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Argument Over Child's Best Interest

QUESTION: I have two children, a girl age 5 and a son age 16 months. Their father lives four hours away and visits every other weekend. When in town for visitation, he stays at a hotel or with other family members. My 16 month old son has a history of febrile seizures. His last seizure occurred in the early hours on the day his father was to have visitation. They ran some tests and did a chest x-rays (all of which was very upsetting to my son). The doctors determined that there was nothing they could point to that caused the fever and to just continue treatment of the with Tylenol and Advil and my son was released.

His father was staying at his sister's home which the kids at stayed at only once before. She has five children and his father had his two step children with him as well as our daughter.

I felt the best thing for my son was to come home with me and rest and if everything was okay, then bring him to his father later in the day...which is what happened. After a 3 1/2 hour nap, he looked and acted much better and he spent the rest of the weekend with his father.

My ex-husband did not agree...he felt that because it was his weekend, he should take him from the emergency room to his sister's. There was a huge argument over what to do which ended with me shutting the door in his face.

I have always supported the kids spending time with their father. But what do I do in an illness situation? The chances of my son having another seizure are pretty high. This last seizure occurred while he was taking Tylenol.

When he is experiencing a fever even though controlled through medication, I feel very uncomfortable sending him on visitation. I feel that in my son's circumstances, it is best for him to be at home where he is most comfortable. Should I send him anyway? Do I have to?

ANSWER: Your ex-husband may have overreacted. You did not interfere with his parenting time with his daughter and you brought your son to him as soon as he awoke. Given the trauma of your son's seizure and his inability to communicate at this very young age, your actions appear quite reasonable. It is unfortunate that your ex-spouse did not appreciate your emotional trauma as a parent in this situation and offer more support instead of criticism.

You made your choices based on your determination of your child's best interest. Your assessment of what would best calm your son and offer recovery included his resting at his own home. Following his seizure it is possible that being a guest in an unfamiliar environment, with three other children who were also guests that required his father's attention, would not have benefited him as much as sleeping peacefully at home and joining his father, sister and step-siblings when he awoke.

Your ex-spouse's response appears to be centered on a power struggle with you over his parental rights rather than the best interests of his child. It is understandable that he wants to spend as much of his weekend as possible with his children. However, this might be better served by spending time relating to the two of them rather than including the whole "clan". Regardless, your ex-husband may have a desire to somehow include himself in this situation. If so, it would be helpful for him to express this in a cooperative manner that revolved around his son's needs.

I am not saying that his desire to father his son through an illness could not benefit his son. What I am saying, is that your children are required to make significant adjustments when sharing time with their father. Seizures are traumatic medical events. Increased adjustments that include change-overs in caretakers, a strange environment AND your ex-husband's clearly divided attention makes your decision appear quite appropriate to your son's recovery. In fact, I find myself wondering why he didn't thank you for taking such good care of his son and for bringing him over so soon after he awoke.

"Joint legal custody" and "physical custody" have different legal definitions. In California, for example, it is possible to share legal custody with your ex-spouse, but be granted full physical custody for your child. Joint legal custody secures parental rights, while full physical custody may be granted to a parent with whom the child resides most of the time. Whether you "have to" send your child to his father when in this kind of parental conflict requires legal consultation for your specific situation. However in California, if you have full physical custody of your child, your decisions generally stand in the case of conflict. The parent who has legal joint custody retains the "right" to challenge your decision in court if he disagrees, or to protest what he may see as interfering with court ordered visitation. Consult an attorney for advice regarding the interpretation of your custody arrangement in the case of your son's seizures.

Hopefully, your ex-husband will gain perspective on this situation in retrospect and be able to see his short-sightedness. Though he may not like it, it is true that your son is particularly bonded to you. Since you are his major caretaker, your son will be calmed by your continued presence following such a traumatic event, and distressed by your abrupt departure. You acted in the interest of your son's health and recovery. If your ex continues to have difficulty seeing the larger picture, you might also consider consulting a child psychologist who specializes in mediation.

The job of any parent involves sacrifice. Your ex-spouse is having difficulty seeing that you did not just "keep his son" from him. You gave up your own very precious free time, because your son needed you!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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