“Everyone’s a Parent For The First Time”

Christian was adorable. He was blond-haired, and six feet tall, a twenty-eight-year-old firefighter built like Adonis. He came to my office in jeans and a t-shirt, and nice leather sandals. He had just discovered that his erstwhile girlfriend, Jamie, a deputy sheriff, was expecting. He had apparently impregnated her during their failed attempt to patch up their relationship. He came for advice.

His first tentative question was fairly generic of expecting or divorcing fathers. “How much time am I allowed to spend with our child?”

“How much time do you want to spend with your child?”

He laughed, nervously. “As much as I’m allowed. But Jamie says that I can only see him or her every other weekend.”

He was clearly unaware that his rights as a father should be the same as the mother’s, all other things being equal. I asked thoughtfully, “Do you have any other children?”

“No, although Jamie has a three-year-old daughter born from before we got together. I spent a lot of time with her while we were dating. She’s a cute kid and doesn’t get to see her father very much.”

I ignored that loaded comment for the time being. “Are you looking forward to becoming a dad?”

“Oh, my gosh, yes, I’m very excited! The problem is that Jaime isn’t really speaking to me since we broke up. I found out that she was pregnant from another deputy I know, so I called her to find out what was going on. When I asked whether she would allow me to spend time with the child, she told me that I didn’t know how to be a parent and that it would depend on how things went.”

I frowned, but instead of focusing on his unconscious need to ask for her permission, rather than to request what was arguably his right, I asked, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

He smiled, a rueful expression weighing down his features. “I think she was trying to insinuate that we should get back together. But that didn’t work out very well the first time, or the second.”

At this point I said the smartest thing I’ve said in a long time. ”You know,” I hesitated, weighing my words carefully, ”everyone has to be a parent for the first time.”

He stared at me. I could almost see the light bulb go on. “Yes. I guess I knew that. I just never thought of it that way.”

We talked for a little while about all those pregnancy books that women tend to buy when they discover they’re expecting. You see them all the time offered at garage sales. And there are many books about raising a child, The First Year, The Second Year, and so forth and so on. I suggested that he get some of those to better educate himself.

I asked about his childhood. It turned out, he’d recently moved back into the home where he’d been raised. His father had passed away, and he had been concerned about his mother living alone. She had moved into the mother-in-law apartment on the property. Because they were very close, I suggested that he talk with her about what it was like raising him when he was little. He agreed.

It was not long before Chris returned with a signed retainer agreement, and his mother. She was tiny but vivacious, a bubbling 50-year-old woman with lots of energy, excited about the prospect of welcoming her first grandchild into the world. She paid my retainer fee, and we three chatted about how Chris should approach his ex-girlfriend about his plan to take an active part in parenting their child. He had already suggested a collaborative approach to Jamie, but she had informed him authoritatively that he couldn’t force her to do anything. Ultimately, we agreed that he would have to file a petition to establish paternity. She wasn’t proving amenable to his efforts to establish communications in the first place, much less to discuss his role in their child’s life.

During the ensuing months, he stopped by frequently, although it was always a brief visit. We talked often about how to establish a co-parenting relationship. Keep in mind, Jamie would not even discuss her delivery options with him. She had certainly not invited him to be present. Chris did learn that he would be the proud father of a little girl.

In the meantime, our litigation dance commenced. Her lawyer, a friend of mine, answered our petition in a fairly non-contentious manner. I filed a very non-confrontational request for the judge to order us to mediation. After all, the only issues to be resolved were timesharing and child support, and the latter wasn’t even an issue once the parents’ salaries had been quantified. One simply computed the statutory amount due from one to the other depending on how many overnights each parent was to enjoy with their daughter.

The timesharing issue would be both more difficult, and possibly easier then establishing timesharing for two average parents, people who work weekday, 9-to-5 jobs. In such cases, both parents are competing for the same quality free time with their children. But both firefighters and sheriff’s deputies work shifts, and the shifts alternate periodically. The good news for Chris and for Jamie was that both the sheriff’s office and the city were agreeable to working out shifts for these parents that complemented each other. This would “expand the pie,” and also make it possible that their daughter was almost never in daycare, but always with one of her parents, or with her paternal grandmother.

Nevertheless, whenever Chris approached her, Jamie was very difficult, unwilling to even discuss sharing time with “my daughter.” Word came from her lawyer that she was planning to breast-feed; this would allegedly require my client to visit with their daughter for only an hour or two at a time. In fact, she was only offering to allow him timesharing if he exercised it in her home.

We resolved nothing during informal negotiations, try as I might. Jamie’s pregnancy was near term, before we were finally able to schedule a mediation that both lawyers, the mediator, and the two clients were able to attend. It would take place a month after the baby was due.

