Flashback to 1970:
Couple calls it quits. Mom gets the kids. Dad pays child support.
Fast forward to today:
Mom and Dad divorce. Mom and Dad split custody 50-50. Kids gets two homes.
Unlike Kramer vs. Kramer, the landmark 1979 film about divorce starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, many parents now refuse to see custody as an either/or proposition.
But should they? Research and expert analysis of joint custody arrangements is inconclusive about what's best for the child. Judith Wallerstein, considered one of America's foremost experts on divorce, argued in her book Second Chances that the disruptive effect of shuttling between two households could create anxiety and insecurity in children. Others who work with kids of divorce believe that equal access to both parents is a far greater gift than the advantages of having a single residence.
At its best, joint physical custody (as opposed to joint legal custody, which gives both parents a voice in the major decisions affecting a child's life, but not necessarily the chance to live with the child) represents parents' attempt to make the best of a bad situation. At its worst, it can intensify a child's feeling of being torn in two.
"A lot of the success of these arrangements depends on the level of communication the parents are able to have with each other," observes Ruth Rich, a psychologist who works with divorcing families. "There needs to be a willingness to focus in a businesslike manner on the needs of the child, or the child could have a less favorable prognosis for coping with the divorce."
Marcia Boumil, an attorney who does court-ordered custody evaluations, agrees on the importance of communication, but also urges parents to consider whether a 50-50 custody split will leave a child feeling scattered.
"Unless there's abuse or neglect, the literature is clear that kids do better with a substantial relationship with both parents," she says. "But it's also important that kids have a place to call home."
A Tale of Three Families: The Joint Custody Experience
Nine-year-old Michael knows the drill. He also knows the alternatives.
"I stay with both parents equal times," he explains. "It makes me feel better than never seeing one."
"I think he's fine with it," says Michael's father Bill S. of the joint custody arrangement he's worked out with his former wife, Beth J. "He knows his schedule. Beth and I live close together and I think there's a real comfort in that. He's gone to the same school in the same neighborhood for six years."
Michael typically spends two weeknights with his father and two with his mother, then alternates weekends. His parents, who have chosen to live within a few blocks of each other, have worked hard to make sure that Michael's two households are as similar as possible.
It's worked "incredibly well," Michael's mother Beth believes, "because we live so close together and our lifestyles are similar. Even though we're very different people with different parenting styles, we've come together in setting similar limits and similar rules, whether it's about bedtime or 'No, you can't eat in the living room'."
Brian R., father of six-year-old Connor, agrees that consistency and communication are the cornerstones of a successful joint custody arrangement. He has shared custody with his former wife, Kate, for four years.
"If there's a problem, Kate and I talk on the phone," he says. "If I take away TV privileges for a week because of a behavior problem, I call her and let her know, and she does the same thing at her house."
The couple chose a "time-share" arrangement that allows Connor to live for up to four days with each parent. He spends Monday and Tuesday with Brian and his partner, Bob. Wednesday and Thursday he's with Kate and her boyfriend, Tony. Weekends alternate. Because Brian and Kate "remain the very best of friends," Connor frequently spends time with all four adults in his life, who attend his school events together and even meet for Sunday brunch or a round of cards.
"He sees all of us as equal partners in the parenting mix," Brian reflects. "I don't think he remembers a time when there wasn't the four of us. The message to the child is that although there are two locations, there is still one family."
Sarah M., mother of five-year-old Ryan, has found joint custody a more challenging experience. Sarah's remarriage and the birth of a second child, while happy events, have created complications.
"I needed my life with my new family to be separate from (former husband) Peter's family," Sarah states. "His sister-in-law was doing child care for us, so I had been seeing someone in his family every day."
The situation eased somewhat when Ryan started preschool, but communication between the former couple has remained tense and awkward, especially on Sunday, "switch day."
"Right now Peter's so angry he can barely talk to me," Sarah admits. "He doesn't tell me things I need to know about Ryan, like whether he's been sick or even whether someone he knows died. That actually happened, and he never told me."
Sarah hopes that visits to a mediator will help, and notes that despite their differences, both she and Peter are motivated by the same fear: losing time with their child.