In the wake of the debates surrounding the recently proposed Michigan House Bill 4691, I am honored to have a guest blogger who has lived the 50/50 parenting time reality, from age 2 to 18. As my guest’s experience shows, equal parenting time may often appear sensible in theory, but does not typically work, in practice. – Jessica Woll
For most of my life, the topic of divorce has been at the forefront of my reality, furnishing at least one part of my brain at all times. When I take the time to sit down and dissect it, though, I can’t translate the rapid-fire flashbacks or abrupt mood changes into keystrokes. I can’t justify how I grew up believing love is a temporary fix, or how I later acquired membership in what became titled, a “Broken Family,” after the second divorce. I can’t rationalize the polarization of my allegiance to the two halves of my whole. I can’t articulate how it feels to be passed back and forth from house to house like a talking stick at a pre-teen campfire, and while I can’t truly encapsulate the feelings of helplessness, disorientation, and loss, I can begin to explain the first-hand consequences of poorly-handled divorces that affect children of all ages.
This blog series will discuss several topics about handling divorce when children are involved, such as problems with parenting time schedules and the necessary, yet often over-looked, task of maintaining privacy within the community. While one goal of this blog series is to analyze my experiences for my own awareness (which I believe all children of divorce should do), my main goal is to provide understanding, and hopefully more compassion, to those unfamiliar with multiple homes, in addition to aiding parents who are struggling to find the best way to, ultimately, promote a child-centric approach to divorce.
Part I: Parenting Time
Before I had even reached my first birthday, a stranger draped in black robes determined my schedule for the next seventeen years. While most people could only dream of being as organized as the Court Order expected, it was the inflexible structure that truly caused disorder. Down to the hour, this powerful stranger assigned the days in which I would see each parent and for how long, as well as which place I would call my temporary home and just how temporary it really was. At such a young age, I didn’t understand what it meant to be divorced or even what it meant to be married; my biggest concern was figuring out how my dog was so soft and how to retrieve my twin’s pacifier when he was sad. However, the inflexibility of this inviolable parenting schedule proved to be harmful as the appointed days remained unchanged from infancy to adolescence. As the relationships with both parents developed over almost two decades, my autonomy remained stifled by the piece of paper that turned me into a large heading.
The schedule was as follows: two days off, two days on, two days off, one day on, and repeat. Before I could get settled in at one house, it was time to leave again. I felt as if I had an unstable home, which translated into feelings of an unstable family. The instability of being constantly uprooted embedded a deep fear of loss, insecurity, and vulnerability; a fear that has modernized itself throughout my maturation and still exists as I enter adulthood. To compensate for these feelings, I kept every single item of clothing, every book, every game console, every knick-knack and photograph at one house. Once it was time to relocate, I packed multiple bags of clothes and shoes and anything else I needed to wear, play with, or redecorate my room. I imagined I was going over to a friend’s house for a couple days so I needed to bring things from home, real home, to provide for myself.
While I was growing up, I always wanted to live at one house over the other. This is not unlike many other children of divorce, as they may prefer to stay in their childhood home, or they may need one parent more at specific points in their lives. While there are many unique reasons, a commonality that they all share is that the court systems don’t give children much say. Granted, each situation is different, where one parent may be unfit to care for the child or the children may not be old enough to truly make a decision that would be most beneficial; however, in many low-risk cases, mine included, my preferences and, likewise, my needs, were put to the side. Throughout the divorce and throughout life after the divorce, I lacked the autonomy to make this horrible situation better for myself, in areas where I very well could have, if only the judges (and the less-compassionate parent) had allowed me. It wasn’t until I was thirteen, twelve years after the initial divorce, that I was able to present the parenting schedule as one that needed reevaluation and revision. The new judge did revise the parenting time schedule; however, she simply jumbled some weekends together and called it a day (or an extra half day, in my case).
At an age-appropriate time, children need to be given the opportunity to have their voices heard with regard to when and where they live (given safe, healthy, and suitable circumstances). Children don’t get a say in their parents’ divorce, but they should be able to implement the autonomy to establish a routine to help them cope best during a time of disruption, grief, and adjustment.
As I have attempted to include intrinsic analyses, here, further reflection has left me wishing for a more progressive court system and a more selflessly supportive parent. I would have liked the opportunity to visit one parent on that parent’s birthday, without living in fear that my brothers and I would be beaten for it. I would have liked being able to visit my older brother when he came home from college to live at one house full time while I was at the other. I would have liked being listened to by lawyers and judges, instead of being treated like another superficial fact or statistic. I would have liked a lot of things. But I’m now twenty years old and I have outgrown the man in black robes. Since I cannot change what I would have liked, I now work to educate parents, lawyers, and judges about the harmfulness of rigid, “one-size-fits-all” schedules. Most importantly, I hope to provide a voice for children who are in the same situations that I was in, only two years ago.