Many people assume that both parents have rights to equal time with their kids should they divorce or separate. This is mostly false. In 80% or more U.S. families in which parents live separately, kids spend the majority of time with the mom, and dads have visits with their children.
Laws in most states — save for Arizona and Kentucky, see below — vaguely order custody be determined in the best interest of the children. This model financially incentivizes attorneys, judges and courts to promote fighting over custody and parenting time. The more ambiguous the law, the more room the legal industry has to help everyday people navigate it — all while billing $300 per hour.
The results is that everyone looses: Dads are pushed out of their kids’ lives, moms are overburdened with the overwhelming responsibilities of being primary parent, and the kids are left without an engaged dad, and a stressed-out broke mom.
Thankfully, this can end now that there is access to excellent and extensive academic research on what is best for children in separated families.
A TIME magazine article on how children of divorce fared best when they equally split time between both mom and dad’s house has a great quote from a study author:
“We think that having everyday contact with both parents seems to be more important, in terms of stress, than living in two different homes,” says Bergström. “It may be difficult to keep up on engaged parenting if you only see your child every second weekend.”
Having two parents also tends to double the number of resources a kid is exposed to, including social circles, family and material goods like money. “Only having access to half of that may make children more vulnerable or stressed than having it from both parents, even though they don’t live together,” she says.
Here are the highlights of research on 50-50 parenting time:
Meta study on shared parenting
Dr. Linda Nielsen, Wake Forest University professor, reviewed 60 studies that have compared children in these two types of families during the past 25 years and found that shared parenting is best for children in separated and divorced families. Kids who share time between both parents’ homes approximately equally have better outcomes related to:
- Academic achievement
- Drug, alcohol and cigarette use
- Mental and physical health
- Less early sexual activity and teen pregnancy
- Higher employment and earnings later in life
- Greater likelihood of family stability in their own adulthoods
- Better relationships with parents, step-parents and grandparents.
Overall the children in shared parenting families had better outcomes on measures of emotional, behavioral, and psychological well-being, as well as better physical health and better relationships with their fathers and their mothers, benefits that remained even when there were high levels of conflict between their parents.
50% time-sharing is an important number
This is a really great overview on the most recent shared-parenting research from Arizona State University’s William Fabricius, who found, definitively, that stress caused by a high-conflict co-parenting relationship decreases the closer the schedule gets to 50-50.In other words, it’s the parenting schedule in the abstract that matters, perhaps even more than the number of hours the kid spends with each parent:
“If you have a high-conflict divorce and the child is worried he is going to be abandoned and is seeing the dad 35% of the time, that leaves enough time that the child isn’t seeing dad to worry that the dad is just going to give up on this situation. If the father is providing an equal home, that provides the security in the child’s mind that neither parent is going away.”
Shared parenting for newborns, babies and toddlers
Shared parenting in high-conflict situations
Linda Neilsen’s research found that, despite the assumption that conflict with parents was more damaging that minimized time with a parent (father), that was not the case. You can read more in this article on shared parenting in high-conflict situations, which in summary:
- Families with higher income were not more likely to have shared parenting arrangements.
- Parents with equally shared parenting agreements did not have better co-parenting relationships or less conflict than those with sole-custody arrangements. “The benefits linked to JPC cannot be attributed to better co-parenting or to lower conflict.”
- Most parents with joint physical custody did not originally agree to the arrangement — but was agreed to under pressure or order from courts or legal negotiations.
- Exposure to high, ongoing conflict is no more damaging to children in 50-50 arrangements than in sole physical custody families.
- Most parents with equal parenting agreements have distant and attached relationships — not warm co-parenting.
Equally shared parenting laws work
In 2017, Kentucky became the first state in the country to pass an equally shared parenting law that creates a rebuttable presumption of equal parenting time for separated and divorced parents. That means that when you split in Kentucky, time with the kids is equally split in half — and the onus is on one parent to argue the other should have less time.
Within two years of the law going into effect, the number of family court filings in Kentucky dropped by more than 11%, and the number of family court filings involving domestic violence dropped by 4%. The law has been endorsed by Kentuckians Against Domestic Violence and consistently polls very high among that state’s residents.
In 2013 activists and academics, primarily Dr. William Fabricius, worked to pass legislation in Arizona to establish “maximum time with each parent,” which resulted in the majority of judges in that state defaulting to a 50/50 parenting schedule.
One family attorney reported that average divorce retainers in Arizona fell by half after legislation promoting “maximum time with each parent” was passed in that state. It is no wonder that state bar associations are consistently the opponent to shared parenting laws are introduced.
Parenting Schedules and Single-Mom Income
Mothers overall suffer a pay gap of 29%, earning an average of 71 cents for every $1 earned by a dad — or an average of $16,000 less per year, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
This motherhood penalty is dramatically worse for single mothers at 35%. According to Pew Research, single moms with a household of three earn just $26,000 per year on average, compared with $40,000 per year for single dads.
The Single Mom Income and Parenting-Time Survey polled 2,279 U.S. single moms.
The big takeaway: More equality in time-sharing means higher earning for single moms
See the full results:
Single-mom survey highlights
More equality in time-sharing single mothers have with their children’s father correlates with higher income and more reports of feeling proud of their parenting.
A few survey highlights include:
- Moms with a 50/50 parenting schedule are 54% more likely to earn at least $100,000 annually than moms whose kids are with them most of the time (with “visits” with the dad).
- Moms with a 50/50 parenting schedule are more than three times (325%) more likely to earn $100,000 than single moms with 100% time with their kids.
- Moms with 50/50 parenting schedules are more than twice as likely to earn $65,000+, and nearly three-times as likely to earn that sum than moms with 100% parenting time.
- 13%, or 1 in 8, single moms have a 50/50 arrangement — and 98% of them are content with it.
- 51% of single moms surveyed have their children 100% of the time.
- Equally shared parenting is popular with single moms: The majority of single moms, 53%, either already enjoy a 50/50 schedule or wish they had it.
- 9 in 10 single moms say they could earn more money if they had more equality in their parenting time
- Moms with 50/50 parenting time are 34% more likely (23% vs. 15%) to say they feel “awesome and proud” of being a mom compared with moms who care for their kids 100% of the time.
- About 70% of moms who have their kids 100% or majority time feel parenting gets in the way of self-care, vs just 50% of moms with 50/50 schedules.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America said this about the work:
“Emma Johnson is focusing on an important and almost completely overlooked piece of the complex gender equality puzzle. She is absolutely right to point out that while social norms around equal parenting may be slow to change, reforming laws and practices governing divorced couples could make a big and beneficial difference for single mothers and fathers relatively quickly.”