On the battleground of divorce, where people might be fighting for identity, pride or dreams of vengeance, it is exceedingly difficult to stand back and see the big picture on your own. For my friend Kathryn Breyer, a human resources manager in California's Silicon Valley, a little help came from a most unexpected place during her divorce more than a decade ago."I went to my attorney and just assumed I would get sole custody – that's the way it always was where I came from," she said.
The many divorced women she knew from her suburban circle of friends had all been awarded physical custody of their children. It was the way things were before laws providing a presumption of joint custody and co-parenting went into effect in many states. But two things got in Kathryn's way: her husband – and her own attorney, a nun.
"We argued over it for quite awhile. She kept saying, 'you have to reach the core of your character and put your children first. And the best thing for your children is to keep both parents in their lives. No matter how much you hate your ex-husband, or how disappointed you are in the marriage, just always focus on your children.'"Kathryn didn't want to hear it. Like many divorced people, she harbored the fantasy that the other person would simply fade away. "I couldn't come to terms with the fact that he was going to be in my life, no matter what. There was this fantasy that somehow it's like a bad date. You know – 'beep, that's over, I don't have to see that person again.'"
Eventually, her lawyer-nun prevailed and Kathryn settled for joint custody. "Although I really disagreed, I believed her that it was important to have their dad in their life. I couldn't stand him, but it wasn't about what I thought of him any longer. He was a good father. He rejoiced in those children. But most important, I realized this is my children's father. It was us who wanted to divorce, not the children."Today, she is absolutely certain that she made the right decision, as painful as it was at the time. "I have two of the most emotionally centered and grounded kids you could possibly meet. All through school the teachers would say they have no symptoms of coming from divorce."
For parents who would carry their anger, disappointment, frustrations and fears into custody battles over their kids, Kathryn Breyer has these words of wisdom: "Be as generous to each other as you can, for the sake of your children. It will only come back to give you gift, after gift, after gift. My children trust and love me so much for being supportive of that, and love him [their father] for staying in their lives. It's beneficial to all of us."
As a journalist, I had the opportunity to interview one of Kathryn's children a short time after interviewing his mom. "I can't imagine not being allowed to see my dad – or my mom," the young man said 13 years after his parents divorced. "The fact that they both made sure that everything was done equally, that they both lived close to our school, was really important. It showed us they really loved us. So when I think back on my childhood, it was a really good time. My parents did a great job."For help negotiating custody issues in divorce, go to Kids' Turn.