THE NEW AGE OF DIVORCE Custody: Getting Past the Anger

What happens when one parent gets custody, but the other doesn’t go away? Good things.

THE COLD WAR BEGAN TO thaw with a loud knock at the door. There was my ex-wife staring at me with that blank look, the one she’s perfected over a decade.

Her new husband was at her shoulder, and true to our custom, he and I exchanged greetings while she said nothing. 1 invited them inside, uncertain that the room was large enough for us and all of our history.

None of us really wanted to he there, hut there we were-she and her husband, my wife and I -sitting down for a first-ever conference in our living room.

The subject was our strapping 16-year-old son, now a high-school sophomore. Although he’s an above-average student, the hoy has a continuing problem with the structure of school and the authority of teachers. Once or twice each year, his disdain for the rules comes out as mistreatment of his fellow students.

Music is his main interest and hand his favorite class. But lately he seemed eager to throw it all away by, as he termed it, “treating everybody in hand like crap.” We all agreed that “crap” was no way to treat people. And for the next few hours, we carried on a little morality play for his benefit.

It was a reasonable, truly remarkable course of action considering that exactly 10 years ago, my ex-wife and I squared off in a winner-take-all gut fight in family court for the management of our son’s life, This was a full-blown custody battle, complete with expensive attorneys, a somber judge and jury, and two very devoted parents.

The jury decided that our son would live with me-an unusual development for those days. But. courtroom custody fights have more to Jo with a power struggle between adults than they do with children. As Los Angeles prosecutor Marcia Clark and other new child custody combatants will find out, the problems of custody do not end when the judge or jury makes a decision.

In our case, a cute little white-haired preschooler would grow into a 6-foot-tall, 210-pound mountain of hormones, complete with car keys, girl friends, and responsibilities- And parents who divorced each other long ago would find that, like it or not, they still had a relationship.

Only in a few very extreme cases does the “losing” parent just go away and leave the children’s welfare to the former partner. The vast majority of cases, however bitterly contested, involve two dedicated parents who settle into an awkward detente-not really together, not really apart.

Attorney Mary Jo Earle, who once represented divorcing parents at her child’s daycare center, saw this first-hand. The “losers” didn’t vanish after the trial was over.

“I had to quit handling their cases,” she said. “I couldn’t go to the Halloween Carnival at the school without seeing all of these people I had opposed in divorce cases. It was uncomfortable.”

In the Marcia Clark case-Clark’s ex-husband sought custody, claiming that the O.J. matter was forcing her to ignore the kids-feminist legal theorists have talked about the injustice of women being stigmatized because they work too much.

In a sense, this is a major step forward from the stigma women lived with a decade ago. At the time my ex and I went to court, mothers who did not have custody of their children were thought to he mentally or morally defective. It was as unfair as the myth that fathers could not raise small children, hut it existed nonetheless.

1 rememher telling a teacher who lamented our son’s “difficult life” that he was never even remotely abused or neglected, that she didn’t need to treat him like a too-precious child.

Cooperation for the cause of the kid is one thing, but Dallas psychologist Jeffrey Siegel says there is no rule that co-parents in divorce must be friends. As long as you can discern your personal interest from what’s in the best interest of the child, he says, you are capable of making the right decisions.

Certainly, I’m not as sensitive to my ex-wife’s feelings as I am to those of our child, but perhaps that’s to be expected. There was the time at a school open house when I got up and introduced myself and my wife as his parents, even though his mother was sitting right across from me. The slight was unintentional, but still it hurt and embarrassed her.

And it cuts both ways. 1 was convinced that my ex and her husband were trying to buy our son’s affection when they purchased him a car on his 16th birthday. With time, I’ve come to see the wisdom of that move. After all, 1 don’t have to either drive him places or be stranded while he takes my car.

My ex and our son discussed how operating a car is a life lesson in responsibility for him. Now there’s a tangible way to show him cause and effect. Keep your grades up and your behavior in line, Bub, or the car goes away.

