Most of us remember the story of King Solomon: faced with two mothers, each claiming the same baby to be her own, he says to the mothers that the only compromise is to split the baby in half with his sword. One mother cries out in fear, and tells the other woman to take the baby, in order to protect his life. Solomon names that woman the true mother, as she was willing to give up her son in order to save him.
This story has many other versions going back in history. The Chalk Circle is a play considered a classic in China, written at some point during the Yuan Dynasty during the 14th Century. The verse describes a judgment made by Bao Zheng, an 11th century aide to the Emperor who symbolizes honesty and justice in Chinese culture. The verse describes two women fighting over possession of a baby. They are placed in a chalk circle and told to tug on the child, one holding his feet, and the other his hands with a goal of pulling the child out of the circle and into her own possession. The true mother lets go of the child, weeping, in order to prevent the child from pain and harm. Bao Zheng then gives the child to that woman, knowing that is the mother who cares most for the child.
Wikipedia notes that scholars have tracked down 22 other stories from folklore and literature that focus on the same theme. Humans evidently don’t really change that much over the centuries in terms of their capacity for conflict. In our own society, we have family court judges still forced to make decisions about who gets the baby, so to speak, when parents are battling for custody and time. Clearly, though many families remain together to rear their children, and many others are able to share time and responsibility amicably when the parents split apart, we still have parents who end up in the “chalk circle”, each tugging on one end of their child’s life while the other parent tugs in the opposite direction.
How does the theme of Solomon’s sword, and Solomon’s wisdom play out today?
In custody battles that end up in court, judges often order custody evaluations of the parents and children. They are interested in assessing – among many other factors – parental behaviors that social scientists have named “gate keeping”. If a parent withholds access to a child for vengeful, or selfish reasons, the gate keeping is seen as “restrictive”. If a parent promotes access to a child in order to help their co-parent strengthen his or her relationship with the child, or become more available to the child, that is called “facilitative” gate keeping.
While court decisions are often unpredictable, and sometimes downright dumbfounding, judges theoretically are trying to determine which parent is most likely to support, and help maintain the relationship between the children and both parents. Judges are, in effect, trying to use the Solomon’s sword idea to figure out which parent should have custody, or more custodial time, with the children. This is because research suggests, and the attachment literature indicates, that infants develop attachments to both parents who care for them regularly, and that children tend to thrive in life when they have ongoing relationships with both parents.
Custody disputes can be complicated, though; judges, evaluators, mediators, litigators and Collaborative professionals alike often have great difficulty determining the true reasons a parent might insist on, or wish to, restrict access by their co-parent to the children.
Let’s say one of the two women in the chalk circle had previously been accused of abusing the baby, or of behaving in frightening ways. What would the right decision have been for Bao Zheng? Would letting the child go to the suspected mother be the safest act?
Sometimes, when parents are in conflict, one parent feels he or she is more “fit” than the other, or actually fears that the other parent is dangerous to, or neglectful of, the child. In those cases, when one parent prevents the other parent from access, some professionals see that prevention as “protective gate keeping.” The question for the professionals helping the family becomes whether the protection is warranted, or is actually unnecessary – and ultimately harmful to the child.
The nuances of situations in which parents are in conflict are essential to attend to. Perhaps one parent (let’s call this parent Parent #1) insists that they are supportive of their co-parent’s time with the child – as long as the time is spent in the home where Parent #1 lives, or is spent in small chunks of time (dinner and a movie). In this case, the question we must ask if we are to remain focused on the children’s needs (and “protection of the baby”) is whether that behavior is protective or restrictive. We need to find out whether, in fact, Parent #2 has a history of caring for the child in attentive and careful ways, or has a history of substance abuse or addiction, or has been neglectful or abusive, or has been absent.
A common situation in divorcing families is one in which one parent has been the primary caretaker, while the other has been the primary breadwinner. Sometimes, the breadwinner has had very limited time with the children, in part because of work demands, but perhaps in part because that parent has been very unhappy in the marriage, and unhappy within the stress of the home. A Solomon’s dilemma arises once the parents have separated, and each parent wishes for their own individual time with the kids. Often, the parent who was primary caretaker believes they are the only parent who can adequately care for the children. This is because they have witnessed, in their own history, the disconnection or even apparent disinterest of their co-parent in the day to day lives of the children. However, a confusing reality surfaces when the breadwinner-parent realizes all they have missed out on in terms of parenting, and once they are parenting in their own space they realize they actually want to be connected to their children. They find they want to become the involved parent they have never been.
So which parent should Solomon favor? The parent who has looked after the children’s needs for years? The parent who has been missing, but now, painfully, wants to develop a strong bond with the children? What is best for the children?
When I work with families in mediation or Collaborative, or am meeting with the children directly, I am always trying to listen for the “real story”. While I am not a judge and I don’t provide custody evaluations to the courts, I do work with many parents and many children in families in which there are custody disputes. In order to help parents figure out a way to share the time, and live together somehow within the chalk circle, I strive to learn – along with the family – whether both parents are ready and able to be available, responsible, and caring parents. I work with parents, listening closely, to figure out – and then to help them recognize – whether protective or facilitative gate keeping is most appropriate. My toughest clients are those who are coping within a restrictive gate keeping dynamic – especially when the parent restricting genuinely believes he or she is being protective.
The good news is that most parents are able to recognize, over time, the needs of the children above their own. Sometimes parents who were previously uninvolved need to “walk the walk”, not just “talk the talk”, and slowly build up their connections to their kids, and build co-parenting trust in the historically caretaking parent. Sometimes parents who have historically struggled with substance abuse, or mental illness are able to achieve sobriety, engage in treatment, and evolve into wonderful, able parents who then need significant time with their children. Sometimes a restricting parent needs time to grieve the loss of the marriage before being able to “let go of the baby” for the child’s own protection and become more facilitative.
In the end, I do believe children need both parents. And though I do not own a sword, I do believe that when both parents are fit, the parents who are truly looking out for their children are the parents who are able to share their children despite the pain of having to – sometimes – let go of them.