by Brette Sember
It's time to change the way we think about custody. Many people assume that a custody decision is a determination of who is the "good" parent and who is the "bad" parent. Many people assume that if a parent does not have custody of his child, he did something wrong, is not trustworthy, or doesn't have good parenting skills. It's also often assumed that if a person has custody of his child that he must be the better parent.
A custody order is not a declaration, condemnation, or reward about the parents' abilities, personalities, or lifestyles. A custody case is not a battle with one side emerging victorious and the other branded the loser. Parents are not contestants with each seeking to become the champion.
A custody order is a method of organizing your lives so that your child has one home and has time to spend with each parent. Custody is decided based on what is best for that particular child in that particular situation.
Children need both their parents, but in many cases, it is impossible to exactly split the time evenly between the two parents. Therefore, one parent generally ends up being the residential parent, or the parent the child spends the most time with. This decision is based upon what the child's needs are and the facts of the situation, and is not based on any kind of evaluation of who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, or even who is more likable.
There definitely are custody cases in which one parent (sometimes both!) is unfit. A parent who abuses, ignores, harms, neglects, or scares a child is not a good parent. Some of these parents can learn to change their behavior, but until they do, they are noxious to a child and there is good reason not to give them custody.
There are also varying degrees of parenting skills. Some parents are better supervisors than others; some parents are better teachers; some are better nurturers and so on. Not every parent can excel at every skill involved in parenting. This is why a court must look at the facts of the case and get information about each parent’s lifestyle, personality, and abilities.
Most parents are good parents, and a custody case comes down not to who can throw the most mud at the other person, but to what kind of arrangement will honestly work best for the child. Not every family can function with a 50/50 split -- not only is it difficult for some children, but it is logistically impossible for some parents.
A custody decision is made by the court to set out the best possible plan that will allow the child time with both parents, and a stable environment. In a perfect world, all parents would be able to share time amicably, but not many live in that perfect world, so courts have to step in and create plans for many families.
If your custody order is not exactly what you hoped, you have every right to appeal it. In the meantime, the best thing you can do for your child is to approach the schedule wholeheartedly and honestly. Live up to it and your child. Give your child everything you have during your scheduled times, and try not to get caught up in being angry, jealous, or disappointed. Those feelings won't help your child.
Brette McWhorter Sember is a retired family attorney and mediator and nationally known expert about divorce and parenting after divorce. She is the author of: