Custody and separation: Where do the children play?

A startling number of my friends are going through separations or divorce currently, and I’m surprised at the variations on child custody that seem to be cropping up. I realize that like many things, there’s no “right” answer, but I thought it would be an interesting discussion to talk about different arrangements and the benefits and disadvantages of each.
First off, I should say that I believe that the parents sticking together is always best for the children if the parents are at least reasonably happy together. Not necessarily blissful — I’m not convinced life offers us perpetual bliss, even with the perfect match — but at least able to say that the good times outweigh the bad, and that the bad times aren’t off the chart bad. Further, I’m talking about joint custody arrangements, not the situation where one parent just walks away, or the courts decide one parent is not sufficiently responsible to have the children at all.


If we assume that the relationship isn’t working and that there are one or more children in the picture, then the question becomes one that reflects a poignant old Cat Stevens song: Where do the children play?
Here are the possibilities I can think of:

  • Somehow split the house or build an outbuilding so that both parents stay “on premises”, with the kids meandering from space to space as they feel,
  • The parents get a second place together and while one parent is at “home” with the children, the other is at the second place without kids,
  • One parent moves out properly and has a new place. The children stay with them some percentage of the time, though not all.
  • The house is sold (often for financial reasons) and both parents get new places, and the kids bounce from one place to the other.

Maybe there are more, but those are what I can envision.
Each has disadvantages, but what most interests me are couples who are rotating in and out of the family house so that the children are always in the same place: their comment is that by making sure the children are always in familiar surroundings, the blow of the parents splitting up is buffered and it’s easier on the children when compared to the kids having two different bedrooms in two different houses. Maybe, but I think that the price that the parents themselves pay, of never really having their own home (both places become temporary digs, basically), and the financial cost of having two — or even three! — places, is kinda crazy and is a difficult arrangement to sustain.
Of course, the traditional model is that one parent moves out, gets their own place, then the kids migrate back and forth like modern-day nomads. Monday-Thursday at Mom’s, then Friday through Sunday at Dad’s, etc etc. If it’s not a 50/50 custody, then perhaps it’s Mon-Fri with Mom, Sat-Sun with Dad.
While I think it could be hard on kids to have two places, it also strikes me that it could be pretty fun for them to have a second place to set up. New furniture, new books, new toys, and a new neighborhood with new kids on the block and around the corner. Heck, new bike paths, parks, and even a refuge from when one parent is having a hard time and the kids just need a safe harbor…
Another arrangement that I’ve also heard about that seems tough to pull off in the long run is to split the kids: one or more kids live with one parent, while the others stay with the other parent. My scientific training makes me want to call this “divide and conquer” 🙂
More seriously, the problem I see with this arrangement is that the child who is with, say, Mom can’t help but feel like they’re not important — or are at least less loved — by Dad, or vice versa. Maybe they could be ships passing in the night, one kid stays with Dad during the week but gets Mom for the weekends, while the other swaps every week, but then the children themselves don’t get to live together and forge a strong sibling relationship.
So many options, and really, none of them really seem that great. I guess if the choice is to have unhappy parents stuck in a crummy relationship and a tense, unhappy household or to figure out which of these arrangements is best for your family in the short and long run, well, it’s probably a “lesser of two evils” sort of thing.
But, dear reader, what’s your take? Are you separated, split, divorced, and if so, how did you work out custody and, in the long run, how has it worked out for you and your children? If your parents split up, how did they work it out, and how do you feel about how it worked out for you and your own childhood?

9 comments on “Custody and separation: Where do the children play?

  1. I have been through this process. I have a 3 year old daughter that went back and forth and had a great time with dad, but had a hard time being away from me. We are now back together and she has the best of it all, but I worry about how it affected her. I knew that she understood that something was wrong. The question is, how do you explain to them in a way they understand?

  2. My children were 6 and 18 months when my ex and I separated. We had raised them AP style and I was still nursing my youngest and shared sleep with us. So this certainly complicated things when my ex husband moved out. Having said that, in some ways, it made the transition easier. My children were already very used to their father having a large part of their lives so when they stayed overnight at his place the transition wasn’t as difficult. He would walk our youngest to sleep in the sling in the evenings and share sleep with him, which was something that used to happen when we were together already. As the kids became older, we split the time up 50/50 switching homes every 2 days and alternating weekends. Some people have wondered what it is like for the kids to go to a different home every couple of days, but it works for us and the kids are happier that way. And you’re right about the harbor, sometimes they see it as a mini vacation when they go to the other parent’s house. We’ve more or less kept the same style of parenting since the separation and that has provided consistency as well.

