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On Breaking Up

by David Wetherow

I was responding to a writer on a mailing list who is going through a divorce and hoping to establish joint custody. The other parent is demanding sole custody 'on the grounds that a joint placement schedule would be too much of a disruption for a  child [with a developmental disability]'...

Dear M,

First and foremost, what every kid needs, and especially kids who are vulnerable due to disability, is the loving, enduring, and 'on purpose' presence of family, friends and allies.

We want to anchor and secure these relationships in as many way as possible.

What every child needs, and especially children who are vulnerable to disability, is to see the adults in her life operating with affection, good will, and deep respect. S/he needs to see them solving problems in respectful, creative ways, sharing responsibilities, creating connections, seeking and celebrating the child's gifts, acting in concert.

Parents can do all of these things even when separated. Even when divorced. Shared custody sends a powerful signal about acting in concert.

I want to tell you two stories...

A friend of ours, long divorced, shared a duplex with his ex-wife and their child. The little girl was able to spend part of her time with her mom, part of her time with her dad, simply by going up and down stairs. The couple sustained this arrangement for about ten years, and when their daughter went away to college, our friend established his own home, and a new relationship, in a nearby community.

One more story - ours...

Faye and I share Amber's life, and her care, and our home, with Amber's dad (Faye's ex-husband). What this means is that together, we figure it out on a day-to-day basis. It's not always easy (nothing is always easy), but what Amber sees is a working collaboration. She sees us negotiating, supporting each other, helping each other make it through the day, the week, the seasons. She knows that she is safe.

If her dad lived five blocks, or five miles away, we'd be doing the same thing.

From one perspective, the big issue isn't 'custody', but collaboration. However, in my view, shared custody creates a much stronger basis for this collaboration than single custody, with the 'non-custodial' parent being formally relegated to a diminished role. I would strongly encourage both you and your spouse to make the investment in figuring out how to make shared custody work.

With respect to whether joint or shared custody is 'too confusing' for a child with Down Syndrome, the assumption is unfounded, prejudiced and demeaning. What will be confusing to this child (to any child) is friction, mal-communication, non-cooperation. What would be devastating to this child would be the de facto loss of a parent. You both need to be there for her, and if you work it right, you can be there for each other.

Faye and I conduct a form of personal futures planning called PATH. We've often thought about using PATH as a way for people to plan a marriage (what's your vision, your heartfelt hope?), but in the past few months, we've actually thought about the possibility that people could use it to plan a separation or divorce where a child (especially a child with vulnerabilities) is involved.

For both of you: What is your vision, your heartfelt hope? What do you most deeply want for your child? For yourselves? What would be happening in a couple of years if you both did good work in the direction of that vision for a year? For a couple of years? Where are we now? To get from where we are now to where we want to be, who do we need to enroll? What do we need to do to get stronger? What are our first steps?

This is very different from the kind of planning that the lawyers tend to lead us through (a good marriage/separation counsellor would be more likely to take this tack). It works best as a facilitated process - it's hard for a separating couple to do this by themselves. But it's possible, and it could be a fruitful direction.

If you want to talk about this in person, or correspond in person, visit our website at http://www.communityworks.info and follow the 'contact us' link.

I'm glad you persisted in telling your story.


Dave Wetherow

2003 David and Faye Wetherow ! CommunityWorks

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