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How Child Custody Arrangements Have Evolved Over Time

Child in the middle of parents

The definition of Custody is “the right of determining residence, protection, care, and education of a minor child or children, especially in a divorce or separation.” It’s interesting how custody has shifted throughout the years. In the early part of the century, men were awarded custody since women couldn’t own property and in the event of a divorce they went back to live with their parents. In the 1960’s through the early 2000s, women were primarily awarded custody, with dads seeing their kids on alternating weekends and one night during the week for dinner.

In the past ten years there’s been a shift towards 50/50 parenting time, where the children spend close to equal parenting time with both parents. This is based on studies that show the importance of children spending time with both parents and also more women as “bread-winners” and out in the work force.

I was curious about the kind of arrangements people had when their parents got divorced and how they felt about the situation. For some it was difficult and messy, with a move and a loss of friends and the other parent, as well as a loss of environmental stability. For others, it was positive; particularly when they got to make the choice about who to spend time with.

Rhiannon said, “It was a mess. …..those were always splintered with periods of fighting and trying to get sole custody or chip at each other's time. Holidays were supposed to alternate as well.”

Rita shared, “The custody that was arranged was half and half. ….. I remember crying about not being with my mom and having to be with my dad, and my dad just kept telling me that I had to be with him or something like that."

Jay had the typical arrangement and the difficulties that came with it, “My mother had custody of us and we saw my father one evening a week for dinner and stayed over at his apartment one evening on the weekend. It was difficult on me for a number of different reasons. ... I became the intermediary shuttling information back and forth between them (although more so from my mother to my father). …. It was also hard sharing information with him only seeing him a couple of times a week. There were no cell phones or texting back then so keeping in touch was even harder than it is today.”

Stephanie remembers having to pack a bag, “We had to always make sure we didn't forget to bring anything with us each time we switched from parent to parent. They always had different meeting spots and different times and we never really knew when and where we'd be.”

Amy’s dad wanted custody and had trouble finding a lawyer to fight for it, “… this was back in the day when mothers were basically always given custody regardless of if they were a fit parent or not. My dad was actually turned away by divorce lawyers when they found out he planned on fighting for custody.”

Mike and Isabella felt the loss of the other parent:

Mike shared, “We lived with my mother and saw my father sometimes on the weekends. I hated it because we only saw my father every once in a while and he had no interest in seeing us.”

And Isabella said, “I definitely had a hard time because I wanted to see my dad more. Sometimes we didn't see him on the weekend and it would make me sad.”

Amanda’s mom didn’t want her spending time with her father, “I visited dad every weekend. He would pick me up and drop off. She hated that! I would have to clean the whole house and laundry before I could go and it was terrible coming back. One time she locked me out. I had to go to a store and call dad. He came back to get me.”

Lisa was older at the time of divorce and felt guilty, “I was absolutely devoted to my mom. She had been wronged, right? …. I wasn't ready to loose the only dad I knew. I knew it was upsetting for my mom but to her credit and incredible strength, love, and concern for me, she gritted her teeth and didn't stand in my way.”

The non-custodial parent often didn’t know what to do with their kids. They didn’t have the toys, books, and equipment at their home and so the kids felt like visitors and the parents felt that they had to entertain them the whole time they were together.

Geoffrey said, “When my dad didn't have us stay with him, he would often visit for an afternoon and we would go bowling or go for a hike, he called it a "walk-of-adventure". I think we'd just sort of wander around for a while. Eventually, we worked out an arrangement where we visited his house every month or so and visited my paternal grandfather's house on other visitation weekends.”

Ari felt obligated to see his dad when as a teen it’s a natural time to spend with friends, “We just wanted to spend time with friends, and now we had to spend half our weekends either in my dad's crummy apartment or later in his house 20 miles away. If there was a birthday party or something else it became that much more complicated. My dad wanted his time to be special, but (unlike in the movies) he didn't plan big exciting things. We would eat brunch and get a carwash. I don't think he knew what to do as a solo parent.”

Today, I hear from parents how the gain of having individual time with their children allows them to make decisions and spend time parenting how they want to. When each parent sets up a home and has a place for children to do homework or bring friends over, they’re less inclined to feel that they need to run around like a “Disney” parent. Thinking about how to make your house a home and including your kids in age appropriate decisions- like picking out a new comforter or what color to paint the walls, helps the children to acclimate to the change as well.

Jody Comins, MSW is a Divorce & Family Mediator and Collaborative Coach in the Greater Boston area. She is an adult child of divorce and uses her experience to create a child-centered practice at A Better Way: Divorce Mediation. She is a mentor for volunteer mediators in the Norfolk Probate & Family Court and a court approved facilitator for the required parenting classes in MA.


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