The writer is a bond portfolio manager at Weaver Barksdale
When people ask me how I’m faring in the pandemic as a working mother with a child who hasn’t set foot in school since March, I tell them I owe my survival to JC.
Joint custody, that is. I have managed to survive 2020 because, from a time perspective, I only have half a child. My nine-year-old son has been spending one week on/one week off with each parent for five years.
There isn’t good data on children living equally in two homes, but the shared custody norm appears to be slowly evolving from joint in name only to a genuine two-household set-up. Gone are the days when fathers could expect no more than every other weekend. The starting point in many separation negotiations is 50-50, although that becomes reality for only a minority of households. Old habits, and ideas about the “better” (maternal) parent die hard.
The US Census Bureau found that in 2014, 27 per cent of children under 21 lived in families with only one parent. Yet that statistic may not capture informal 50-50 schedules. State-level studies show a range of 50-50 custody situations of up to 46 per cent in Washington. In Sweden, where 30 to 40 per cent of children with divorced parents live in 50-50 situations, a study found these children’s emotional wellbeing was much better than that of those in one-parent households, and only modestly below that of those in two-parent families.
The pandemic’s onset forced co-parents like me to rethink custodial schedules for lockdown. We became a modern version of the 1980s Aids public service announcement in which a woman wakes up in bed with her partner, all of his partners, all of their partners, etc. Only this time, the doom-mongering included scenarios such as “my ex’s girlfriend is going to give my 83-year-old, diabetic mom Covid-19”.
The possibilities for custodial chaos seemed infinite — a parent gets the virus and has to quarantine; a parent lives with an immunocompromised person while co-parenting with a Covid denialist; a parent works in the intensive care unit. Of course, some co-parents disagreed about Covid-19 protocols — and attempted to write “their” way into custodial agreements. Such disputes even prompted Texas to decree that custody trumps Covid, and parents must follow their court-ordered schedules.
After the early freak-out, it became clear that life as a working, homeschooling parent can be much easier when you share custody. You only have to juggle your work schedule with your child’s awkward school hours half the time; those with the luxury of a remote, knowledge-based job can reallocate their time to work more on custodial weeks off. And two flexible households sometimes make it easier to handle Covid-19 curveballs.
Before you point out my privilege, let me provide the necessary caveats. My ex and I are financially secure, have flexible jobs that let us work from home and generally align on big-picture parenting decisions. Neither has remarried. Nobody hates anybody.
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Yet even in separated families lacking these advantages, the custodial cadence is surprisingly resilient — and beneficial. A divorced friend with three kids has used her time off to launch a personal chef business to replace her event-planning income. You might expect breadwinner fathers to stick stay-at-home mothers with extra childcare duties, but none of my friends have experienced this. Paid caregivers are cheaper than child-support renegotiations and less disruptive than schedule overhauls.
Women are leaving the workplace in droves to contend with the demands of remote learning. As Eve Rodsky puts it, women are typically the “she-fault” parent — the one who misses work when the kids have needs. But a court-mandated 50-50 split changes the equation.
Maybe dual-income families who want to stay that way would benefit from a similar arrangement. Why not give joint custody a try under the same roof?
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