Three decades later, dad and daughter reflect on joint custodyby Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio
The State of Minnesota is considering whether in divorce cases, joint physical custody should be the starting point. This reflects a significant change in the thinking about what's best for children after a divorce.
Back in the 1970s, mothers usually got custody. Joint custody was a strange experiment. Thirty years later, one family looks back on their experience.
St. Paul, Minn. — Molly Brom made the newspaper at age 6. Her father, John Bujan saved a copy. The yellowed Family Living section of the Minneapolis Tribune is headlined "After Marriage Break-up, Children Can Still Live with Two Parents."
Sitting in her father's home near Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, Molly Brom is 36 now. Blond curls still frame her face, though now she wears a pair of brown rectangular glasses.
Brom and her dad have agreed to talk about their foray into joint custody in the 1970s. Her mom died in 1994 from cancer.
Brom looks down at two newspaper photos of herself smiling out at the world in a party dress and bare feet. "One of them is me sitting on my mom's lap in one of those swing-type chairs that were really popular in the '70s!" she says, laughing at the dated decor. The other photo shows Brom sitting on her dad's lap in front of the picture window in the living room.
When this article came out in 1979, America's divorce rate was hitting its peak. The movie Kramer v. Kramer, about a wrenching custody battle, would win the Academy Award for Best Picture of the year.
Brom's parents divorce wasn't like that. The Minneapolis Tribune held them up as an example of a family succeeding at divorce.
Brom begins her story where it began for her -- with the announcement that her parents were separating. She was 4. "We were in the car," she says, turning to her father and asking, "Do you remember this?"
He does. Brom remembers sitting in the backseat and her parents were in the front. When they told her they were separating, one thought went through her head. "Is my dad going to come to my birthday party?" she asked.
Her father did come to her 5th birthday party, but it was memorable for other reasons. "That was the year I broke my arm on my birthday so both my mom and dad took me to the emergency room together, we were all there," Brom says.
Bujan stayed with Brom when the doctor set her arm. He remembers Brom's mom looked very gray and couldn't watch.
As a kindergartener, Brom shuttled back and forth, spending three days a week at her dad's house, and four days a week at her mom's.
After a year of separation, Brom's parents decided to finalize their divorce. It was 1977. Brom's parents testified that joint custody was working well and asked the divorce referee to let them continue the arrangement.
"I thought he'd sign the order and hand it to me which was what they usually did," Bujan says. Instead, Bujan remembers, the referee said, "Well. I have to think about this. Why do you want to have all this trouble? Why do you want joint custody? These things just don't work out."
Bujan was shocked. As an attorney, he knew custody wasn't required to go to the mother, but by custom, that's what happened because the courts believed kids needed their mothers more. He pushed back.
"I said to him, if you don't grant the joint custody I'm going to appeal this and you're going to be reversed so fast your head will spin."
But Bujan didn't want to spend years appealing the case, so he thought of a quicker solution. He threatened to take his story to the media. The referee signed the order that day.
There was a lot of scare-mongering about children of divorce back in the 70s: they'd be truants, or unable to form their own lasting relationships. There was also the opposite -- more idealistic -- school of thought: If the parents are happy, the kids will be happy.
The decades have taught us the truth is somewhere in the middle.
For Brom, a kid whose parents cooperated well and remained devoted to her, it was still tough going to her dad's new neighborhood where she didn't know any kids. "The emotional memory I have of being in that house was of feeling lonely," Brom says.
By the time she was in 4th grade, Molly's mom and stepdad decided to relocate to upstate New York. This is where joint custody can get really tricky. But here too the family managed. Bujan offered to have Molly live with him for a year while her mom got situated.
Brom flew to New York for Christmas. "I missed my mom so much. And I just remember sitting on her lap and just crying and it was just so hard."
Molly eventually joined her mom in New York and spent summers with her dad in Minnesota. In high school she switched because the schools were better in Minnesota.
Bujan describes their family's flexible arrangement as a kind of "ultimate joint custody." They adapted to whatever worked best for Molly at the time.
It was a success. Brom's mother would even stay with Bujan and Brom. "They would have a glass of wine and laugh and we'd all go out to dinner. My mom and dad had a really good time together," Brom says. But here's something grown-ups don't notice. "And I felt really, really ill at ease when we were all together. It was just like these two separate worlds colliding and I just, I didn't know how to handle it. It wasn't comfortable."
Bujan listens carefully to Molly's kid's eye view of divorce. He has his own regrets.
"You'd always look back and do things differently. And I think that tearing Brom away from her neighborhood was -- I mean we were being idealistic as people did back then. And it probably wasn't the best thing to do. I think we could have done it a little bit differently, in a way that wasn't quite so disruptive," he says.
Bujan and his ex-wife cooperated in ways many in the courts back in the '70s didn't think was possible. Reflecting back on the referee's attempt to deny their joint custody, Bujan thinks at the time, it didn't seem possible that divorcing parents could manage the constant negotiations necessary in joint custody and not keep dragging each other back to court.
Molly Brom is a mother herself now. She's married with two young daughters, and a stepson who goes back and forth between his dad and mom. Now she sees joint custody through a parent's eyes.
"I know from personal experience now how hard it is to resolve differences about what's best for a child in a civil way and not have, not let the child see, to try to hide that from the child it isn't easy," she says.
Brom's family was a good example for the newspaper to hold up. It's evident from the emotion in this conversation that she and her dad are close. Brom is successful in her life as a wife, nurse and mother.
Her experience as a kid was part of a profound transformation of the American family. Brom remains pragmatic. "People in most cases make the only choices they feel like they have and everybody figures out a way to muddle through," she says.
The research on joint custody shows it can be the best or worst arrangement for the kids. Children can benefit from strong relationships with both parents, or they can be put in the middle of a war zone. Minnesota will now consider what four decades' worth of joint custody experience has to teach about "muddling through" divorce this way.
If you are a parent with joint custody, how do your child's rooms look different at each parent's house? What do they show about the two worlds the child inhabits? What do they show about the two worlds the child inhabits? Please upload your photos and share your story here.
- All Things Considered, 10/27/2008, 5:50 p.m.