Joint Custody: The Best of Both Worlds

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The day of the swim meet, it was 99 degrees in the shade. My son and I had been up since 6 a.m. to make time to dress and eat breakfast before friends picked us up at 7 to carpool an hour to Carroll County for the meet.

The only glimmer of hope I had that bright morning, as I hugged my coffee cup and yawned, was not inspired by the sun’s radiance, but by the thought that next weekend I wouldn’t be at a meet. It would be my ex-husband’s turn to attend.

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Nothing had turned out as expected. When I became pregnant, my husband and I read and planned for a natural childbirth, complete with hypno-birthing. My labor was induced, lasted for 52 hours, and involved Pitocin, an epidural, and forceps. I’d expected to have a girl with brown curly hair like mine. I gave birth to a beautiful fair-skinned little boy with blond hair and remarkably bright blue eyes. I’d expected that my child, his father, and I would spend our time dancing to 80’s music, discussing arcane cultural issues, and watching movies. I’d expected we would stay married and raise our little boy together. I was wrong.

I separated from my husband when our son was two years old. We divorced two years later. After we separated, my ex moved back to Boston. I relied on my wits, my pocketbook, and a series of newfound friends and paid caregivers to get through the next three years.

I lived through many long and sleepless nights with a very attached young boy attached to me. I moved his trundle bed into my room so he could stay close. I learned television was my friend. My son would crawl into my bed between 5 and 6 a.m. and turn on the TV. I would “watch with my eyes closed” for a few hours until I was able to drag myself out of bed.

The years passed quickly — although there were days that seemed interminable. Once my son returned home from preschool and told me, “It’s not fair that you and daddy don’t live together. Everyone else lives with both their parents.” I’d vowed to be honest with him, so I said, “You’re right. It’s not fair and I’m sorry. But we are better off living apart and working together to care for you.” He cried and I held him. When he fell asleep, I went to the bathroom and cried so much that my eyes were still swollen the next day.

At that point, though, my ex and I weren’t really working together. My son and I were in Baltimore, and he was in Boston calling his son daily, visiting every few months — and doing what he needed to do to move back to our town.

With my village of friends and caregivers, my son and I survived his toddler years. Though I relished my freedom and the tranquility in my single-mom household, there were times when I would have loved a partner to help. I get debilitating migraines once a month, and there were many days when it was all I could do to feed my son something vaguely healthy, go back to bed and bring him with me, then attempt to take him to pre-school before coming back home to collapse.

Several times when my son was ill, I was up all night changing and washing pajamas and bed sheets. Then going into work in the morning. There were other times when I wished his father was around — for example when it was time to teach my son to pee standing up… Trying to teach my son things better taught by his dad would often leave me feeling sorrowful — yet in the end capable.

When my son was five, his father moved into an apartment a mile away from us. Our new phase of active co-parenting began.
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My ex-husband and I had decided that, to the extent possible, we would work cooperatively and supportively to raise our son. I hoped to spare my child the mixed blessing and sorrow of the “two birthdays, two Thanksgivings, two Christmases” that some divorced couples embrace. My ex and I shared many values and were going to do our best to share holidays, too, and not to speak ill of each another.

To a great extent it has worked. We celebrate my son’s birthday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas together. We attend school functions together. His girlfriends have attended with us. (Neither my ex-husband nor I questions the wisdom of the divorce in the least.) Our divorce resembles Demi Moore and Bruce Willis’ in some ways, although neither my ex-husband nor I resemble Demi or Bruce. And there is no Ashton Kutcher on hand, either, much to my chagrin.

I still do the bulk of the care-giving because frequent transitions between houses can be difficult. My son thrives on routine — I do what I can to provide that. My home is closer than his father’s place to many of his friends, which allows for spontaneous play dates. It is closer to his school and our pool. My son is with me Tuesday through Friday afternoon each week. Every Monday evening he spends at his father’s apartment. We alternate weekends. Honestly, there are weeks when I wish my son would spend more time at his dad’s, and times when I wish I had as much time as his father to date and do other things — but neither decision would be in my son’s best interest. That’s my priority.

My son likes the arrangement. And, as it turns out, so do I. The wonderful thing about joint-custody is that it enables parents to regain their adult lives. When my son was born, caring for him was all consuming (as it should be). There was little time for anything that didn’t involve him. Since my divorce and shared custody, I get to do wonderful adult things. I see movies that are not produced by Pixar or Disney, and don”t involve a boy wizard. I see plays. I catch bands, attend readings, and dine and drink with friends. Sometimes I go on dates.

Then, the weekends my son is with me, we spend a great deal of time together. We watch lots of movies by Pixar or concerning a boy wizard. We play games, we have “dance parties,” we cook, we go to the farmers’ market. Because I have the opportunity to pursue more adult pleasures the other weekends, I come to the weekends with my son excited and engaged. I look forward to them; I am present.

It is not perfect. My ex-husband has turned my son onto Dungeons and Dragons, online fantasy gaming, and Escape from New York. This wouldn’t have happened on my watch. I counter by ensuring that my son learns to play The Ramones and Clash songs on his guitar, gives money to anti-war groups, and hones his dance skills. If my ex-husband and I both succeed, our son will be the best rocker and dancer at all the D&D and Magic: The Gathering tournaments in his future.

Imperfect as it may be, I feel that in many ways, I get the best of both worlds. And in many ways, so does my son. He gets the best of both his parents — we each share things with our son that we love (and which the other parent may detest). There is little resentment or discord between his father and me — unlike when we were married. And when there is, well, we don’t have to spend endless hours together, which makes it easier to both bear and to forgive.

Now, when some particularly onerous event comes up–an all day birthday party, an Orioles game, or the desire to re-watch all episodes of “The Suite Life on Deck” in one weekend–there’s a 50 percent chance that I will be somewhere else entirely, which are odds I’ll take any day.

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