This article was originally published in April 1995 in The New York Times Magazine.
My son began commuting between his two homes when he was four years old. He traveled with a Hello Kitty suitcase with a pretend lock and key until it embarrassed him, which was long before it wore out. He graduated to a canvas backpack filled with a revolving arsenal of essential “stuff” (books and journals, plastic vampire teeth, “Star Trek” Micro Machines, a Walkman and CDs and a teddy bear).
The commuter flights between San Francisco and Los Angeles were the only times a parent wasn’t lording over him, so he was able to order Coca Cola, verboten at home; flight attendants didn’t care about cavities. But such benefits were insignificant when contrasted with his pre-flight nightmares about plane crashes.
One winter he was to fly not to Los Angeles, but New York, where his mother and step father were spending Christmas. During the preparations for the visit, he learned that he would have to change planes en route.
Late at night, long after I had put him to bed, he crept into the living room and climbed onto my lap. He was trembling.
When I asked him what was the matter, he said, “I don’t want to change planes.”
I told him not to worry, it would be all right, but he was unconvinced. Amid sobs, he asked, “What if I fall off the wing?”
“What will you be doing on the wing?”
“Changing planes,” he said. “I might fall off when I’m walking from one to the other.”
Like so many divorcing couples, we divided the China and art and our young son. It seemed obvious that joint custody was the best approach; Nicolas’ mother and I both wanted him with us and had no reason to doubt the prevailing wisdom, that it would be best for him to continue to be raised by both parents. An evaluator helped us determine the details of his schedule and the shuttle began. First he was ferried back and forth between our homes across town and then, when his mother moved to Los Angeles, across the state. For the ensuing eight years, he has been one of the tens of millions of American children with two homes, two beds, two sets of clothes and toys, and two toothbrushes.
Twenty-eight-hundred children see their parents divorce each day. Most of them will be raised primarily by one parent, usually the mother. But an increasing number of them–currently between 100,000 and 200,000 a year– will be placed in joint custody. (Here and throughout this article I am referring to joint physical custody arrangements in which a child lives at least a third of the time with each parent.) There are innumerable forms, some of which seem particularly torturous. One young boy was ordered by the court to live part of each month with his father in San Mateo, California and the remainder with his mother, five hundred miles south in San Diego, simultaneously enrolled in two schools. There are children who spend six months with each parent and ones who alternate yearly. One of my son’s friends has a schedule that is so complex that it is tracked by a secretary, who types out a new calendar each month, though the typical arrangement is to change each week or fortnight. Occasionally a mid-week dinner or alternate weekend visit with the other parent is thrown in.
Today forty-three states have laws that allow judges to impose joint custody. Other states, such as New York, allow joint custody only when it is agreed on by both parents, often when they negotiate custody on their own or with the help of a mediator. A 1989 study of 900 divorced families, conducted by Eleanor Maccoby, a psychologist at Stanford, and Bob Mnookin, a professor of law at Harvard, determined that 21 percent of the children in several California counties live in joint custody. The arrangement is less common in the rest of the country, though the numbers are increasing, even though there is no convincing evidence to show that it is the best arrangement and there is mounting evidence to show that it can be the worst.
Before the twentieth century, children in the rare divorce remained with their father. According to Mary Ann Mason, professor of law and social welfare at Berkeley and author of From Father’s Property to Children’s Rights, “children were viewed as his assets, valuable as workers, whether in the fields or factories.” With the end of child labor, they ended up at home, in their mothers’ care, and this became the basis of the modern bias. Though fathers occasionally get custody, it is still the rare exception.
The concept of sole custody–which usually meant mother custody– went unchallenged until joint custody was introduced as a reaction to social politics of the Seventies. The women’s movement renounced the status quo because full-time moms, single or remarried, who often received little or no child support, had their hands full–there was little time to follow personal agendas. Fathers meanwhile rebelled against the prejudice that often significantly or completely cut them off from their children. Both viewed joint custody as a solution, since it allows each parent to retain regular contact with their kids and provides a partner with whom to share the burdens of parenting. An additional salient benefit for more than a few divorcing parents: one’s ex doesn’t get a better deal.
But is it better for the kids? It seemed as if it might be. Researchers have proved that the absence of a positive relationship with one parent is behind the most serious problems that are typically found in children after their parents divorce. Joint custody was viewed as a potential remedy because, in theory, it would guarantee time with both parents. Based on this, many therapists, mediators, judges, and parents came to view it as the best resolution in most custody cases. Along with feminists and men’s groups, they embraced it as the modern, enlightened choice.
