Mothers are a critical part of our American society and of families. Importantly though, as a society, we must recognize that women and men together are indispensable partners to our country’s most valuable treasure: our children. We need to celebrate our children’s parents — both of them — as often as possible.
Still, in this modern era, people are often surprised to learn just how often courts operate with 1950s assumptions and routinely favor one parent over the other in instances of divorce or separation. Astonishingly, sole custody is awarded to one parent about 83 percent of the time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, thus creating a confrontational dynamic of winner and loser/visitor.
This practice also continues to force parents into gender stereotypes that simply no longer apply nowadays.
Moreover, thrusting parents into a winner-take-all arena only prolongs bitter custody battles that might benefit the legal community but have traumatic, corrosive and long-lasting effects on children, parents and families.
Virginia is starting to take small steps to update laws supporting shared parenting, where children spend as close to equal time as possible with each parent after divorce or separation. The important emphasis here is “as possible,” since an exact 50/50 split is not mandated in every single situation.
Right now, a bill supportive of shared parenting, House Bill 1351, has passed the Virginia House and Senate unanimously and as of this writing is awaiting the governor’s signature. Shared parenting is a flexible, collaborative, and safe solution that is overwhelmingly supported by both women and men — as well as by empirical studies published by the American Psychological Association, the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, and the Association of Family & Conciliation Courts. All of these professional organizations, and nearly 60 more, have released empirical, peer-reviewed studies that clearly support shared parenting for children of all ages in the vast majority of divorced and separated families.
What's more, not only has shared parenting been convincingly shown to be better for children, but it is also better for women who want a career and professional advancement. A shared parenting arrangement allows mothers significantly more time and opportunity to pursue careers than the status quo "sole custody " arrangement — plus, it treats mothers and fathers equally while being the best arrangement for children in most circumstances.
With shared parenting, post-divorce or separation, each parent will care for children, cook, clean, and work at a job. They must balance these responsibilities — much as they had to work out a balance while still together. Shared custody actually facilitates this process and decreases the stress involved for children and parents.
We need to strengthen and celebrate the modern, American family. We need to find ways to support children and encourage more parental engagement from both parents, regardless of marital status and gender. And we need to do so with an actual legal framework that facilitates this kind of equality and is supported by reams of social science. Otherwise, we simply force parents to fight just to be the parents they already were before the courts got involved.
Despite recent small steps, Virginia’s family courts continue to lag behind the progress the rest of the world and even other U.S. states — such as Utah, Oklahoma, and Kentucky — are making. Virginia must continue what it has started and join the modern world in doing what is best for children: shared parenting. Together, we can build a supportive culture to stand for children and their best interests and eliminate bias throughout the family court system.
Kristen Paasch is a member of National Parents Organization of Virginia.