The fateful day arrived. My office is centrally located, so Kendall, Jamie’s lawyer, agreed to mediate in my conference room. Participants trickled in one at a time, except that Jamie brought Amie, the baby whom she had named without any input from Chris. She was a pretty lady, dark-haired and muscled; she clearly worked out, although she was only average height. She placed the infant’s carrier in the middle of my conference room table. Amie slept soundly while we talked.

On my advice, Chris had asked his mother to stay home.

Chris had petitioned for paternity so it was up to us to commence negotiations. The mediator invited me to make my opening statement.

It was important for Jamie to know why Chris should have equal timesharing. He had kept me up to speed on her arguments to him in person, so I addressed those first. I couldn’t tell her that the law in Florida required equal timesharing because the legislature had not yet passed that statute; that came several years later. But I could explain why our judges were already starting each final evidentiary hearing with the idea firmly planted that both parents were entitled to equal time with their children.

Jamie had told Chris that he was a narcissist and only wanted equal timesharing in order to eliminate the child support he would otherwise have to pay. Other women who have been primary caregivers during the marriage have also explained to me (or to the judge) that their husband was asking for 50/50 timesharing as a control tactic, or to harass her, or to try to turn the children against her.

While I am certain that there are situations in which these concerns are right on target, in my experience, most of time, this is not the case at all.

I chose to commence in generalities, to make it easier for Jamie to acknowledge the truth of what I wanted her to hear. I began, “Although the trend is away from this custom, more often than not, in most of my divorce cases, moms have been the primary care providers for the children. Dads, on the other hand, have been more involved with their careers and supporting their families, even when both parents have jobs outside the home. I’m guessing that this has been true with respect to your relationship with the father of your older daughter, am I right?”

Jamie nodded. “He sees her on alternating weekends.”

“In an intact family, when the parents are still together, the mother keeps Dad’s image alive and well in the kid’s minds while he’s at work. In addition, Dad is helped by the fact that his footprint is all over the home, reminders that he is intimately involved in the family. His shoes are by the front door, his family photos are walls, his shaving kit is in the bathroom, his sports gear is in the garage, and his clothes are hanging in the closet.” I caught her eye again. “Am I right?”

She nodded again.

“Post separation that situation changes. Physical reminders of Dad are removed from Mom’s home. The likelihood that she’ll make any effort to keep him alive in the kid’s minds is also greatly reduced, especially when the break-up is hostile.”

I paused and waited for someone to interrupt. No one did. “Now Dad has to carry the weight of his relationship with his children all by himself. Mom no longer helps and she may do the reverse. If the children still spend a disproportionate amount of time residing with their mother than with Dad, post separation, when Mom enters a new romantic relationship, the kids will be spending more time with Mom’s new friend than they do with him.”

Still no one said a word. “Now Dad must concerned about protecting his place in the lives of his children.” I switched gears. “I understand that Chris was something of a father figure to your toddler while you were dating. I’m sure that caused some friction between you and her birth father.” I knew this to be true. Her nod was almost imperceptible.

“Just because you and he aren’t involved anymore doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to be Amie’s dad.” I could see that my words were hitting home. “Let’s see if we can work this out so that she has the best of both worlds, the one her mother can give her, as well as the one her father has to offer.”

After opening statements, we broke into separate caucus rooms. The mediator, an older attorney who had restricted her practice to mediating years ago, spent two hours with Jamie and her lawyer before coming in to see us. While we waited, we discussed our options and why they were taking so long. I assured Chris that this was not a sign of difficulty; I had chosen our mediator well.

“Good opening,” she smiled, as she entered our room, “although you started at a disadvantage because of the situation with her prior-born daughter. But you gave her a lot to think about and apparently Kendall’s been working on her since she retained him. You guys laid the foundation for me pretty well.”

“Does she understand that the judge will start with the presumption that 50/50 makes sense for most families? The burden will be on her to show why Chris should not get 50/50?”

“Yeah, she seems to get it. She’s not stupid, just hard-headed. And, luckily for us, Chris hasn’t been pressuring her, or pushing her buttons while he waited to get to this mediation.”

“Have they made a timesharing offer?”

“They’ve proposed a plan that gives him 40% of the overnights.” She laid it out for us. “But I think if we go back with a 50/50 plan that maximizes both parties’ time, I can get her to accept that. It’s not about the child support for her.”

Chris interjected, “I can pay her some child support if she needs that. She’s got two kids and Milly’s dad doesn’t always pay his on time.”

“That’s probably not necessary,” the mediator said, “although you can always give her extra money later if she needs it.”

I added, “Chris, don’t get yourself locked into a payment that the law doesn’t require.”

So we proposed the timesharing plan that we’d walked in with. And that’s the plan we walked out with two hours later.

Amie is three years old now. Chris occasionally forwards cell phone photos of himself and his beautiful daughter from Disney World, where she’s riding on his shoulders, or the pool, where he’s teaching her to swim, or the living room floor, where she’s making words with those brightly colored plastic fridge letter magnets. Of course, she’s always grinning, and she has the same exact grin as her dad.

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