The Problem with Bonding

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.

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2 responses to “The Problem with Bonding

  1. I’ve read quite a few of your discussions about what constitutes a parent and the stance you are taking now declaring Mendoza to be a parent in this context seems entirely inconsistent. I fully expected you to say that just because Mendoza is a genetic progenitor and in the past looked after Elizabeth does not make her a parent, but rather a person that Elizabeth might have an interest in at some time in the future, maybe to be classified as a D category relative.

    Incidentally I do believe that Mendoza is a parent BECAUSE she is the genetic parent and a court has not terminated her parental rights. Unlike you I tend to prefer the default parenthood status of genetic parents unless terminated by court order or denied by statute. Such a position seems so much more easily identifiable and less subject to subjective decisions. There is also definite logic in declaring genetic parents to be the parents of a child as a default position.

    • Fair question. I do think Mendoza is a parent. From all I know she became a parent during the first year of her child’s life. That seems to me both clear and consistent with what I’ve written elsewhere.

      The more difficult question for me is whether even if she was a parent at the beginning, she wasn’t a parent at the end. In other words, did her parenthood end?

      I haven’t really written much about when/how parenthood might end under my analysis. It isn’t obviously forever, as it would be on a DNA-based standard. (The DNA is always there.) But without having a general standard, I think I’d say Mendoza’s parenthood didn’t end while she was in Iraq.

      I can offer two arguments, one of which might be flawed. The possibly-flawed one is really a public policy argument. If you say that parents who go abroad on military service are going stop being parents because they are away from their children, you’re going to drive parents out of the military. That seems undesireable.

      The other argument I’d make is that the amount of time she was away wasn’t long enough to undo her parenthood. If it had been ten years instead of ten months (or whatever it was) I might reach a different conclusion. I am not prepared to say how much time away is too much time, etc. But I am prepared to say that this isn’t it, particularly given her reason for being away.

      So she was a parent when she left (by virtue of her role in the child’s life) and still a parent when she returned.

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