The Truth About NonCustodial Parents: An Interview with Rebekah Spicuglia
By Deesha Philyaw on July 09, 2009
On her blog, NonCustodial Parent Community, Rebekah Spicuglia captions the above picture of her and her son: "This is what 'visitation' looks like."
Think you know what "noncustodial" really means? Think again, and check out our interview with a woman whom MSN calls a "Mom Inspired to Change History"...
One of your goals in creating NCP Community is to raise awareness about the issues noncustodial parents face. What are some of the key issues?
Noncustodial parents face many of the same challenges that custodial parents face. We want to instill our values in our children, ensure they are doing their homework and studying for that big test tomorrow, treating others with respect . But it is much harder to do when you aren’t in the same house as your children.
Parental disagreements are common, and a noncustodial parent can often feel helpless in decisions ranging from whether or not a child should have a cell phone to medical care. But once you get past divorce and mediation issues and settle into everyday life, it’s engaging our children’s teachers, maintaining regular communication with our children, and arranging visitation that are the big issues. Visitation in particular can be very difficult – there is scheduling with the custodial parent, figuring out childcare, trying to arrange playdates when you may not have much of a parenting community to speak of, and trying to make those visits really meaningful for our relationship with our children.
Yet, despite our best efforts and loving intentions, noncustodial parents often feel shut out from our children's day-to-day life, academic progress, and major decisions. In extreme cases, there might even be concern about child’s well-being, even child abuse, in the custodial parent's home. Societal misconceptions about what “noncustodial” means can wrongly limit a parent’s access to their children's education/medical records, and parents often do not have access to legal resources or even understand their parental rights. This can be discouraging for a parent who is truly striving to do the best s/he can.
What are some common misconceptions about noncustodial parents?
One of the biggest issues noncustodial parents face is a lack of understanding generally in society about what “noncustodial” means. This leads to a great deal of frustration when dealing with authorities, and we regularly find ourselves explaining legalities to people to defend our right to be involved, our right-to-parent.
Just to clarify, there are two kinds of child custody, legal and physical, and there are varied combinations, which can even include a noncustodial parent sharing joint legal AND physical custody. I do not have physical custody, but I share joint legal custody with my son’s father, which gives me full parental authority under the law. But someone has to move out of the house, right? Every divorce naturally creates custodial and noncustodial parents, but the stereotypes of the deadbeat dad/disappearing mom leave a stigma that noncustodial parents are irresponsible or don’t want their children, or worse – that they are dangerous and should be viewed with suspicion. I have written about this many times on my sit, two examples here and here. In fact, the majority of noncustodial parents are law-abiding citizens and loving parents who want to be involved as much as possible in our children’s lives.
Recently on your blog, you posted a Globe and Mail article about "parental alienation syndrome". The article noted: "Court proceedings are not conducive to peacemaking; they tend to increase acrimony between parents, which is bad for children. Many non-custodial parents simply walk away from an impossible situation, devastated to lose contact with their children, but consoled to know that their children's exposure to a toxic tug-of-war is over." What support is available to parents in these situations? What resources can they find at NCP Community or elsewhere?
What I loved about that article was the focus on the best interests of the child, which often gets lost in discussions of Parental Alienation Syndrome. Sadly, many of us have seen how a parent might bad-mouth or poisoning a child against the other parent. Whether or not people agree on the definition of “parental alienation” or that PAS exists as a “syndrome,” few people would disagree that the problem exists. Even if both parents have legal custody, the custodial parent is in a position of greater power than the noncustodial parent. It is much easier to interfere with visitation as the custodial parent – it is unfortunate that withholding visitation is a tactic often used, but when was the last time you saw an amber alert for “child abducted by custodial parent”?
Ideally, parents should be able to find ways to work together to prevent or manage these negative situations by bringing in mediators or planning ahead and building in very specific parenting plans into their custody agreements to prevent disputes. However, if the situation is very bad, legal counsel may be needed. NCP Community is a place for sharing strategies and solutions that will help everyone work together for the best interests of our children.
What are some of the unique challenges for co-parents who live a far distance from their children? What are some ways they "stay close" when they don't live close by?
There are many reasons a parent might live far away from his/her child - living near family, finding work, or to start a new life - and while it is hard, families can make it work. In fact it has become easier to keep in touch long-distance, with visitation via skype and flying our kids unaccompanied to visit us.
Most importantly, no matter the distance, children should be able to continue the same quality of relationship with each parent that they enjoyed prior to the separation. Here are some suggestions for noncustodial parents:
- Regular phone calls, scheduled & unscheduled, helps keep the lines of communication open and ensure that you are kept in the loop of your chidren’s lives.
- In conversation, asking specific questions shows that you care and are paying attention, and I find that those are easier questions for children to answer (“how did you do on your test?” vs “how was school today?”)
- Be creative in your communications and demonstration of your love. Text messages, emails, cards, care packages… Keep a stack of cute cards at the ready to send. Buy things that remind our children how special they are (magnets, pictures, ID-sized notes to fit into a wallet).
- Communicate with the custodial parent. Again, the more specific the questions, the better. The custodial parent is a goldmine of information about your child and main decision-maker in your child’s life, so open communication should always be a priority.
- Don't be discouraged. Keep trying, and try not to place the burden of your frustration onto your children. Remember that despite the challenges you face, you are ultimately responsible for your involvement in your children’s lives.
You've noted the growing voice of noncustodial mothers, including Karen Murphy in her Motherhood from Afar column at LiteraryMama. What are some special concerns that noncustodial moms face that noncustodial dads do not (or do to a lesser degree)?
Society can be harsh towards moms who don’t fit a traditional mold. The assumption that mothers will retain custody of their children after a divorce is so strong that if she does not take custody, her fitness or attachment to her child comes into question in a way that it does not for men. People wonder if she had her children taken away from her, or maybe she just didn’t want her kids. These are assumptions that often have no basis in reality. It may come down to which parent has more resources to offer the children, or which parent has the better lawyer.
What’s most important is that custody arrangements are made in the best interests of the children, and although a child might reside with one parent, that should not reflect badly on the noncustodial mom or dad. At the end of the day, noncustodial moms and dads have more in common than not-- we are just trying to stay involved in our children’s lives in meaningful ways.
Are you a noncustodial parent? If so, please spend a few minutes on this anonymous 10-question survey. This survey will help NonCustodial Parent Community gather information in order to share experiences, strategies, and solutions, to challenge biases about noncustodial parents, and to raise awareness about the issues families are facing every day.
Through her NonCustodial Parent Community blog, Rebekah Spicuglia serves as a spokesperson on parenting issues. MSN highlighted Spicuglia as one of eight “Moms Inspired to Change History,” and Spicuglia has been featured in or written for the NYTimes, Slate, , About.com, Brain,Child magazine, WBAI, Feministing, Feminist.com, MomsRising, Mamapalooza, Wikipedia, and the Women's Media Center website.
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