I recently wrote about the undoubtedly unwanted bonds that exist between Jaycee Dugard and her kidnapper. Today there’s a story on the front page of the New York Times today that leads me to return to this topic.
Leydi Mendoza and Danial Llares are parents of a 2 year-old, Elizabeth. Mendoza was (and probably still is) in the NJ National Guard. When Elizabeth was about one, she was deployed to Iraq. At the time she left, Mendoza and Llares, who had separated, agreed on a shared custody arrangement for when she returned.
Mendoza was in Iraq for ten months. That’s a very long time in the life of a one-to-two year old. When she returned, Llares sought to severely limit her time with Elizabeth, because it was “disruptive” to the child to spend time with a mother she no longer knew.
I’m not an expert on child development or bonding, but it seems likely to me that there is some truth to what Llaressays. It must be nigh on impossible to remain tightly connected to a one-year-old if you are physically separated by thousands of miles. The harder question, I think, is what follows from this observation. If we were to decide the matter solely on the question of who is better bonded to the child, then perhaps Llares prevails.
But despite my general affinity for functional or de facto tests, I think that’s the wrong course here. As far as we know, Mendoza was a fine parent up until she was required to go to Iraq. What price should we extract for her service there? Insisting that she sacrifice her relationship with her infant daughter is wrong.
I reach this conclusion for two reasons. First, I’m not persuaded that it isbest for Elizabeth the child to be in sole custody with Llares, even if that’s the one person she is bonded to just now. It’s quite likely that Elizabeth can forge new bonds with Mendoza. And since Medoza will remain a player in Elizabeth’s life, that’s very likely a better goal. In five/ten/twenty years, Elizabeth will be well-aware of the story being spun out now. I can imagine the happier ending (for Elizabeth) would be one where she regains the relationship she once had, and sooner rather than later.
Second, I think there are other things to consider besides what is best for the child. Even if it will be difficult and disruptive for Elizabeth to spend time with Mendoza, it’s unfair to punish Mendoza for fulfilling this obligation. The difficult and disruption for Elizabeth could well pass as she and Mendoza are reaquainted. The harm inflicted on Mendoza in a contrary result is enduring. I’d strike the balance for Mendoza.
All this aside, it is crucial to note that this fight is not about who is a parent. It’s about which of two parents should have custody. The two questions are quite different–the latter necessarily much murkier, I think.
I hope I have not muddied things by this little excursion into the custody question when blog is really about who is a parent, but it’s important to see the interplay between the two. Perhaps the most critical point was the one I began with: Mendoza is Elizabeth’s parent and, as far as I can see, no one questions that. She didn’t stop being a parent when she served in Iraq.