As I was driving to work the other morning, I saw a father with his two children at the end of their driveway, waiting for the school bus. A typical scene of dad wearing a jacket, huddled over his mug of coffee, casually holding the small backpacks and making morning talk with his kids while waiting.
Further on down the street, I saw three more fathers on a corner, each in their running or workout gear, chatting together while waiting with their own children. As I left our neighborhood, I saw a two more dads on morning bus duty, and finally, a mom.
Dads waiting with their kids in the morning for a school bus shouldn’t be unusual. Fathers want to be as hands-on as possible with their children. This doesn’t just mean coaching soccer or flexing their work schedule so that they could be there for the morning bus, but also taking a sick day to stay home with a kid with the flu. I also thought, somewhat more cynically, that I saw all of these fathers on a Monday morning. This could be the end of their parenting weekend, as these dads would be responsible for getting their children to school. Once you are a single parent, you are the only one on deck to get these things done for your children on your parenting days.
When the divorce parenting statute in Illinois changed in 2016, there was a great deal of discussion regarding creating a “presumption” of equal parenting time. As the lawmakers and divorce practitioners and judges negotiated how the new statute should read, and given how much our society has changed, it was debated that the starting point for divorcing parents would be a 50/50 split, or equal time with their children, in a forming a parenting schedule.
In the end, the law did not reflect this 50/50 parenting time presumption. Equal parenting time is something the parents, or the court, has to decide is in the best interest of the children. What the statute did include was a presumption that both parents are deemed “fit” to take care of the child, and “fit” to exercise “non-significant decision-making responsibilities” during parenting time. What does it mean to be a “fit” parent?
The statute spells out some of the basics: the parent can be attentive to a child’s hygienic needs. The parent provides discipline, and gives instruction for good manners. The parent ensures a child attends medical appointments, supervises homework, and takes a child to extra-curricular activities. Basic, mundane stuff. Both mom and dad are presumed capable of this kind of parenting. Only if there is a problem with a parent’s ability to be attentive to a child, or acts in a way to cause harm to a child’s physical, mental, moral or emotional health, will a parent’s time be restricted.
That is why parents, and dads especially, need to be aware of what they do and say about their parenting time leading up to a divorce, and during the divorce proceedings. A parent who either delegated, or benignly neglected these responsibilities, now has to examine the pattern for child care in the former household. The statute has a two-year look-back period, to examine the amount of time a parent spent with a child’s caretaking functions for the twenty-four months prior to filing the petition for divorce, or for a child under 2 years, since the child’s birth. Or the court can look at the agreement or course of conduct between the parents relating to these caretaking functions. We have modern households, but sometimes lazy, out-of-sync and mother-centric childcare habits. In divorce proceedings, supervising bath time and daycare drop offs are fought over, rather than pushed aside.
Fathers should watch their language: it is not “watching the kids,” it is parenting time. Every trip to a hockey tournament or dance competition out of town is an opportunity for travel time with your children; to talk about school, friends, teachers, or just to learn their favorite songs with those hours of driving in the car. It is almost a guarantee that your child will never remember it, but your taking your child to a dentist appointment during your parenting time, or driving a forgotten gym shoe back to school, is just part of being a parent. Only when the parents fight about scheduling a dentist appointment on the other’s parenting time, or refuse to return a shoe left at one parent’s house, will the child remember.
The argument that a father has never done that before – never helped with homework, never scheduled a parent-teacher conference, never packed a lunch – doesn’t hold for denying parent time. Going back to the presumption of being “fit,” it is presumed that a parent is well able to pick up those kinds of responsibilities once there are two separate households. The parenting statute defines many of those ordinary, necessary parts of parenting which make up the life of an emotionally healthy child. School bus pick up, and all the rest of the responsibilities, are all part of a parenting plan, and part of what a divorced dad wants to do for his children.