Nobody heads down the wedding aisle thinking they’ll eventually need two roofs over their heads. But for close to 40 per cent of married Canadian couples, that’s how things net out.
When separation happens, the process of re-imagining family life—particularly the important work of continuing to raise kids together—is often heart wrenching. Most people are desperate to do right by their children.
The central question is always around physical custody of the children. Will one parent remain the primary caregiver most of the time, with the other parent averaging just a couple of days per week with the kids? Will the kids alternate weeks living with each of their parents, or go back and forth in some other sort of even split?
Equally allotted joint physical custody (JPC) is on the rise in most of the Western world, and researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden have concluded that this is a trend in the right direction. Their newly published study looked at 3,656 Swedish pre-school children aged three to five, living in a variety of household configurations. It concluded that those living in 50-50 physical custody arrangements showed fewer psychological symptoms than those who reside mostly with just one parent.
While of course every family is unique and there may be a strong case for a different type of arrangement in any individual situation, these findings may be helpful to many post-divorce couples asking: what now?
When my marriage came to an end, my youngest was little more than one year old. But there was no question between the father of my children and me that we’d each have an equal role in raising them. We both worked full time, and we were both hands-on parents with an egalitarian view of how the work of raising kids should be shared. In addition, we each had parents who were acrimoniously divorced, and we both wanted to avoid any situation where our kids would feel caught between us.
But as the leader of a 3,000-member online community called Positive Co-Parenting After Divorce, I’ve seen close-up a lot of hand wringing about shared custody. Anecdotally, this seems to be particularly the case when the kids in question are little, like the subjects of this study.
I hear a lot of worry about whether young children will be okay having time apart from the parent who has, thus far, been their primary caregiver—often a mom. As the authors of the Swedish study say, this concern is likely rooted in attachment theory, a school of thought that suggests young children need oodles of stability and predictability in their relationships with their caregivers while their first attachments are still developing. This has fuelled debate around how custody should play out for young children, despite a lack of good evidence that going back and forth between two parents’ households is harmful at all.
Sure, wee ones seem especially sensitive about where they go to sleep at night and like the familiarity of their routines. But what I’ve seen time and again is that, given the opportunity, even babies and toddlers learn in fairly short order to be comforted and cared for by a parent who has until that point played a secondary role. Yes, there could be some rocky bedtime routines at the start, but we’re talking about an adaption period of days or weeks, certainly not the negative, long-term disruption that many separating parents fear.
In fact, in my view, one of the most remarkable silver linings of divorce is that it can make better and more confident parents out of those who, until the time of separation, had spent less time with their kids. I’ve seen spouses who previously worked long hours and barely saw their children on weeknights scale back dramatically post-split on the days they have their kids, learn to braid their daughters’ hair and establish their own wonderful new rituals.
My own kids wouldn’t be able to imagine life any different than one in a 50-50 split, and I treasure that they have a bond that’s just as strong with their dad as the one they enjoy with me.
None of this is to say that one parent alone can’t raise very well adjusted kids. In the U.S. a remarkable 40 percent of children are now born into single-mother families; certainly there’s no reason to conclude that this large swath of the population is somehow doomed to fail without two parents in the mix. One stable, loving parent is more than a lot of children enjoy.
And nor should people who are co-parenting well together in arrangements other than 50-50 despair that their kids are going to wind up troubled and unhappy. Mindful and co-operative shared parenting can work well in all kinds of structures.
But the study does lend more weight to the wisdom behind the shift towards joint shared physical custody. I hope we’ll one day soon see 50-50 parenting as the default arrangement, where kids enjoy lots of access to both their parents.