The pros and cons of joint physical custody

‘Noah will live with me and he’ll see you every other weekend, and maybe one night a week and we’ll share the holidays’. Those were my thoughts and I said as much when my partner and I split up after eight years together. Noah is our 7-year-old son and no other arrangement had ever entered my mind. None.

But Noah’s father had his own ideas. He did not want to be an ‘every other weekend’ dad. He wanted to be actively involved in his son’s life, as much as would be possible given our new circumstances. He wanted joint physical custody.

In my day sole custody was the way forward. A couple split. The kids go live with mom. Dad pays maintenance and gets kids for the holidays. Also every second weekend if the couple divorcing were very progressive. It was just the way.

With the nuclear family being the rare thing that it is these days, custody law is becoming somewhat more ‘enlightened’. Mothers do not automatically get full custody of their children and the legalese of custody now includes legal custody, physical custody, sole custody, joint physical and legal custody and the rather avant-garde alternative that is nesting.

As I understand it, legal custody refers to the right to make decisions about your child’s upbringing, for example, their schooling, religious practices and health concerns. Physical custody is the right to have your child live with you while the other parent is then granted visitation rights. In terms of sole custody one parent is granted the right to be primary physical caregiver. Joint physical and legal custody is when both parents share the decision making and the time spent with their children, equally. And nesting is when a child stays in the family home and the parents move in and out of the home, spending their out time in separate homes of their own.

So Noah’s father and I share legal and physical custody of Noah. He stays with me one week and with his father the next. We all have dinner together on Wednesdays and holidays are shared.

The pros and cons

So far the best part of this arrangement has been how well Noah has adjusted to our separation. Since his time is spent equally with both of us, there have been no post separation disputes or hostilities that might arise if you felt anxious that you were losing your connection to your child because you were not spending enough time with them. Our weekly dinners provide Noah with the assurance that although his family unit has changed, we are all still connected through him and we emphasise this love and our support of each other every opportunity we get. These dinners also keep communication between his father and I open.

We have agreed to keep his routine similar in both homes so that any anxiety that he may experience moving from one house to the other is kept to a minimum. Noah navigates these changes like a champion. He is delighted to see his cat, do lots of drawing and play with the kids next door when he visits me and loves all the ‘cool stuff’ that Dad has like TV, computer games, guitars and a garden.

There are elements that can be frustrating. Carting Noah’s school clothes and his favourite paraphernalia from one home to the other every week does not always go smoothly. However we are not in a position to afford two full sets of school clothing, normal clothing and most importantly, Lego, to stock two homes and so for now, it will have to be endured.

For me, the weeks without Noah are still tricky. I have not yet been able to embrace the ‘freedom’ that is my week without him. However, I believe this condition is something all mothers endure no matter at what age or for how long their children leave their homes.

I understand that while this option looks great theoretically, practising it in reality will only be a success if the parents involved are able to put aside their differences. What I want to share here is that seeing your child adjust well to one of life’s most stressful and difficult situations, and to be able to continue co-operating with the person you share this incredible little person with, is definitely worth the effort.

How is your custody arrangement working out for you?

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