When Wendy Williams and her husband, Fred, decided to separate nearly three years ago, she assumed that their two boys, Joey, 4 1/2, and Geoffrey, 3, would stay with her - in their house in Washington, D.C.
“I thought they would be too much for Fred,” she recalls. “But I wasn't thinking as clearly about the custody matter as I thought about it later. Custody is really life-long, not who takes care of them for a year.”
Fred recalls the period as “very, very painful.” He had initially agreed that Wendy would keep the house, the only home the boys had known. “I wanted to comply,” Fred says. “I spent the next couple of weeks looking for a place to live out in the suburbs. I even put a deposit on a place.”
Then one day Fred noticed an op-ed article in The Washington Post by David L. Levy, a founder of the Children's Rights Council and a strong advocate of joint custody. Fred pored through the literature the council sent him on the merits of shared parenting, then delved into research on the topic at the University of Maryland library. “There's very little good science on joint custody,” he says. “But I read it all, looking for the impact on kids.”
When Fred's attorney asked him what he wanted in the divorce, Fred didn't hesitate: “the children.” And he wanted them a full 50 percent of the time, not just for visits every other weekend.
“He told me that I had a lot of rights, which was kind of an eye opener,” Fred says. “He told me not to assume that Wendy would get sole custody.”
Wendy offered Fred a joint legal-custody arrangement with generous visitation; he proposed joint residential custody. That moment became a mother's nightmare, as Wendy tells it: “I saw Geoffrey being ripped out of my arms. I hyperventilated, then cried for hours.”
Fred forfeited his deposit on the suburban rental and said he wasn't going to leave the boys. Wendy contemplated and ultimately decided against a custody battle. She moved into an apartment nearby and agreed to an interim arrangement that allowed her to keep the boys for half a week. It was a situation, she says, “I really thought got shoved down my throat.”
Then came the guilt feelings. While many of the couple's neighbors viewed Fred as a hero for managing two active toddlers, Wendy felt as if she must have done something very wrong as a mother to suddenly find herself without them for so much of their formulative time.
Prodded by family and friends, Wendy hired a new lawyer who “better understood the current climate and explained the gender- neutral law to me. When I faced the fact that I could lose custody, I realized that that was what Fred had faced. It hit me like a bolt of lightning - as hard as it might be for us to work together in the next 20 years, I didn't hate him enough to put him through that.”
Wendy didn't think Fred would survive the strain of having both boys in a shared custody arrangement, but “in fact, he got better and better at it.”
Juggling a full-time job as an analyst for the Transportation Department and returning home in time to put a quick meal on the table wasn't a problem, Fred says. “I cooked my way through college as a fast-food chef. That part of it wasn't very hard. I also found the rituals very valuable - homework, dinner, bath. I chose to be a dad, and I dedicated myself to it totally. I learned that financially, you borrow, you go into debt. Emotionally, you don't take chances that might upset the apple cart of being a dad. With all my major choices, I had to think about how will this affect me as a dad.”
Wendy adjusted her life as well, making the most of her days with the children by picking them up at school promptly at 3 p.m. On those days, she would rearrange her work schedule as a professor of journalism at American University and take papers home to grade after the boys went to sleep. The real problem was coping with the extra time she now had. “At first I felt very guilty, to have young children and have so much time on my hands,” Wendy says. “I learned how to play the piano again. I could also start dating again, with a lot of privacy.”
After the first painful jolts of separation and a trial custody arrangement, nailing down the logistical fine points were relatively easy. Wendy and Fred worked through a mediator provided by the District of Columbia courts to decide on child support. Based on an equalization formula for joint residential custody, Fred pays $350 each month; it would have been $1,100-$1,200 monthly if Wendy had had sole custody.
The couple decided to bring in a psychologist “to be an advocate for the boys,” says Wendy. “It also gives us help on how to be consistent between the two households. She can tell us that both boys are developmentally normal; neither is depressed. She's helped us learn how to reach middle ground.”
Sometimes you screw up, Fred admits. “It had never crossed my mind that it was time for Joey to start getting involved in team sports. ”I didn't know anything about soccer,“ he says. ”I hate soccer.“ Nonetheless, he's become a coach.
“Fred and I talk a lot now,” Wendy says. “I called recently to say, 'You should have seen Joey get his first hit in baseball.' We go trick or treating together, have Christmas together and share the children's birthdays. It's not that this stuff is always easy, but sometimes if you grit your teeth, you can do it for the kids.”
Basically, she says, “We've had to rebuild the trust that was lost during the marriage.”
“I think Wendy and I are perfectly attuned to what's important here - the priorities, the children,” agrees Fred.