We've all had friends or family or celebrities we adore from afar, fight a custody battle worthy of the Sharks and the Jets. Not to mention the $100,000 plus price tag of these battles, unaffordable to most mortals. One of the most shocking things about Halle Berry's current custody battle with her French-Canadian model-partner, is that she's had to quit working on her latest flick in order to devote all her energies to the fight. And maybe her lawyers also advised her it is best to be a "full-time mommy, home baking cookies" in order to have a leg up in court.
These painful, loaded battles, which can drag on for years, are the reason we are so devoted to alternative dispute resolution in divorce. If there's one interest over which a man and woman often can agree, it's that they really truly do want their kids to come away as unscathed as possible. Some people even hope to remain friends as they co-parent into the future. We've heard lots of moms and dads imagine graduations and weddings that are peaceful, joyous family events unmarred by the painful memories of the divorce. "At least we want to be able to look each other in the eye and be civilized," they explain.
So, how do we mediators help couples avoid the child custody morass? First of all we discuss their roles as mom and dad and what parenting means to each of them. We also help them prioritize how they wish to raise their children and what values they each bring to the equation. We discuss, education, faith, activities, budgets and time spent together, as well as any other hopes and concerns they have about their kids. The kids are always front and center in these conversations. When that seems to be slipping away, and they veer toward nasty, blame-filled accusations, we've even resorted to asking to see photos of their adorable offspring, thereby, at least figuratively, bringing them in to the room. A quick glance at even those awful school photos can bring the heat down, reminding everyone, not only of what's most important, but also of what they have in common.
Child therapists who specialize in divorce negotiations and can weigh in on the impact of various parenting arrangement on the kids, may also be part of the mediation team. Lots of times couples don't even know how and when to tell the kids they are divorcing: together, separately, before one moves out, before or after the negotiations are done. And what do you tell them? What if mom or dad is dating? Do the kids meet the significant other? While most parents have good instincts and the best intentions, the stress and anger inherent in divorce may derail their judgment and experts may help them focus, intelligently and compassionately.
So Halle Berry and Gabriel Aubry (and all the rest of you going through this): pull out a photo of that gorgeous little daughter (or son) and remember that your behavior today is in your hands. Come up for air and bring your mutual love of Nahla (or Jimmy, or Susie) to the surface.