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Custody: Where Are Children Best Off?

QUESTION: Two months ago and after consulting a psychologist's and a therapist's input, I made what I believe to be the toughest decision of my life - to acknowledge and allow my 11 year old son (6th grade) to satisfy an intense interest to experience living with his father. I was single until he was 3, and he always visited his father on regular basis. My son started acting out this desire by bulling his younger stepbrother (7) and stepsister (4). Also, his high grades started to slip.

His father (who's single) was quite excited by this temporary physical placement (from Christmas to the end of the school year). My children are adjusting well to their brother's desire to have a chance to live with his Dad. And my husband is very supportive to the children and me, especially while I felt an intense sense of"empty nest" for the first few weeks. Visitations (every other weekend and holidays) are getting smoother.

Our family feels more functional than it has in a long time. My son adjusted to school very quickly. His grades are consistently up there again. He is starting to think about home more often. I notice how much happier he is from this extra time with his father.

My fear is he won't want to return after the school year. Or that he'll want to return during the school years with his father. I'm not sure how I can prepare myself for this. And in turn, help his siblings continue their close relationship. I would appreciate your advice.

ANSWER: You are sensitive to your son's needs and you are right to be putting his best interests ahead of your own. His success at school and your positive experience of your family is an indication that you have made the right choice. Perhaps your best course of action is to take each day as it comes and trust your ability to respond appropriately in the future as you have in the past.

Your son is benefiting from an experience of "being heard" and supported in his need to separate and spend special time with his own father. The results are good. Be careful that you do not sabotage his adjustment because of your own desires to have him close. One of the greatest, and most difficult ways of loving our children is to "let go" when they are ready.

You did not expect to "let go" this soon. However, your son's behaviors brought to light his needs in this situation. It is possible that he will want to continue to attend school and live with his father. If so, he will in no way forget you or the family members who love and support him. Weekend visits, e-mail and phone calls are avenues for maintaining connection.

Your son is in a unique position in the family. He was the eldest and the only stepchild. Living with his father gives him an opportunity to be a "one and only" son. This feeling of being "special" can be satisfied because his Dad does want him and because his Dad is still single. Many boys in his similar position never get this opportunity. Returning to a father who cares at a time when he has the time and energy to focus on his son may be one of the most wonderful gifts you could give a pre-adolescent boy.

Appreciate your own unselfish love. Do not fear the future. Seek instead to meet it with the same sensitivity and courage you have already shown. If your son returns to live with you, your vision of parenthood will be intact. If he does not wish to do so, your sadness will be a natural part of "letting go" of the dream of parenthood that you have held with him. Your vision of mothering may undergo a change but it will not alter your love and connection to your son.

Parenthood is sacrificial by nature. This does not imply martyrdom, but it does mean that your job is to serve the best interests of your child to the best of your ability. Your family has experienced a "respite" from the struggles and competition because of your son's move. This appears to have increased, rather than decreased the love and support available in your family. Accept the support your husband and other family members have to offer you through this time. And pat yourself on the back for guiding your family on a transformative journey!

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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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