I Thought I Won My Divorce. Then I Realized the Standard Custody Arrangement Is Court-Sanctioned Sexism.

Life & Love

When my marriage ended more than a decade ago, all parties assumed my ex and I would adopt the standard-issue divorce package: The kids would stay with me to provide the stability of a primary home, while he got weekend visits and I received child support. That was what the attorneys laid out as the default divorce recipe, what friends and relatives urged, and what I’d seen modeled in my own parents’ divorce and in countless TV and movie plots. That is what was considered a divorce “win” for moms. Everyone in my circle agreed: I got a good deal.

Fast-forward a few months and it became very clear that being a majority-time mom was hardly a good deal at all. In fact, this common set-up is the legally sanctioned version of June and Ward Cleaver. The female parent is shoehorned by way of a family court order and culture to be the primary caregiver, while the male parent is most often expected to be the primary breadwinner. More than three-quarters of custodial single parents are mothers, who often—just like I did—consider primary time with their children a victory.

Like the majority of the 16 million single mothers in the U.S., I soon became the sole provider for my household, and carried the overwhelming brunt of the logistical, emotional, and time labor required of childrearing. Building a career, finding time to exercise, relax, hang out with friends or date is exponentially harder when child care is disproportionately on one parent’s shoulders. This reality has been exasperated by the pandemic, which has hit single mothers harder than other groups.

Realizing the gender-stereotype modeling my children were observing sent a chill up my feminist spine, right along with my feminist rage at having to do it all. How was formally tasking single mothers with all the responsibilities of child care any sort of victory for women? While child support is often considered the equalizer in this arrangement, no sum of money can make that equation fair. Instead, I have come to understand that a truly equal arrangement in which time and responsibility for children are split 50-50 has the potential to close gender gaps for separated and divorced families, and change parenting culture for everyone.

For the past nine years I have had the unique opportunity to informally study hundreds of thousands of single moms through my work as a single mom blogger/podcaster/author, and time and again, anecdotes told this narrative: Single moms who share parenting 50-50 with their kids’ dads seemed to fare better financially, personally, and had better co-parenting relationships than moms with unequal parenting schedules. It makes sense: The more co-parenting equality a mother has, the more time she has to invest in her career, the more time she has for self-care, and the less rage she (and when I say she, I really mean me) has towards an ex who is not doing his share.

When I could not find any data to quantify whether or not these presumptions are true, I did my own research. Sure enough, my survey of 2,279 single moms conducted in September found a direct correlation between equality in the women’s time-sharing arrangements and their income and well-being. The poll found that single moms with a 50-50 parenting schedule are 54 percent more likely to earn at least $100,000 annually than moms whose kids are with them most of the time (such as weekend “visits” with the dad), and three times more likely to earn $100,000 than single moms with 100 percent time with their kids. This time-income connection is true for lower-earning moms, too: those with 50-50 parenting schedules are twice as likely to earn at least $65,000 than those with unequal schedules. Parenting-time equality also correlated with happier, prouder moms.

Single moms who share parenting 50-50 with their kids’ dads seemed to fare better financially, personally, and had better co-parenting relationships.

These findings make intuitive sense. But how do women who have been raised to believe that primary custody is a divorce “win” feel about equal schedules? What surprised me was that while just 13 percent of the moms I surveyed actually have a 50-50 schedule (98 percent of whom like it), a majority of the single moms I polled wish they had a 50-50 arrangement, and a full nine out of 10 believe they could earn more if they had a more equal parenting schedule. In other words: Single moms get that equally shared parenting is good for them.

But what about the kids? Turns out, assumptions that I bought into about what is best for children after a divorce were wrong. A review of 60 studies by Wake Forest University researchers concluded that children with separated and divorced parents fare best when they spend equal time with both parents, and a lack of father involvement is connected to dozens of negative outcomes for children. Unequal parenting schedules also contribute to dads checking out: Studies have found that dads who have minority-time custody are more likely to decrease or cease contact with their children.

Unequal parenting also hurts dads. Fathers, contrary to what popular culture depicts, are just as committed to parenthood as mothers, bond with children equally, and are happier and healthier when they are active in their childrens’ lives. One study by researchers at The University of the South–Sewanee found fathers felt overall happier, more competent, and satisfied with life than men without children.

If the connection between equal parenting, child welfare, and gender equality is so clearly the answer, what is the problem? The reason the majority of separated and divorced parents stick to the vintage kids-with-mom/visits-with-dads model is complicated: the legal industry profits from win-lose divorces, misunderstandings like I struggled with about the latest science on child development, and a culture that time and again defaults to traditional, sexist gender roles. I also believe white feminism has inadvertently largely overlooked single moms—half of whom are women of color—as a powerful agent for gender equality. After all, while it is impossible to legislate equality inside of a marriage, it is absolutely possible to legislate gender equality for the 20 million U.S. families with children—starting with family law reform.

Across the country, activists are working to pass bills that would create a rebuttable presumption of 50-50 parenting time when parents live apart, making equal parenting the default for single moms and dads, unless a parent is proven to be somehow unfit. Early data finds these laws are effective in minimizing conflict between parents—and popular with voters. In 2018 Kentucky enacted the country’s first law that mandates a presumption of equally shared parenting time when parents live separately. Two years later, Kentucky family court filings dropped by more than 11 percent, and filings that involved domestic violence declined by nearly 700 cases, a victory heralded by domestic violence advocates and judges in that state. By defaulting to an expectation of equality, family courts in Kentucky have made more room to serve families who are truly in crisis.

The greatest power of Kentucky’s law does not materialize when parents arguing over custody are ordered by a judge to split custody 50-50. The power of this movement is that it is changing our cultural DNA. Real change happens when attorneys inform splitting parents that equal parenting time is the new norm—so don’t bother fighting over it. This new assumption of equality trickles down via chit-chat on playgrounds, at neighborhood, barbeques and in mommy groups on social media—all of which normalize low-conflict, 50-50 parenting schedules because they are understood to be good for everyone: children, courts, fathers, mothers, grandparents and extended families, the economy—and equality.

Real change happens when attorneys inform splitting parents that equal parenting time is the new norm—so don’t bother fighting over it.

I can attest to this myself. It took years, and it was not always easy or low-conflict. But today my kids split their time equally between their dad’s home and mine. To make this possible, I had to let go of ideas that as the mother I am inherently the better parent, and I have to contend with sometimes missing my children. But I see my children benefiting from a dad who has stepped into his power as a parent. And they have a mom who is less stressed and who is thriving in her career. My son and daughter absorb by osmosis their male and female parents equally modeling public and domestic duties. As for me, for the first time since becoming a mother, I know that I am walking my feminist talk, and being the change I want to see.

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