By Stewart Crank Jr.
Years ago, my children lived with me half the time, and I shared in the responsibilities and celebrations of their life. We ate breakfast together; I took them to school; I celebrated their birthdays (on their birthdays) with them, woke up every Christmas with them, packed their lunch, and knew their friends. Although my ex-wife and I were finished, I remained firmly planted in their everyday lives.
Then, for reasons of her own, my ex-wife moved with our children seventy-five miles away, to another state. My lawyer told me that there was nothing I could do.
That was six-and-a-half years ago. Now I see my kids about once a month over a weekend and have gone as long as two months without seeing them at all. I know their friends by name and some by face, but only from pictures. I have spent as much as two-and-a-half hours (with traffic around Washington D.C., the metropolis planted between the kids and me) driving one way to see a play. I’ve watched the play, seen my children for five minutes, and then turned around to come home. Attending their events like this is difficult at best, and between work and the drive, sometimes impossible. Stopping by and grabbing them for dinner has become a four- or five-hour event versus a two-hour event. None of their friends has ever stayed the night at my house. This unfortunate situation is only bearable because the kids and I are very close despite our lack of time together.
As parents, our children should be our first priority in life. And study after study—published everywhere from the Journal of Family Psychology to Psychology and Health—has shown that the best possible situation for children and parents of divorce is to retain as much of the support and access that was in place prior to the separation of the family unit. It should be the exception, if not illegal, to take the children more than a reasonable distance from a willing and able parent. Ideally, parents would live right around the corner from each other, a bike ride away for the child.
When one parent moves away from the children or one parent moves away with the children, it creates an environment that is painful and challenging for both the children and that parent who suddenly spends less time with them. For any child, it is bad enough that the parents’ inability to maintain their commitments as husband and wife has left that child with two homes instead of one—placing a great distance between these two homes adds insult to injury.
With the advent of e-mail, social networks, and text messaging, many people may feel that the connection to our children can be maintained at any distance—and believe me, it does help keep us in touch. Yet nothing beats a parent and child’s walking down the street, hand in hand, or the ability to share in the day-to-day activities of doctor visits, school pickups, helping with homework, eating meals together, or simply being in their presence.
Children who have a distant or absent biological parent are statistically more likely to develop social problems like violence, drug abuse, and unhealthy sexual relationships. No parent out there feels this would be in the best interest of his or her child. And still, every day, divorced or estranged parents make the decision to place distance between a child and a parent.
It’s a selfish act—whether you are the parent moving the child away from the parent or the parent moving away from the child. The children are the ones who suffer the most. They have no control over the situation. They don’t have the coping skills that grown-ups do. The parents may claim good reasons for the move—and there are good reasons. People find better job opportunities; they move closer to family; they remarry. But I’d argue that it’s rare to find a reason good enough to trump a child’s need for his or her other parent.
My own father and mother may disagree with this statement because a big move is exactly what happened in our lives. I still have the letter my father gave me at Dulles Airport when I was ten years old, on my way to live in California. His letter confirmed his unconditional love for me, despite our impending distance from one another. It still makes me cry when I read it, twenty-eight years later. My mother, stepfather, sisters, and I moved from California to London, and my father to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It wasn’t a bad life at all—winters in London, summers at the beach—but not a day went by that I didn’t yearn for a more consistent relationship with my father. I often wonder how different my life and my choices would be had he not lived so far from us and had we spent more time together. I compare my own life with those of my half brother and sister, who were raised full time with him, and see a stark contrast in our lifestyles and our viewpoints. It makes me wonder if I would have found a calmer path in my own life had he been more present.
In recent years, even the courts have started recognizing that equal access is best for the children. In Florida, for instance, the court is legally obligated to order that parental responsibility for a minor child be shared by both parents, unless it is detrimental to the child. In Alabama, the law states that both parents have an equal right to the custody of their children. As our society evolves, we should see more courts shifting toward default laws that support joint custody. Terms like “equal access,” “shared parenting,” and “proximity” are repeated through the thousands of words I have read on this very subject. Laws affecting shared parenting rights are being scrutinized throughout the country.
Regardless of the law, we should all try to keep our children close to both parents. We should do this because we love our children deeply and want to give them the best odds of flourishing. Is there a purer motive than that?
Stewart Crank Jr. is a father and editor who lives in Virginia.
By Sarah Clayton
I handed my nine-year-old son’s violin over to his stepmother and, in that moment, felt my own heart slip out of tune.
