Joint custody

Children traditionally have two parents, a mother and a father, so ideally they should be raised by both.

In the old days this was not even an issue: marriages would last forever, for better or for worse, and parents would raise their children together.

But things have changed dramatically in the last decades, and from a situation where the children of divorced parents were “different” (as was my case back in the seventies), having one’s parents together as a couple has become the exception.

Traditionally in case of divorce the children stayed with their mother, the father being allowed the right to have them every other weekend; later on there was some evolution (?) meaning that, in some cases, Dads were also allowed to take their children out to dinner on Wednesday evenings – this of course as long as the “almighty mother” did not raise any objections. And when the mother was angry at the father for some reason that usually had to do with the breakup of their marriage, she would of course raise all sorts of objections, making it very difficult for father and children to spend time together. Many women, who felt bitter because their spouses had left them, would use their children as a weapon against their former husbands, forgetting something very important: that, even if they were not their ex husbands wives anymore, the children were still their father’s children and would be so forever. And when they said terrible things about the father, many times turning the children against him, little did they realize the harm they were doing to their beloved – no doubt about that – children.

When Miguel and I decided for a divorce it was a very painful, but inevitable decision. We were fortunate to have both come to this conclusion at the same time, but most of all we never (not for one moment) doubted that we would continue to raise out children together, as we had always done from their birth. We totally agreed on a joint custody; never did it cross my mind that the boys should live with me and only see their father every other weekend and maybe for dinner on Wednesdays! Nor would they have accepted it, they would have been deeply unhappy as they had the same close relationship with both parents- we had always been there for them, as a team, never competing with each other for their affection.

However, this was not so usual at the time, and I was even scolded by some of my (women) friends who bluntly told me I was a bad mother for wanting joint custody. They went as far as to tell me children should always live with their mother and not be tossed around from one house to the other.

Fortunately I was very certain about what I wanted for my children and so was their father – and after all the decision only concerned us and we didn’t care one bit about what the world thought as long as we felt we were doing the best thing for our boys,

In Portugal divorce proceedings by mutual agreement are very simple and do not have to be ratified by court unless there are children who are minors. In this case, only parental authority has to be ratified by court, and we submitted our joint custody agreement stating the children would spend half the time with each parent, and also that all expenses would be divided equally between parents. It was all so peaceful that we had a real shock when we received a notification from court bluntly denying ratification of our agreement and stating that joint custody was not a good solution for the children and that they should stay with the mother while the father should pay a pension…we were speechless! And the worst of it all was that to proceed with the divorce we had only two options: either we agreed to drop joint custody and choose the “traditional” situation – which was unthinkable for us – or, if we didn’t comply, we’d have to go for litigation, probably making our sons have to testify in court – which was unthinkable too. The third and unique option for us  was to drop divorce proceedings in the Lisbon area where we had started them – being residents in Lisbon it was the normal thing to do – and later on try for a divorce in another jurisdiction, where the decision might be more benevolent regarding joint custody. And this we did, and we were finally divorced more than a year later in a city south of Lisbon where we got what we wanted – joint custody, without any doubts whatsoever. Meanwhile, of course, our children were dividing their time between us both with a lot of flexibility that took into account their routines, and they continued to be happy, loving children to both parents, without major changes in their relationship with either mother or father. To this day my sons declare themselves happy with this situation and they are shocked when they see the situation of some of their friends, who have become the victims of warring parents, some of them having to go to court to state why they want to stay with their father or mother, forever torn between the two people they love most but who now hate and fight each other for their children’s time.

I have had a divorce, yes. Did I want it? No, when I married I married for life, we both did. But things turned out differently from what we had expected, and we were not a happy family. But I can say we are a happy ex couple and we are certainly two parents that are still raising their children together. We talk every day about them, sometimes several times a day, we exchange information about them, we discuss strategies, we share worries, we take them to the doctor or hospital together whenever needed, we scold them together, we celebrate together their great achievements and meet many times at the rugby field while watching their games. They have never heard us say bad things about each other, on the contrary. And we feel our boys are happy, balanced and above all know that, although their parents are divorced, we love them very much and we will always be there when they need us – and we are together in this because, no matter what happens, we are, and will always be, the parents of Afonso and Pedro, the two beautiful boys we have brought into this world together. Whatever happens, we are bound by them and we both want the same for them, the very best. And we love them the same way – to the end of time.

So there is my case for joint custody. I know there may be different situations, but I believe each parent is as important as the other to their children. We women carry our children inside our bodies for nine months, but when they come out their fathers may love them as much as we do – and in fact do. So they should not be deprived of their right to share the daily life of their children, just as no mother should. At least in principle, as it used to be.

After all, our children do not belong to us – mother or father. As I heard someone say some time ago “our children are a loan from God”. They are entrusted to us for safekeeping and for leading them to adult life. To both of us, mother and father. May we know how to do that in the wisest way. And, for me, for us, the wisest way was that of joint custody. And, undoubtedly, this has been the happiest way for our children, too. And that’s what really matters, at the end of the day.