The day the kids move out . . . it’s a day that most parents anticipate with mixed emotions. You’ll be sad to see them go as they clean up their rooms one last time and pack up all their childhood memories and life lessons you taught them along the way. They will be 18, 19, young adults. It will be time for your little birdies to fly the nest, but you’ll be happy for them, remembering the exhilaration you felt when you first left home.
But for divorced parents, this day may come far too soon, years too early. As our children mature, around that magical tween stage, custodial parents live with a quiet fear that their sons or daughters will want to go live with the other parent—the land of more opportunities to goof off and have a good time.
And that’s the problem with raising children in two separate households: It will one day offer them a choice. “Should I live with mom and all her stifling rules and curfews? Or with dad, who lets me stay up until midnight during the week and doesn’t care that I spend six hours a day on the computer watching YouTube videos?”
This very dread has taken up residence in my own home. I recently learned from my oldest daughter, who turns 14 this month, that her father has been dropping not-so-subtle hints that she could come live with him in his fancy home on the hill. (He’s building a very expensive pool that could be considered coercion.) No, it’s not right that he’s doing this. And yes, it’s destructive to her mental health, putting her in a position where she has to choose between mom and dad’s pool.
But it has her thinking. Really thinking. And that’s what frightens me.
So I wondered, at what age can a child decide with which parent to live? According to California Family Code 3042, age is less of a factor than the maturity and ability of the child to voice a valid opinion.
Here’s my valid opinion: I don’t want my daughter to live with her father, because I am the better parent. “Better” meaning “more vigilant.” He works late hours, travels a lot on business, sleeps in until noon on weekends. In other words, he’s not around much.
And that’s EXACTLY what appeals to her.
“It happened to my friend, Amy,” she hinted one day. “Her mom was really strict and wouldn’t let her go shopping and hang out with friends. So now she’s living with her dad.”
Clever girl. I recognized manipulation when I heard it. I now feel like I have to be on my best behavior. I can’t scold when I should; I can’t discipline when necessary; I can’t say “no,” ever! Our relationship has turned into an audition: “Please, Honey, pick me!”
What I really want to say to her, to plead, to cry, is: “Sweetie, you can’t go live with your father and force me into retirement because my job isn’t done yet. I am your mother . . . and I still have so much to teach you.”
Freelance Writer Lynn Armitage, a fiercely protective mother bear, isn’t ready to let her cub go into the wild yet. Lynn is an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.