Having practiced family law for several decades, we have seen a slow but steady change in judges’ willingness to award primary custody to fathers, particularly when the children’s mother works long hours.
A combination of factors are at play here: more women are succeeding professionally, fathers have become more engaged in their children’s lives, and the recent recession has affected men more than women, which has meant that more men have become stay-at-home dads in recent years.
While many in the media have derided this evolution as a backlash against working mothers, it’s not. It’s simply a continuation of what has always been the case: judges are much more likely to award primary custody to the parent who is the primary caregiver. The caregiver’s gender doesn’t matter as much as his or her presence in the children’s lives.
Here at Orsinger Nelson, we counsel our clients (male and female) who are concerned about losing primary custody of their children to do the following:
Change your focus: The problem with the discussion over custody issues is the focus on the parents. One parent “wins” and one parent “loses.” The decision, however, is about the children and what’s best for them. If your ex truly has spent the most time with your children-stayed home with them when they were sick, taken them to the dentist, attended teacher conferences, or led the scout troop-as much as it may break your heart to admit, your children may be best off spending more of their time with your ex. You will, of course, want to maximize your time with them. But making the discussion about you and your ex is missing the point.
Put your best food forward: It’s possible that the world doesn’t see how involved you are in your children’s lives because most of what you do is behind closed doors. Reading bedtime stories, making dinner, soothing a sick child in the middle of the night-none of these are likely to be seen by anybody who could vouch for your good parenting. If you suspect your marriage is headed toward divorce, it’s probably a good idea to be a more visible parent. Make it a point to attend teacher conferences, volunteer to chaperone a field trip, go on a scout campout, help coach the lacrosse team-you get the picture. Yes, these obligations will probably take time away from the office, but if that’s not an option for you, don’t be surprised if the court agrees with your ex that your job doesn’t leave time for you to be an involved parent.
Get the help you need: Chances are, if you are a two-career family, you already have in place the help you need to keep your household and family operating smoothly. But if you don’t, now is the time to find it, and your first stop is a qualified, professional caregiver for your children. There’s no substitute for mom’s and dad’s love, of course, but when they’re both at work, there needs to be a third person who is reliable and caring to step in for doctor visits, carpool, and after-school hours. Having that someone in place before the divorce is ideal, of course, because the children will benefit from that consistency.