North Dakota Shared Parenting Initiative Helps Women, Too

By Michael McCormick and Glenn Sacks

Jane is a successful career woman. She has moved up rapidly in a competitive field, and is advancing her career by attending business school at night. Bob works out of their home and does most of the childcare. If Bob decides he doesn’t want Jane anymore, should he be able to take her kids away and push her to the margins of their lives?

The opponents of the North Dakota Shared Parenting Initiative think he should.

Under the NDSPI, unless a parent is unfit, both parents in a divorce will have joint legal and physical custody of their children. By contrast, the North Dakota Concerned Citizens for Children’s Rights Committee and its allies support the current system of awarding sole custody to the children’s primary caregiver–that’s Bob–and oppose the NDSPI. They contend that family courts should not require custodial parents to allow noncustodial parents like Jane to spend substantial time with their children after divorce.

This is wrong–Jane’s children love her. Even though she was not the children’s primary caregiver during the marriage, it’s very harmful to take them away from her. It’s also wrong to punish Jane for pursuing a career and being her family’s primary breadwinner. Yet this is exactly what sometimes happens to working mothers–and very often happens to fathers–under the current system.

According to a study conducted by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates and quoted in TIME magazine, today over one-fifth of fathers are their kids’ primary caregivers. While this is often a very beneficial arrangement for families, it leaves women increasingly vulnerable to losing custody and being pushed out of their children’s lives after divorce, just as so often happens to fathers.

There’s a better way than the current win/lose custody system–shared parenting. Under shared parenting, children spend substantially equal time in each parent’s home. According to a meta-analysis published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Family Psychology, children in shared custody settings have fewer behavioral and emotional problems, higher self-esteem, better family relations, and better school performance than children in sole custody arrangements.

While many women’s advocates have taken a misguided stand against shared parenting, there is a significant, outspoken minority which recognizes its benefits for women. For example, feminist attorney Karen DeCrow, president of the National Organization for Women from 1974 to 1977, says:

"If there is a divorce in the family, I urge a presumption of joint custody of the children…it is the best option for women. After observing women’s rights and responsibilities for more than a quarter of a century of feminist activism, I conclude that shared parenting is great for women, giving time and opportunity for female parents to pursue education, training, jobs, careers, profession and leisure."

Martha Burk, the Chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations who led the effort to open the Augusta National Golf Club to women, concurs. Burk, who was named Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year in 2003, explains that shared parenting provides women with greater economic freedoms and opportunities. She calls the current child custody system "mother ownership of children" and says that under this "harmful societal norm" judges "mindlessly award [sole] custody to the mother," to the detriment of all parties.

Under the NDSPI, courts will instruct divorcing parents to develop a joint parenting plan. If the parents cannot agree on a plan, the court will facilitate one which allows both mothers and fathers to maintain a meaningful role in their children’s lives.

Shared parenting is advocated by a growing consensus of mental health and family law professionals. The NDSPI has gained the requisite signatures and will be on the November ballot. It is an opportunity to move North Dakota family law forward from the outdated, mom as caregiver/dad as breadwinner model towards an updated model which will benefit both children and their parents.

  • Grand Forks Herald