Chicago Tribune

`Custody' may mean `not dad's'

Ross Werland
Chicago Tribune
October 27, 2002

When given a chance to write in this space, I vowed never to use the words "I," "me" or "my," because my life is not so fascinating that anyone needs to read about it. But one personal subject I cannot avoid. One day about 15 years ago, a stranger, a judge, decided that my children would not live with me anymore. This was a mutually agreed-upon, no-brainer divorce: two young boys, no real assets, plenty of bills and two adults who couldn't get along. No violence, no shouting. Just a marriage that was way over. Two people who married too young but who loved their children. I would be given the window dressing of "joint custody," but the boys still would not live with me, because I'm male.

Sparing you the details of a parent-child relationship as intertwined as anyone's, I wasn't just an "involved" father (would we say someone is an "involved" mother?). My kids were everything, and no longer would I be in their lives every day. I wouldn't be sleeping under the same roof. There was no way that this could feel right, but in Cook County in the mid-1980s, the children of divorce were expected to live with the mother. To fight that would have taken thousands of dollars I didn't have. Furthermore, did I want to hand over money to a lawyer so he could buy things for his kids, or did I want to take any resources I had left and use them for my own children? Duh!

I'm confident that if I had gone for primary custody, I would have started a battle that would have forced the children to side with me or against me. Either way would have been bad. Why would a parent who loves his or her children force them to choose one parent over another? My children had become hostages not of a person but of a situation. If I wanted to save the best part of our relationship, I had to surrender. Fighting could have escalated into a winner-take-all scenario I couldn't risk. So without a battle I gave up the most precious pieces of my life. It never felt right, but people--overwhelmingly men--are expected to endure this routinely.

Within a couple of years, though, their mother gave me custody--just like that. Someday I may come to understand that as a heroic act on her part; but then, wasn't it a heroic act on my part when I gave them up? Anyway, I got my happy ending. I ended up with two of the greatest boys a parent could want. They now are two tremendous young men.

So I have experienced both sides of the custody issue. I can tell you that if you love your children, there is no substitute for having them with you every day. Whoever says one day a week and every other weekend is enough "visitation" is a liar.

That said, are we as a society actually bewildered when fathers in divorce run away? Regardless of fault in the divorce, we take away everything they have loved and worked for, then tell them how much we will be deducting from their paycheck and offer them no guarantee that they will be able to have even an uninterrupted conversation with their children, let alone see them.

The better men don't run, and doing so is absolutely wrong, but it's easy to understand why some do. Do we suppose that women thrown into this situation would behave differently? Our only clue is that when mothers are ordered to pay child support, federal statistics show they are less likely to pay than men are.

So if we can agree that all people are created equal, meaning equally flawed, maybe we could try to be more humane for everyone, unless we're married to the idea of trying to drive some parents away.

Michigan lawmakers have been debating legislation similar to laws that have popped up across the country to make joint legal and physical custody the norm, barring harmful circumstances.

Some women's organizations have resisted such legislation, saying it gives abusive males an excuse to continue to harass their ex-wives. With all due respect and sympathy to victims of any kind of abuse, are people like my children and I supposed to be governed by a system that separated us because some animals don't know how to treat their fellow human beings? Isn't it for the courts to keep an eye out for such monsters? Or are we trying to conclude that all men are inclined to evil and should be separated from their progeny?

Ultimately, no matter what Michigan or any other state legislates, divorce is not easily accomplished. A divorce is not a solution; it's an amputation, and it will feel like that to the children. It takes both parents to deal with that hurt, and that comes only by loving their children more than they despise each other.

But at least some lawmakers out there are looking for answers, because perpetuating a system in which parents of equal or nearly equal value are forced to wage a damaging battle for the simple privilege of being with their children is just plain sick. It's an American disgrace. Can't we be more creative than this?

Copyright 2002 Chicago Tribune.