But the children placed in joint custody learned that it was no panacea. Comparative studies have concluded that they do no better than children in the sole custody of their father or mother and, in certain circumstances, they do much worse. In fact, joint custody is frequently imposed on the children most likely to be hurt by it. The divorces that end up in court are usually the hostile ones and judges often order joint custody because it favors neither parent. Researcher Jill Johnston of the Center for Families in Transition (CFT) in Marin County, California, studied one hundred children whose parents’ divorces were characterized by extreme hostility. All under twelve years old, the children were evaluated over the course of four years, beginning in 1985. Johnston determined that several factors have more impact on these children than any others: the mother’s state of mind at the time of divorce, how well the parents get along afterwards, and the amount of time the child is exposed to whatever conflict exists. Since kids in joint custody are systematically exposed to their parents’ battles more than any others, they were in the worst shape of any in the study. Their symptoms ranged from sleeping problems to clinical depression and a preoccupation with suicide. “The findings indicate that recommending or ordering joint custody or frequent visitation in these cases is contraindicated,” Dr. Johnston concluded.
As many as a quarter to a third of divorces are defined by extreme animosity, but that doesn’t mean that the remainder are amicable. Mnookin says that his study indicated that “only a minority of parents communicate comfortably” after a divorce. Stanford’s Maccoby, with Christy Buchanan, a psychologist at Wake Forest University, interviewed 517 adolescent children four-and-a-half years after their parents divorced and found that forty percent of those whose parents got along reasonable well with one another nevertheless felt caught in the middle.
Beyond placing children in what one therapist describes as “no man’s land,” joint custody fundamentally alters the concept of home. Homes is an antilogy.
How many adults can imagine having two primary homes? For children, home is even more important, the psychological as well as physical cradle of development, the brick-and-mortar incarnation of all that their parents represent: stability, safety, and the rules of life. Joint custody presupposes that children can do just as well when they are divided between two, each defined by a different parent and perhaps step parents and step siblings and a jumble of expectations, discipline, and values that often contradict one another.
Certainly children in joint custody can have a semblance of stability from a stable custody schedule–if it’s Tuesday it must be Dad’s house–but there is also built-in instability, with weekly (or whatever) departures, arrivals, and transitions, and then, just when they’re settled in, it’s time to leave again. Some children are apparently flexible enough to adapt, but others become traumatized. Their parents are able to move on with their lives after a divorce, but the children’s efforts to do so are continually undermined.
CFT founder Judith Wallerstein, a researcher and clinician who is renown for her work with children of divorced parents, has observed young boys and girls who, upon returning from one to the other parent’s home, wander from object to object–table to bed to sofa — touching them to affirm that they are still there. The absent parent may seem even more elusive than the furniture. As children grow older, though they no longer require tactile proof, they may incorporate a sense that both of their homes are illusory and impermanent. Wallerstein says that some children “perceive that there is a mom’s home and a dad’s home, but not a child’s home.” Also, while young children may suffer when joint custody keeps them apart from a parent for too long, frequent transitions may harm older ones. “You’d like to think that these kids could simply integrate their lives between their two homes, have two sets of peers, and easily adjust to being with each parent, but most children do not have the flexibility,” Wallerstein says. “They begin to feel as if its a flaw in their character when it is simply impossible for many people to conduct parallel lives.”
Nicolas has lived in joint custody for the past eight years, and one would think he would be used to it by now. He is not. It may have been easier if his mother and I had remained in the same city, since he would have had increased access to both of us and both homes and his extra curricular activities and peer friendships would have been less frequently disrupted. But his friends whose parents live in the same town are batted back and forth so frequently that it seems dizzying. One of them has complained that the clothes she needs are never at the home she’s at. She recently confided, “I never know where I am.” At least Nicolas, who lives with me when he is in school, has fewer disruptions. But the longer stays tend to make every departure more dire. Before his trips to be with his mother, his emotional preparation begins a week or so before the flight. He becomes, to varying degrees, anxious, lethargic, somber, and somewhat withdrawn from his friends. The back and forth seems to be tougher on him as he has grown older. Indeed, Wallerstein notes, “Certainly joint custody is not fashionable among many adolescents.”
Responding to this, his mother and I recently modified the schedule so that Nick will be separated from his friends for shorter periods of time. He is happy about the change. Nevertheless, he is not sanguine about joint custody; it remains the most difficult aspect of his life, more difficult than the divorce ever was. Though he would never want to have to choose between his parents, neither would he choose joint custody.
And neither would I choose it for him if I had the chance to make the decision again. Yes, it has contributed to his character. He is a remarkable child, more responsible, sensitive, worldly, introspective, and sagacious than he might have otherwise been. But the toll has been such that, given the geographic and emotional chasms that came with our divorce–that probably come with almost every divorce– his mother and I should have agreed on sole custody. If we had not been able to agree, it should have been imposed. Though it would have been devastating for the one of us who lost custody of our son, I am convinced that Nicolas’ childhood would have been easier.
Instead, he is left with a meager consolation prize for all his commuting between parents. He has more frequent flier miles than most adults. This, in the end, may be his reward for surviving a childhood in joint custody.