Most people would agree that the luckiest kids alive are raised by two loving, competent parents who can prioritize their needs to be kept safe, fed, healthy, clothed, happy, educated and alive. It's a lot of work to raise a child, so the more hands on deck, the better, right? In many cultures around the world, numerous adults in a family help raise the kids, providing a network of support for a child's two primary parents. This is not the case in most American families.
Now this is not to say that there aren't millions of fabulous single parents out there, doing a yeoman's job of raising their kids to be upstanding, productive, loving adults with often limited or nonexistent support. I tip my hat to single parents everywhere for the enormous sacrifices they make each day to do the same job that exhausts most two-parent households.
The majority of single parents do not willingly walk into that role. Unexpected death or divorce has a way of changing things real fast for the majority of single parents who start out in committed relationships when raising their kids.
We have all heard the statistics for years- more than half of marriages end in divorce. Divorce is a painful, challenging process that can take years to sort out. Divorce almost always devastates a family as members struggle to pick up the pieces and establish a new equilibrium. Children of divorce are forced to grieve the loss of their innocence, their stability, and their trust in any sort of lasting love or family unity.
Many children of high-conflict divorces end up bonding with one parent over the other, for a host of reasons, and California law now allows teens 14 and older to tell a judge which parent they'd rather live with. Giving teenagers a voice in the divorce process that so directly shapes their lives is a vital improvement in how family courts operate in our state, and I played a leadership role, putting that law into place. I firmly believe that teenagers and even younger children deserve to have a meaningful voice in determining the reality of their daily lives when the structure of their family life has been upended through the chaos of divorce.
But what happens when a teenager's primary caregiver and chosen custodial parent dies before high school graduation? Where does that young person go after choosing to live with the deceased over the surviving parent in the midst of a high conflict divorce?
Children who lose a beloved custodial parent due to an untimely death need stability, routine and a container for their grief. The surviving parents of teenagers may well be the most appropriate adults in their lives to provide that for them, given their love for their children and their shared history with the deceased. But in the midst of a high-conflict divorce, it can be especially difficult for the family and friends of a deceased custodial parent to embrace a teenager's choice to live with his or her surviving parent, even if they understand it on an emotional level.
This difficult social dynamic can create tremendous stress for surviving teens that need a safe place amongst friends and family to grieve the loss of their deceased parent. These teens are also anxious to forge a new relationship with their surviving parent, but the fallout from their parents' high-conflict divorce cannot simply be wished away.
A very dear friend of mine passed away last month, in the midst of such a divorce, and his 16-year-old son is now living this challenging reality. This young man lost his primary caretaker, the father he cherished and loved. He is now living full-time - for the first time - with his backup parent; the one he used to visit, his second choice. His mother suddenly finds herself one of the millions of single parents who never expected to go it alone. Despite the conflict that raged between his parents, this young man still deeply loves and needs his mother right now, and I have to respect that, even if I haven't always respected his mother's behavior during their high-conflict divorce.
Given the large number of divorces and the increasing complexity of families, much more work needs to be done to provide meaningful resources and support for teens and children who are forced to grapple with BOTH death and divorce at the same time. In the meantime, let's please recommit to surrounding all kids with love and support whenever life deals them a tragic loss.
Protective mothers from across the country who've lost custody of their children in family courts are gearing up to spend Mother's Day weekend at this year's 10th Annual Battered Mothers Custody Conference in Washington, D. C. The conference will be held on Friday May 10 and Saturday May 11 at the George Washington University Law School. This year's keynote speaker will be Hollywood actress Kelly Rutherford of Gossip Girls. On Sunday, May 12th, Mothers Day, BMCC X will combine forces with Mothers of Lost Children, California Protective Parents Association, and other grassroots organizers in a March and Demonstration on Washington. Check out the Battered Mothers Custody Conference for more details on how to register!