A couple weeks ago I received a phone call that is not very unusual. An anxious mother-to-be had questions about custody. Of particular concern was how she should “protect” her child from the father-to-be, who also happened to be her live-in boyfriend. The obvious question–one I always ask in these situations–is why this child might need protection from the father. Sometimes the answer is concerning: the father-to-be has serious mental health or substance abuse issues. More often the mother-to-be has generalized anxiety regarding the loss of control that co-parenting entails. Yet to ask such mothers-to-be to identify and explain their fears is perceived of as challenging–often too challenging for such women’s comfort.
Often these mothers-to-be will describe their unexpected pregnancy as “a blessing.” Whether they are mouthing cliches, are truly excited to become a parent, or have merely failed to consider the difficulties of co-parenting a child with someone they are unwilling or unable to marry is something I rarely can determine. However the hope that one can successfully co-parent a child with someone from whom that child needs protection is a mirage. To the extent the family court or our culture leads mothers to believe otherwise we are perpetuating a cruelty in the guise of being supportive or encouraging.
My custody cases involving married parents are generally only contentious when one parent has mental health or substance abuse issues or when one parent is merely seeking custody as leverage for support issues. This is because married parents have enough commonality that they typically do not disagree that much about basic parenting philosophy and they often retain some good will towards the other even as the marriage ends. However parents who produce children from temporary relationships–or, even worse, from one night stands–often have little in common and lack the trust necessary to make co-parenting work. For them custody cases are a zero-sum game in which anything one party gains is a loss to the other party.
Frankly any time a child is born to a mother who believes that child needs protection from the father, that child is being born into less than ideal (I would argue tragic) circumstances. Parenting is hard when a child has two concerned parents who are capable of mutual support and cooperation. Having parents who cannot support each other and cannot cooperate dooms that child to unrelenting conflict. I am not sure why our popular culture leads mothers to believe that bearing the children of men they do not trust is not hugely problematic. Nor do I understand why our legal culture leads mothers to believe we have the tools to fix this problem.
There were questions I wanted to ask that mother that I knew I couldn’t. Why would you live with a man who you believe is unsafe? Why would you bear a man’s child if you believe him to be unsafe? I realize such questions are rude–too rude–but if our culture forbids us from asking them we condemn a lot of children to being born into unstable situations.