The complexity of our dealings over the past 10 years has taught me that it’s probably harder to be divorced with children than it is to stay married. This is a lesson we should teach succeeding generations. Decisions you make affect you and your current family, your ex and his or her family, maybe even the new spouse’s family from a previous marriage. In some especially complex blended families, the affected people can number in the dozens.

I’ve always felt that maintaining a stable home setting in a familiar neighborhood and with a continuity of schooling was most important for children of divorce. And that has been confirmed by Sara McLanahan, a leading divorce researcher at Princeton University, in her comprehensive overview of the consequences of divorce, Growing Up With a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps. Professor McLanahan’s research team concludes that up to 40 percent of the increased risk of becoming a high-school dropout is attributable to moving as a result of divorce. The child who can keep the same friends, neighbors, and teachers is halfway toward a good mental outcome.

Today, my ex says she can think of no decision I’ve made for our son that she would have made differently. Still, she admits to feeling some satisfaction when 1 would call her, obviously exasperated that he was becoming an adolescent and I couldn’t seem to stop it. We are not what I would call friends, but we are probably on better rooting now than ever before, perhaps even better than during our marriage. There’s even a bittersweet joke between us; that we fought for our son long ago, when he was a cute little kid. And now that he’s a very large teenager, we argue over who has to put up with him.

Both of us have learned the credo of the divorced parent. Not everything your ex does is meant to hurt you. Not every thing that happens is major. Take a deep breath before responding. Give peace a chance.

Can You Afford to Get a Divorce?

FACTS: THE TOP FAMILY LAWYERS charge in the neighborhood of $400 an hour. The legal assistants employed by your attorney can eat up $100,000 per year. Then come expert witnesses, court costs…and you’re staring at a bill that could have been sent by a Pentagon contractor.

Just to start the process in motion may requite a retainer ranging from $10,000 for a simple divorce to $25,000 if child custody is involved. Many of these retainers are non-refundable, even if your case settles the next day. Why? Ego. Attorney Big Bucks will argue that it was his slash-and-burn reputation that forced the settlement and earned faith the right to keep your money. This mentality is a holdover from the days when every attorney’s office in t he city was equipped with a plaque claiming, “Gunfighters don’t get paid by the bullet.”

How bad can it get? The Basses, the Cullen Davises, and the Trumps may have engaged in diamond-studded fisticuffs, but the most expensive gunfight in divorce law history , according to the legal periodical Texas Lawyer, was a relatively obscure local case.

In 1991, Ann and John Flavin, a mega-rich Arlington couple who owned, among other things, the sports and printing firm Optigraphics, engaged in a legal Mood bath over their vast holdings and the custody of their two children.

Working with a virtually bottomless war chest supplied by the vengeful ex-spouses, the legal team- headed by Bill Koons (her attorney) and James Barlow (his) stoked the fires to the tune of a reported $ 10 million in attorneys’ fees, expert witness charges, and other litigation costs.

But not even $10 million worth of legal work could buy happiness (or cooperation) for the Bavins. Neither of the parties was rich enough to buy out the other, and no one was in the mood to compro-mse.Scj,in the end, the sports card com-pany, their pride and joy, was sold to settle all claims.

And as bad as that sounds, it can get worse in those Divorce Cases From Hell in which an attorney extracts a huge retainer, sucks it dry, and dumps the client on the way to trial.

Those who just want to he able to put food on the table when it’s all over should investigate the held diligently. Interview several attorn eys before making your selec-tion. Ask them how much they charge per hour. (Charges of $150 to $225 per hour are on the tow side.)

Any retainer should be set on a sliding scale, considering the difficulty of the case, and should be refundable if the case settles or you reconcile. Just let any attorney you hire know that cost does matter and that you will monitor it closely.

The following attorneys have been identified as good values -for the money: Mary Jo Earle, Tony Kaufman, Frank Moore, John Schorsch Jr., Linda Tyson, and Jimmy Verner.-L. U.

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