Divorced and Separated Parents
Tuesday, October 07, 2003

No relationship is completely equal. In fact, "equality" is such an odd concept that I would go so far as to say that, unless you are dividing something that can be specifically quantified, you can never reach an equal division. Human endeavors, ideas, emotions and even most items can not be quantified because value is relative. Even items you might believe can easily be divided can not be in certain situations and only can be when they are separated from context.

Take 100 beans, for example, you can divide them into two piles of fifty and say that they are divided equally. I would argue that this is merely a mathematical abstraction as it removes the beans from any context. Why are you dividing the beans? Who wants the beans? To what purpose are the beans being put? Is dividing them by number more or less "equal" than dividing them by weight? You can say that the two piles are "equal" but that is just equality based on "number" and number is an abstraction. Maybe the two piles of beans are to be divided between two farmers to grow bean stalks and harvest more beans for food. Maybe farmer A has a larger family and need more food. Maybe farmer B has better soil and needs fewer plants to supply him with the same harvest. Maybe some of the beans will not grow and these beans all found there way into one pile. Maybe the town needs to be fed and Farmer B is a bad farmer.

The possibilities for finding "equality" are endless when we are just talking about 100 beans. Think about how difficult it is to get equality within a relationship between two people. Particularly if that relationship has reached it's breaking point.

Because true equality does not exist outside of abstraction, there is always going to be a level of "control" any time there is a decision to be made regarding value. Farmer A might have the town council behind him and receive more beans when they are divided equally or your wife may get to choose what movie the two of you go to 99.9% of the time.

Not that I think relationships are definitely about only control (although they may well be). On the other hand, no matter how the control is divided, someone is going to be making any given, contested, decision and someone, by default, is not. Some couples share decisions based on who is best at what aspects of life. I might choose the saw we are going to buy, for example, while my wife may choose how much we can afford to spend on it. Some couples, on the other hand, defer to one person almost all the time and that is why my buddy, Scott, would wipe his wife's ass if she told him to. No matter how conrol is divied up in a relationship, however, it has to reach a balance that is good for both people or the relationship will crash and burn. At some point Scott is going to say "no" or I am going to go over budget on a tool. That one decision may not be directly responsible for the breakdown of the relationship but an ongoing struggle for control will except in those rare cases where the struggle for control is the tie that binds.

When the relationship does end and there are children (or pets or buildings or RRSPs) involved. The control issues do not end. In fact, they get worse.

The main reason they get worse is that one person takes actual physical control of the trappings of the relationship with them. If my wife and I ever separated, for example, there would be no more discussion at our house what channel the television was on because the television would be with me and neither it nor me would be in the house. I would retain absolute television control over the television we have and my wife would retain absolute control over the house. Maybe we would be all right with that and maybe we would not be so all right with it. If we are not all right with it then we can get someone (a judge, a mediator, a coin) to decide the issue. Houses and television are, after all, pretty easy to divide. Hell, they can be sold and the profits split "equally".

Even in a situation where the division is not so easy, things can usually be dealt with. Say, for example, we only have one car and we both use it regularly, that is, we both have some control over it. We can not continue to share it so we may have to sell and each buy a cheaper car or one might hav eto buy the other out. In short, some method can be found to give full control to one of us.

But what about the children?

We can't sell or divide the children, can we?

In some cases people do just that. One parent backs out completely in exchange for something. It used to be that single mothers often traded child support for daddy's absenteism but, rightly or wrongly, new legislation has put an end to that. Some fathers walk away anyway. Sometimes they walk away and pay child support. Sometimes they go into hiding. In all these circumstances, the one who leaves relinguishes "control". In most cases, however, neither parent is willingto relinquish control over their children. What loving parent would?

  First of all, I am not against separation or divorce when there are children involved. I think it is a shame that some relationships come to that as I have no doubt it is hard on the kids but if it has to be then it has to be. I have seen some evidence that kids with two parents do better whether the parents get along or not but the sources were dubious and I am basically a firm believer in the fact that children will prosper within relationships of love and caring no matter what teh make up of those relationships are. Maybe it is a same sex couple, maybe it is a single parent, maybe it is grandparents or maybe it is two, separated parents, each contributing in some way to the children. It doesn't matter what the "family" is like as long as it is a "family".

Second, my parents divorced when I was twelve. This had a huge effect on my life and my psyche. It took me years and years (and many remarkable girlfriends) to get over my fear of true commitment. On the other hand, I have 2 University degress and am a reasonably well-respected professional with a strong and loving relationship with my wife. Part of the reason I was eventaully able to get over the damage caused by mom and dad splitting was no doubt because mom and dad took steps to make certain that things were as easy as possible for us.

For example, mom and dad stayed living in the same town and set up an elaborate schedule of transit between their houses for the three kids. Weeknights we slept at dad's (he had more room and it had been our home) while every second weekend was spent at mom's. We had lunches with mom every day and supper with her on Mondays. As dad could afford true holidays, most vacations were spent with him but we were always there for special events at mom's. Christmas Eve and Christmas morning were spent at mom's while Christmas evening and Boxing day were spent at dad's.

Of course, we had a lot of advantages in this situation in so far as mom and dad were able to accomodate this lifestyle. Some parents do not have these options. Still, the most important thing that my parent's did was to be reasonable to each other. That is what made it bearable. It was difficult coming to grips with the fact that my parents wer enot in love but their love for us was obvious in their continued cooperation regarding raising us.

Mom and dad didn't go to parties together or talk on the phone much but they both came to hockey games and plays and concerts. They sat together and listened while our teachers praised us (smile) on parent's day and when the shit hit the fan they cleaned up the mess and dealt out the punishments together.

As I grew older the schedule relaxed until, at 16, I was basically living at mom's house but spending many hours at dad's. But from the beginning, raising us remained a joint effort. There was no running away to the other house without being sent back after a discussion of what happened and there was no turning to one parent to undermine the authority of the other. There was no badmouthing the other parent in front of the kids and their was an obvious agreement that each of them knew the other had something special to offer.

It was still tough on myself and my siblings. You can not have your whole world turned upside down and recover easily even if, in retrospect, it was a dream world. On the other hand, the time my parents took to ensure that their children were cared for would have been impossible to do without and the level of cooperation they shared (implicitely of not explicitely) in raising us was a godsend.

A lot of the time, that is not what it is like.

You ask any separated parent with kids which is more important, their children's welfare or problems with their ex and the answer will always be the same. Every parent I have ever met loves their children unconsitionally and will fight tooth and nail to protect them. The problem that some parent's have, is that they can not see that they themselves are the ones the children need protection from.

In the following Blogs I want to discuss some of the main issues that I have seen that get in the way of giving children what they need. While doing this I will be using generalities despite the fact that they are unpopular in the liberal world. I might, for example, have mom described as being home with the kids all day while dad works. My point, when I write something like that, is not to suggest that this is always the case or that the roles are non-reversible or that mom's should be home with the kids. My point will be found in the discussion that follows the generality. The generality itself is not important.

And speaking of unimportant generalities, most of what I write will be generalities. For example, most divorcing couples manage to do so without fighting in court. Of those who do need to fight, most with young children will be in court about 5 or 6 times before matters get settled. Most of the things I say will not apply to most people. But parts of what I say will apply to some. To those of you who are doing right by your children, keep up the good work.

The first issue I want to discuss is control.

I have been working on a lot of family law cases over the last two years and there are some things I think that people should know when they plan to separate and have kids.


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