangement work won't feel so burdensome, adds Jones.

Both of these families negotiated on their own, out of court, so that they could co-parent amicably. Wallerstein would say this is optimum. If parents can put aside their own selfish interests, they can then judge what's best for the child, she says. "The courts are making a tremendous error, distorting the needs of children with a one-size fits all solution to custody," she says, explaining that "most states don't distinguish between a three or a 10-year-old." Even many mediators, she says, are primarily concerned with finding a quick fix to the parents' conflict, not with looking out for the child's welfare.

Most important, says Wallerstein, is to be highly sensitive to the child's response. "I knew of a four-year-old who refused to get out of her car seat when it came time to visit the other parent," she recalls. "So I suggested the parents wait another year before starting dual residency. The child was clearly overwrought." She acknowledges, however, that taking cues from the child and putting aside one's own plan is "the hardest thing to do."

If it doesn't' work out for the child to move back and forth between two households, for whatever reason, parents need not worry. "There isn't a study anywhere that shows kids in joint custody are better off," says Wallerstein. It can actually be highly beneficial for a child to have one secure base. Especially if their parents live far apart, she adds. "When I see five or six-year-olds traveling alone, clutching teddy bears on the plane, I think that only someone who isn't close to a child could have dreamed up that one."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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