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How Much Time Do You Really Lose With Kids With Joint Custody?

Hoca

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Many people are scared to leave an unhappy marriage because they believe that a joint custody arrangement will significantly decrease the amount that they see their kids. While this is a valid concern and one that many people struggle with, my own experiences and those of my clients have shown me that this isn’t always really the case. Especially if you are fighting in front of your kids, an amicable divorce that leads to less conflict in their lives is often much healthier for all involved and does not always have to lead to significantly less time with the kids. Read on to see why.



When most parents think about the time they will lose with their kids, they are usually comparing the time in split custody to some amount of idealized time that never existed in the family. Let me explain.

When most couples are unhappy and considering divorce, the parents do not actually spend a lot of time together with the kids. Often, especially nowadays when men are more involved, the parents split up who is taking which child to which sport/playdate/extracurricular. One parent may handle breakfast and the other bedtime. In actuality, if there was a lot of positive whole-family time going on, the couple would not be considering divorce. The first thing to think about is how much time you are ACTUALLY spending with your kids in the current parenting setup.

Let’s say you are in the situation where you are a stay at home mom that is unhappy enough to be considering divorce. Often, in this setup, you are so stressed that you try to outsource childcare as much as you can. You may be asking your parents to watch the kids a lot, or using TV or the iPad to give you childfree time. This is fine and no judgment, but objectively assessing the amount of time you are outsourcing the kids can be very helpful in gauging how much, if any, your time with them will decrease following a split.

Also, how much of the time with the kids are you present for in actuality when you are depressed/anxious/stressed or in active conflict with your spouse? How much of this time are you on your phone or watching TV because you are too sad or stressed to do anything else? How much of the time are you yelling at your kids because you are so generally stressed and unhappy? (Read this for more on how women in unhappy marriages are less able to be good mothers.) This is again not a judgment but designed to help you understand that you may not be losing as much as you envision.

Here is an example that aligns closely with most of the experiences I observe.

Sally is 40 and considering divorce from her husband John. The kids are ages 6 and 9. There is constant tension in the home, so Sally tries to divide up the childcare with John to avoid fighting in front of the kids. She goes in to work early, while the kids are waking up and says a quick goodbye to them. John does the mornings and drops the kids at school while Sally picks them up by 4pm and takes them to activities.

John comes home at 6:30 when the kids are finishing up dinner and the oldest is starting her homework. Sally and John haven’t really eaten together in a few years. Often, she works on Math with her daughter while John plays Minecraft with their son. When he wants to work on homework with their daughter, Sally usually catches up on email and lets her son play Minecraft. By 9pm both kids are in bed and Sally and John each take about ten minutes to say goodnight to them.

On the weekends, Sally and John split up who goes to soccer with their daughter and who stays home with their son. Often, their son is taken along for errands, which he dislikes. Approximately one weekend a month, Sally and John each spend much of afternoon/evening with friends. Sally often visits her sister as well, and during the time they talk about Sally’s marriage, the kids play with their cousins.

How much alone time is Sally getting with each child? How much is John? Honestly, not much more than they would be getting if they split custody. In this case, Sally and John would each be there on both ends of the weekday on their days, and would be fully involved with the kids on their weekends, rather than splitting things up. Also, on either parent’s weekend, the other could attend any sports event as well, or offer to take the other child during that time. With an amicable divorce, activities are often split up similar to how they were before.

Also, Sally and John would hopefully be less exhausted and less miserable after their divorce, which may well translate to more energy, less phone time (when you’re “with” your kids but really sucked into your phone), and less outsourcing. When couples have alternate weekends to recharge and catch up on their chores and work on their time, they often experience a sharp uptick in energy for kid activities (be sure not to take this too far though!).

My point here is that if you are an Excel spreadsheet type of person and can be genuinely objective about how much time you spend actually interacting with awake children, particularly if you are a working parent, you may be able to crunch the numbers and find that there is not a tremendous difference in the amount of time you would have with shared custody. Also, there are many other variables to take into account, such as:

  • Are you amicable enough to both attend the kids’ sports and activities, meaning you would see them during the weekends that were not “yours” if you wanted to? (Honestly, even if you’re not amicable, this is in most divorce agreements)
  • Could you be creative at all with your work hours, meaning that you would be able to get more time with your kids on your days than you currently do?
  • If you are not the primary parent during one end of the day (morning or night), how much time would you gain doing both morning AND night routines on your days? Often, this is considerable.
  • How much time do you spend on your phone/depressed/in therapy/doing extra work or cleaning because you are unhappy and cannot therefore really enjoy the time you are supposedly spending with your kids?
  • How much do you let the kids use screentime when you are stressed/sad/overwhelmed vs how much would you let them use screens if you got more downtime yourself? Often, this is a marked decrease. We all use screens when we are too tapped out and this is okay but owning it will give you new insight into how much time you could potentially gain with your kids if a less stressed version of you didn’t have to rely on that quiet time.
  • Are your kids old enough to text/call you when you are not with them? Often, especially with tweens and teens, this is a less conflictual interaction.
  • Speaking of teens, how much time do they even spend at home? Count up the hours of extracurriculars, jobs, homework and time with friends. Do you see these kids more than a few hours a week awake in total? Would your hours decrease significantly if you still went to their sports activities and even still split the driving them places? If you currently have conflict with a teen, are your hours together happy or could you both stand a break from one another?

Divorce is a huge decision. Certainly, I am a marriage therapist and advocate working on your marriage if at all possible in any way you can. But if things are conflictual, you’ve tried everything else, the kids see you fighting (and if you are, they do), and you’re only staying because you fear the loss of time with your children, there are many ways to see this more clearly and to make it so that you aren’t comparing your post-divorce time with an illusion. I discuss more about comparing your post-divorce life to a happy marriage that doesn’t exist here.

Also, it is 100% true that most people parent better when they get a break from their children. This is why many, many women tell me privately in therapy that they are jealous of their friends who get every other weekend, or more, to themselves. And many people in this arrangement have no idea how they ever survived being full time 100% of the time, especially without family help and if they were the overfunctioner parent. They finally have hobbies, time to catch up on sleep, and time to see friends, all of which are important to the mental health of both genders.

Think about this post; it is a good one to bring up with your therapist to discuss more. And till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, You Are Rarely As Stuck Or Trapped As You Think!
 
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