Blended families and military connected families both come with unique challenges. Combine the two and the challenges can be multiplied. When relationships end and children are involved, developing a co-parenting relationship can be challenging. Focusing on the best needs of the children can be difficult for some parents as the emotions and the hurt caused by the end of the relationship can take over.
When one parent is military-connected, navigating these emotions and decisions has additional layers of consideration. When an agreement can’t be reached, states frequently have guidelines that are used to make decisions about the co-parenting relationship. These guidelines are often written for parents who will live near each other. Because of the frequent moves of the active duty, this is not always possible---as the non-military parent is unlikely to continue to PCS with the service member. State guidelines may have guidelines for parents who do not live near each other, but they may not be practical for military families. Thoughtful consideration should be given to how to navigate shared parenting given this unique circumstance. A modified version of the shared parenting must be created---and requires additional communication and compromise on both parents’ part.
Traditional parenting time schedules (i.e., every other weekend, one week on/off with each parent, longer summer visitation) do not work with distance (including deployments) is involved. Families are faced with long separations, missed holidays, and missed extra-curricular activities. The time commitment of the military, along with financial costs, prevent parents from frequent visitations. For families with young children, time away from their parents can be especially difficult. In looking at attachment, younger children require more frequent visitation. Long summer separations can be stressful for young children who have come to rely on the primary custodial parent. Having young children also provides the additional challenge of locating and paying for childcare during extended visitations. As children get older and become more involved in extra-curricular activities, longer summer visits may be challenging, if not impossible. It is necessary to weigh out the pros/cons of a child’s visitation with their parent with being able to continue participation in activities. One could argue that visitation with the parent takes priority, but discounts the importance of the child’s engagement in summer activities that may also have considerable impact (i.e., travel ball, summer school, jobs, etc.) on the child’s future.
Blended families who are Reserve Component also have unique challenges. While these families may live near each other, the schedule of drill weekends and Annual Training (AT) can require flexibility on both parent’s part. If the relationship is strained and parents can’t navigate changes in scheduled parenting time, the service member may need to rely on extended friends and family on those weekends where drill and co-parenting time overlap. When this occurs, parents who already see their children less, are giving up additional time. Additionally, we know that RC families may not feel connected to the military or know resources. Reserve Component kids may feel even more isolated in their role as a military kid.
In writing this blog, I connected with a former co-worker that I met as he was finishing his degree and commissioning into the Army. Prior to returning to school and getting married, he served in the National Guard as a single service member. Upon commissioning, he and his blended family PCSed to Texas. Because there was a biological dad who had been active in the daughter’s life, the families (both parents had remarried) had to have difficult discussions about how to navigate this and subsequent moves while maintain the daughter’s relationship with her paternal family. Ultimately, the daughter moved to Texas and the visitation occurred as agreed upon.
2020 came and brought COVID along with an overseas deployment. The family agreed upon an extended visit due to schools moving online. This extended stay led to a custody dispute. A custody dispute that occurred across the country on the mom’s part, and across the world on the stepfather’s part. He and his wife believed they had adjusted visitation in good faith and trust was broken when primary custody was challenged. This custody dispute was eight months long and was financially and emotionally costly for both families. In my colleague’s case, he feels there was a disproportionate amount of the work on he and his wife regarding the court case, despite them not being ones to initiate the court case. His wife was managing their household and the court details alone and across several states, and he was trying to navigate a deployment and a support his wife from across the world. As we know, this stress trickles down to children and can affect the relationship between all parents and between the child and the parents, ultimately causing a child to feel he/she must choose sides.
Both parents believed they were acting in the child’s best interest. It is easy to see how a parent who is not in the military would feel that geographical stability would be best for their child, especially if they had no personal experience with the military.
While it is easy to identify challenges when considering custody, it is equally important to consider the advantages. Having a child visit for a summer can provide uninterrupted time with the child that might not be available during the school year. There isn’t the distraction of school and extra-curricular activities and may be more equal in actual time spent with the child than for the parent who has primary physical custody, especially as children get older and are more involved in social and extra-curricular activities. It can allow kids the opportunity to travel and explore that otherwise would not be available to them.
Custody disputes are not specific to military-connected families; however military service does affect how they play out in court. Cases can be financially devastating for families and can incur additional costs for military families who must navigate meetings with attorneys and travel for court dates. when agreements cannot be reached, the military-connected family may lose primary physical custody because of the relocations required of the military. Additionally, to accommodate for distance, military families may be required to give up all/most of holidays and school breaks to maximize parenting time of the other parent. While these accommodations can help balance out shared time, it does require a shift in expectations from all involved.
When working with military connected families it is important to take their military service into consideration and to identify ways in which their experiences are affected (both positively and negatively) by the military service. Recognizing that non-military connected parents (for both active duty and reserve component) may not be aware of available resources and military children can miss out on resources and opportunities available to them. The cost/benefit will be different for each child and family. As with all parenting time decisions, there is not a one-size-fits-all plan that will work for all families.
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.
Christy Collette, LMHC, is a Program Associate for the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. In this capacity, she is coordinating the expansion of the Star Behavioral Health Providers into new states across the nation. SBHP trains civilian behavioral health providers to work with Service members, veterans and their families.