“This is not a toy,” I said, knowing this sounded harsh, but I was too bereft to explain myself in any other way. I was delivering my two young sons, ages nine and eleven, to their father’s home in suburban Connecticut, five hundred miles from my own rural home in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. They would be there for the next three years, and I would be the visiting parent, as their father had been for the first four years of our divorce.
In that short yet interminable moment of delivery and departure, I began to understand what the majority of fathers go through in divorces; in saying good-bye, they know they will see their children only in fragments of time, shards of days and hours. I had had the luxury of uninterrupted time with my sons since they were in utero. Now it was my turn to live with them in fragments.
And it was the right thing to do. After all, they are as much his children as mine, a fact often forgotten in divorce situations. Plus, my ex-husband was remarried, an event essential to my agreeing to let the boys go; I needed to know that someone would be there when they got home from school. The boys were also approaching puberty, and, unless a father is abusive or disinterested, boys need to cross that great bar into manhood in his presence. And all children of divorce, whether boys or girls, need to know their fathers as real people—complete with weaknesses and strengths and idiosyncrasies—and not just the Good Time Charlies children usually see during the short, weekend visit.
It wasn’t that I’d stopped loving the boys’ father when we separated; I simply couldn’t live with him anymore. We wanted different lives and couldn’t seem to find a compromise. But just because their father and I had different views on what we wanted didn’t mean the boys couldn’t enjoy both of us and both our worlds. It didn’t mean those worlds had to be around the block from each other, though.
Sometimes a parent’s needs trump a child’s when it comes to living arrangements. To be a successful mother at that time, I needed to regain my once imperturbable core of happiness. That meant getting as far away from my ex-husband as possible. To his credit, he was gracious enough to let me take the boys to England, the land of my mother.
The boys thrived there. By the time we left, three months later, my withdrawn older son, six-year-old Nicholas, sang a solo in the local school play. My younger son, Chris, renowned at four years old for his whiny nature, found his peace and became a delightful companion as we explored the fields and villages of Dorset. We all needed that break from the other world. And here on the banks of Chesil Beach, the boys got their mother back.
We moved back to Virginia, the land of my youth, when I learned that my father’s cancer was terminal. The boys’ father would come for a visit, and I’d fill my house with the food and wine he liked, then move out so he could have the boys to himself. It caused the least disruption in the boys’ routine and made it less stressful for him.
Then he got married, and it was time for them to leave me. I was eviscerated. They were thrilled. They loved their little stepbrother, and the minute we reached their father’s house, the three boys were off, overflowing with the joy of beginning life together. Heart unstrung, I was awash with worry: Would their father read them to sleep as I did? Would he keep Chris’s violin playing going, Nicholas’s running?
During those three years with their father, I saw the boys whenever possible. We’d head off to ski or to the beach, and once we slipped over the border into Canada to celebrate Nicholas’s thirteenth birthday. We had a ball, and I became Good Time Charlie. This was fun.
But it wasn’t necessarily easy. I went up for Chris’s first violin concert when he was nine. “Chris is an excellent violinist,” his conductor/teacher said. “But he would be even better if he remembered to bring his violin to school.”
I despaired. Why didn’t his father remind this uprooted child to take his violin to school? And why wasn’t Nicholas running? But I couldn’t deny it; the boys were thriving. I realized it didn’t matter that things weren’t done as I would have done them. They were happy to see me and happy to be with their father. In one great exhalation, I let go of my worries. Mothers, it seems to me, tend to think only they can raise the children. But fathers have every right to share their vision and talents, too.
When the boys came back to me three years later, they once again took to the mountains, swam the rivers, and reveled in the freedom of country life.
When their father called, they slipped back into their Connecticut world. They’d come to know their father as a three-dimensional person, just as they knew me, with all our faults and strengths. They had been immersed in and enriched by both worlds and both parents in a way they might not, had we lived closer.
Many people criticized me for taking the boys so far away from their father; many were in awe that I’d let them go live with him for that great length of time. But it seemed the right thing to do, and I’ve had to conclude, watching the boys turn into fine young men, now twenty-seven and twenty-five, that it is okay for parents to move away from each other after a divorce as long as they honor the other’s role as viable parent.
I’ve also realized that after divorce—after ripping apart the fabric of the family—it’s important for parents to first regain themselves. As they say in the airplane safety instructions: “Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.” Sometimes, it takes moving away to give both of you, ex-husband and ex-wife, time to put on your own oxygen masks and begin to breathe freely once more.
And, in the end, it was the boys, in growing up, who moved away from both of us.
Sarah Clayton, the mother of three sons, lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia where she writes travel pieces and essays for The New York Times, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and National Public Radio, among others. She also writes romance books.
Brain, Child (Fall 2010)