Let’s leave out of this discussion those cases where a parent abuses drugs or alcohol, is a perpetrator of domestic violence, or worse. These are a minority of custody cases and deserve an entirely different discussion. Rather, for now, let’s discuss the family where both parents are safe and loving parents to their children. It may be that one parent (the breadwinner) is home less of the time than the other parent and may not handle lots of the day-to-day responsibilities associated with the children, but that parent is a loving and safe parent. The other parent (the non-breadwinner or lesser breadwinner) has been able to spend more time with the children because the breadwinner’s income and work outside the home facilitated this arrangement. In this familial arrangement, it is often the non-breadwinner who is the bridge between the children and the breadwinner, meaning, that parent is often the relationship and communication conduit between the breadwinning parent and the children. For example, while the breadwinner is at work, the other parent is often assuring the children their Mom/Dad will be home “in just a few hours,” often makes the family plans for the weekend and usually fills in the breadwinning parent about the children’s activities that day.
The Intact Family Dynamic
As time progresses in a marriage, these roles often become familiar and accepted. They evolve further as family expenses increase, such as when children start attending preschool or private school at costs which often tip the scales at $20,000 per year. This typically means the breadwinner must work harder to keep up with these financial demands, making the breadwinner less available for family time. Does this mean the breadwinner loves his or her children less? Does this mean his or her children are less bonded with the breadwinner? I would posit to say that the answer is “no.” Many children crave the time they get to spend with their breadwinner parent when he or she is home because they are bonded with and love their other parent.
The Family Breakup
Once the family breaks apart, a schism occurs. What used to be a team effort whereby one parent was the breadwinner (the CEO of the family’s finances) and the other was in charge of the children and the home (the CEO of the household), is all of sudden unacceptable – usually to both parents. The breadwinner wants the non-breadwinner to return to work to help maintain what are now two households; at the same time the breadwinner wants to ensure his or her bond with the children is not forgotten and in fact is strengthened. By virtue of the roles the parents played when the family was intact, the breadwinner was used to seeing the children in the evening and being “filled in on the day” by the other parent. Once the family breaks ups and lives separately, this dynamic no longer occurs and the breadwinner often realizes he or she must make dramatic changes to make certain they have the time and fortitude to have frequent and continuing contact with the children. This typically requires a deliberate effort by the breadwinner to set aside time so the bond with the children can be maintained or strengthened since he or she will no longer see the children daily at bedtime (for example) with the daily “recap” from the other parent.
The Reorganized Family
When the breadwinner makes the commitment to be an involved parent after the breakup to the family, I often hear the non-breadwinning parent say things like, “Now he/she want to be Super Dad/Mom. He/she never took little Johnny to the dentist before.” Well, often the reason why the breadwinning parent did not take little Johnny to the dentist was because he or she was working to pay the family’s expenses. So, when the breadwinning parent now decides to make changes to be more involved in the children’s lives, I ask the non-breadwinning parent to consider how this can be a good thing – a benefit to the children. Often divorce and the breakup of a family make the breadwinner a better, more active parent. Isn’t this in the children’s best interest?
The courts and many people will argue that the status quo - the roles of the parents just before the schism created by the family breakup – is what should prevail as the custody plan post-breakup (and this often happens). But, why? If both parents are loving and safe parents, why can’t this reorganization of the family be viewed as an opportunity for the breadwinning parent to be more involved in the children’s lives? Not every breadwinning parent wants this or has a job which allow for this, but if he or she does, there is every reason to create a new status quo so the children can enjoy the best relationship possible with each parent.