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What does the growing shared parenting movement mean for children’s well-being?

What does the growing shared parenting movement mean for children’s well-being?

Picture of Sushma Subramanian
(Photo via Creative Commons/Flickr)
(Photo via Creative Commons/Flickr)

The shared parenting movement, which promotes the idea that both partners after a separation or divorce should have equal access to their children, has gotten increased attention in recent years. More states are considering and passing legislation that promotes 50-50 parenting time arrangements, instead of awarding primary physical custody to one parent and granting the other visitation. The idea is that children deserve to have relationships with both parents, even if the parents don’t get along anymore, and also that family courts help create conflict by pitting parents against each other. 

The questions, however, are whether the courts should be enforcing such arrangements instead of having parents choose them for themselves, and whether the 50-50 model is truly the best option in the majority of cases. Some parents might have legitimate concerns, about allowing their former spouse that much access or worry about a child moving between two vastly different parenting styles, and the courts might not take those worries seriously when shared parenting is considered the ideal. The science is seriously conflicted on such questions, which makes some experts worry that some states are rushing by implementing shared parenting without further study. 

Another complication is what such changes could mean in terms of equality between mothers and fathers. While it can be helpful for society to embrace the idea of parents having an equal role in their children’s lives, the reality is that in many intact families, mothers end up doing the majority of the work. Giving fathers equal access after separation could make these mothers feel like they’re losing out rather than gaining something. In a country without mandatory parental leave or free daycare — programs that could be an equalizing force — shared parenting seems like an arbitrary way to start making change.  

On the other hand, some advocates argue that shared parenting helps mothers by not making them carry the full load after splitting up from a partner. Mothers would have more ability to devote time to a fulfilling career or a new relationship, both of which could allow for more resources for their children. Additionally, their children could benefit from having mothers who experience less stress from handling all the duties of parenting on their own. 

Ideologically, shared parenting is complicated and brings together people from across the political spectrum. People’s opinions are often driven by what they experienced in their own families. 

For my USC Center for Health Journalism National Fellowship project, I plan on examining the ideas behind this complicated type of family law reform. Family court judges, divorce lawyers, separated parents and researchers all have different takes on the effects of these laws. Some believe that they give helpful and clear guidance about what the outcomes of custody cases should be. Others believe they’re a one-size-fits-all solution that’s inappropriate for many families. My experience reporting the story so far has been a game of ping-pong. There are good points made by all sides of the debate. 

At the heart of my story will be a couple that was nudged by a family court into a shared parenting arrangement. Theirs custody battle was as high conflict as any, so they offer a good test of whether shared parenting laws can encourage parents to get along for the sake of their children. Though their child’s pick-ups and drop-offs were rocky at first, eventually they accepted they were in each other’s lives for the long haul, and today they’re able to actively co-parent together. For them at least, the law helped to repair their relationship. Even if it weren’t mandated, today both would opt for such an arrangement on their own. Of course, my reporting is also informed by parents who felt family courts treated them unfairly and harmed their children by forcing them to spend time with an abusive ex-spouse.

Shared parenting is an experiment more people are trying out, even apart from state legislative changes, and I’m curious to explore what that means for children’s well-being. 

Comments

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This story is more in-depth than most about 50-50, but still falls along the same limited themes: one child, a younger child, centered around the early court-related decisions, and with little attention to the timeshare arrangement, handoffs and schools.

My experience with 3 kids, 2-2-3 timeshare, different schools, across 10 years is very very different. Transitions between houses with multiple kids at different ages is exponentially harder. Logistics become a nightmare with different schools, activities extremely difficult. Duplicating toys at both houses doesn't apply with teenagers. And that's with an ex you get along with.

That stuff isn't the hard part though. 50-50 means neither parent has decision power. The smallest decision, or major ones, take on a new life of their own when neither parent has decision authority and no one else knows either (doctors, school staff). Anti-depressants, changing schools, driving -- it's not practical for every decision to go to court.

Unlike when you were married, your ex-partner now has tremendous say over your life and schedule, from soccer practice to choosing daycamps to moving (forget that). 50-50 ties you ever closer to your ex -- you can't move to a less expensive area or closer to family, you can't take a job that pays less. A new commute disrupts an already burdensome logistical balance. You have to support a house for a whole family even though you have only half of one.

Rarely mentioned is how the dynamic with the kids changes, because you're almost in a long-distance relationship. Who wants to enforce discipline, even if you could, when you're about to say goodbye for 2 days or a weekend? Forget taking away their phone or laptop. How can you ground a kid across the other parents' time, or enforce the other parent's consequence that you had nothing to do with and don't agree with?

The worst is people writing off the problem with "you have to work it out together" -- they don't realize how impractical and involved that is, moreso than most married parents. 50-50 has very little support from "real" single parents who think it's great that you "get a break," when in fact you're heartbroken that you don't have a full-time family. And, no complaints lest you invite the tired platitude "best interests of the children" -- parents count for nothing, your life revolves around your ex and half your children's lives. Weekly therapy, weekly anything -- forget that.

Sure, for courts it's much easier to split things down the middle, with basically cooperative parents, and one young child. But long-term, the disruption and dichotomy, not having a home base, and yes, the parents living a life of partial suspension, is not good at all. 50-50 has its place, but not as the new norm.

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