Divorce no longer carries the stigma it once did. Previously, fearing judgment, couples never discussed it outside of their families. Today, there are countless books, talk shows, and online support groups providing constant advice. One major topic concerns conservatorship, or child custody. Some parents will fight for full custody, while others hash out a system of living arrangements, visitations, and financial support. Many times the checking and rechecking of calendars and demanding this holiday or that summer month is merely a veiled continuation of the battle for supremacy. The children themselves may stop being people and become tools to gain the upper hand in this battle.
“Mary” is a perfect example. Posting her story on a support group page, she described herself as “a kid who knew nothing about life” when problems between her parents began. At 10, she became a go-between, her mother sending her to her father, asking him to come home. He would, then leave again, and the process started all over. At 13, “that nightmare ended” with the divorce she thought her mother caused, only to discover her father had been having an affair with his secretary. When they decided to get married, he forced her and her brother to attend the wedding, an event that turned out to be “the longest night of my horrible life.” She and her brother then moved in with her father and his new wife, while her mother and younger sister lived with her grandfather. “And my father doesn't give a sh-- about my little sister. He doesn't give her money or anything.” She ends with, “That's all I can write about this long miserable journey.”
Too many children share stories similar to Mary's. They see the two people they love the most fighting and saying horrible things to each other. They are used as go-betweens and as spies, reporting the actions of one parent to the other, often hearing and seeing things children shouldn't be subjected to and sometimes used by one parent to attempt to tarnish the reputation of the other. In between these jobs, they go where they are sent, their voices unheard.
In order to protect these children, Texas, along with several other states, has adopted the Children's Bill of Rights. Passed by the Texas Legislature, the purpose of the bill is to ensure that parents understand their children are their number one priority during and after a divorce, and that they learn what their responsibilities are in order to protect them from being involved in their parent's drama. There are 31 points that outline the parent's responsibilities when caring for their child, but they may be summarized in these areas:
Parents have to remember that their child is just that, their child, and not a tool to be used to hurt each other. They cannot use foul language or call each other names in the child's presence. He or she cannot be used as a go-between or as a spy in order to gather information. They cannot encourage the child to misbehave while visiting each other's homes in order to sabotage the other's relationships. They cannot allow the child to overhear arguments, negotiations, or any legal discussions between them concerning such things as child support or visitation, hoping whatever they hear will influence the child's attitude about which parent they would want to stay with.
Parents must acknowledge that the child has two homes, even if they spend most of their time with one parent. They cannot deny the child's wish to have a relationship with the other parent or keep him or her from spending time with that parent. They cannot make the child feel guilty for having a good time when he or she visits that parent. Neither parent is allowed to interfere with the child receiving phone calls, letters, or gifts from family members. They must allow him or her to hang up pictures or display items that make them happy. They must also allow the child to carry gifts, toys, and clothes between homes, if they are easily transportable.
The parents must become the parents they were before their marital problems began, when they had specific bedtimes for the child and kept him or her from watching television programs or movies that were not appropriate. Now, they must work together to set up a fair schedule for visitation, sharing all schedules for extracurricular activities, as well as contact information for doctors and teachers. When each has the children, they must not allow them to be exposed to or be transported by anyone under the influence of illicit drugs or alcohol. They themselves cannot use any tobacco products in the home or vehicle if the child is present. Responsible parenting makes life easier for everyone during this difficult time, and that should be the goal of any loving parent.
The Children's Bill of Rights is enforceable in court in Texas. Failure to comply could result in such things as costly fees, being held in contempt, shortened access time with the child, or even loss of custody. Ending the marriage is the parent's option. Taking care of that child is not. It's their responsibility to see that their child is as happy and safe as he or she can be during this difficult time.