  3. hi,
    I just happened to get to this page by chance. I read only a few entries. forgive me for asking/intruding but I cant help but to inquire as you seem like such an emotionally intelligent guy…
    Have you and Linda tried marriage counseling?
    My husband Todd was divorced with 2 kids when we met. When we contemplated marriage I suggested premarital counseling. He was reluctant at first. After spending 2 months in counseling he was a proud supporter. Now I feel that having gone through the experience or relationship is very secure.
    Todd says that had he done the counseling with his first wife he would have saw the flags that the relationship was headed south.
    So again I’m sure you’ve addressed all the things you needed to but I just felt the need to check on that one.
    wishing you both and the kids the best
    Lara

  4. My parents split up about 4 years ago. I am 17, my brother is 16 and my sister is 8. My dad lives in our family home and my mother has an apartment. We alternate houses every tuesday. My mother’s apartment is in a much more interesting and exciting part of town, so I like that aspect of the arrangement. I got to move without moving. Also, my dad and I don’t always get along very well, so it is nice to be able to go a week without seeing him. However, there are several problems. Hauling your stuff around in a laundry basket gets old after a while. Sometimes, I feel adrift and like I’m always moving. Also, I find that my brother and I do less chores now because by the time things get messy enough to clean, we leave for the other parents house. This has caused some tension with our parents. My sister had a much harder time with the divorce than my brother or I did. She went through a phase in which she constantly pretended to be sick to be able to stay home and spend time with a parent. Overall it is probably the best arrangement that we could have come up with.
    Best of luck in figuring out a solution for your family. Try to be as open with your children as possible. I wish my parents had been more forthright and honest about what was going on. They didn’t tell us my mom was moving out until after she had found an apartment. Also, try not to split your kids up. That would have been the worst possible thing my parents could have done. My brother and sister and I have gotten much closer as a result of being the constant presence in each other’s lives.

  5. Hello there!
    I’m 16, and my parents separated just a year ago. I actually stumbled upon your blog while I was looking for a monologue on parental separation. Acting is how I have learned to work stuff out. But that is besides the point.
    I wanted to respond to what you said about the children becoming nomads. This is the situation I am currently stuck in. My dad kept the house that I was born in, and my mom bought an apartment a few blocks away. For lack of a delicate phrase, it sucks. Clearly in any situation it sucks, but every saturday night I pack up all my clothes in a little canvas box and take the walk of death from my mother’s apartment to what i have always called my home. Every week there are at least 10 necessities that I realize I am without.
    It is not only the lack of material possessions that trouble me. I have lost my home. Leaving school at the end of the day becomes a painful process EVERY day. I don’t feel like I have anywhere to kick up my feet and feel home. I used to be very up tight about the use of the word “home,” on vacations we didn’t go home to the cabin where we spent at least half of all our summers, we went back to the cabin.
    Last week I was in Chicago with my choir, and the hotel where we stayed one night was home. In fact, ever since returning from that trip the idea of home has become even more distant.
    Not having any one place to call home, makes it harder to not have one unit to call family
    Something to think about in your consideration of possible living situations.

  6. I’m just in the porcess of divorcing my husband after a long and emotionally abusive marriage. He has gotten a lot better with the kids, 3 teens, and I would say he is a good father now. He has bought a very nice house in a good part of town and I am keeping the old house. I’m only doing this because I think it’s important for my kids, is this even a valid thought? I don’t like the house and can probably afford to get a new one, I just thought it might be important to them. Please advise.

  7. Lauren, sorry to hear about your experience, but I can’t help wondering if you’ve asked your children if they really care about the house and its memories, or whether they’re more attuned to you and your new life? You’re already sacrificing quite a bit for your children – as we all are as single parents – but if you don’t like the house, maybe you finding a new place, with the involvement of your kids in the selection process, could be a fresh start for you all too?

  8. hi, i am a father of a happy, seemingly well adjusted 8 year old. I separated from his mother 4 years ago. …alot of baggage and trauma from that relationship that i am happy to be free of. however, we were attachment parenting, had a home birth co sleeping and ,i feel, really being authentic and present for our son. so the points you raise divorce;separation what now? I believe are valid.
    the separation ended up being quite difficult for me… attachment parenting had raised eyebrow from my family, and co sleeping was met with a cold silence when at the grandparents… they could not believe the no crib ever request of ours.
    so, my point is there was little empathy or compassion from my family while in relationship with my sons mother…and when the choice to separate was made clear…oh the support from family was usual…not really much other that fight her in court on everything. bad advice…
    so now 4 years later, i live four hours away (by train) from my son and i go to see him every month or pick him up to bring him to stay at my home for the weekend once a month. I have to say it is a lot like a vacation for me.
    My son gave me a picture that he made with a letter attached telling me what he enjoys most about our father son relationship, mostly being active playing sports and spending time together in places that he thinks are cool, like fancy hotels, we stay at when in his town.
    lately tho he is requesting that I move closer to him. I gave the explanation about work and and needing time to make that kind of move.
    but i am really considering moving closer because, i feel if he says he wants or needs me around more i should be.
    any thots on starting over in a new city in order to be closer to my son?
    Warms regards

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