Making Choices For Our Kids

We didn’t agree on a lot of things when we were married. We had a lot of feelings clouding our judgement. There was a lot of stress distracting us from prioritizing. After our divorce was finalized and everything was written in ink and signed off on, it all got easier.

It wasn’t quite overnight, but over time we grew closer and more capable of healthy communication when it comes to our kids. We had been on the same page before we got married and now we are back on the same page. We just needed to get rid of some of the other aspects of our relationship to become the parents we were meant to be.

So while some minor details aren’t always agreed on, we seem to always find a good place to land when it comes to the big issues. Like our children’s wellbeing, mental health, and meeting their individual needs.

Our daughter comes with a whole host of needs. Not all of which made sense to us at first. And not all of which came with any sort of “how to” guide. Allowing our child to transition was the simplest and hardest thing to come to terms with. We both knew who she was and who she needed to be allowed to be. We both were terrified of messing this up. We consulted wit ha specialist. We met with other families, some in real life, some virtually. We took it slowly and followed her lead.

Most recently, we signed documents and mailed out a check. We finally gave our girl what she needed in order to be able to live her life. A child shouldn’t have to come with an explanation or a “heads up” before starting a new class. A child shouldn’t always have to enter a new arena by waiting on the outskirts while their parents explained to the adults in charge what to expect. And now, she won’t have to.

https://www.nj.gov/health/forms/reg-l3_1.pdf

https://www.gardenstateequality.org/faq

“Mama, you don’t have balls?”

            When a 5 year old transgender child started asking about eggs (in the context of mammals), their parent knew she was in for an interesting discussion. In response to the “do you have eggs” question posed by the child, their parent (assigned female at birth) informed them that she does have ovaries with eggs in them.  When the child asked if she also has eggs, the parent replied that most people do not have both eggs and testicles.  To that, the surprised child said “WAIT!  Mama, you don’t have balls?” 

            This conversation and this child’s surprise highlights the idea that children are flexible in thinking and if not taught a specific version of gender role concepts and expectations of gender conformity, a child has the potential to accept the world around them and to develop naturally without constraints in what is considered common social norms.  Parental modeling and teachings have a significant influence on children’s own concepts of self (Bosacki, 2014).  

Gender Development

            If someone has never thought about their gender identity, it is probably because their gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth.  A doctor makes a determination based upon genitals or chromosomes at the time of birth as to whether to mark the “female” checkbox or the “male” checkbox at the time of birth, and while that designation will create an individual’s sex assigned at birth, that momentary designation does not determine a person’s actual gender identity (Winter, 2015).

            Gender, as compared with biological sex assigned at birth, is a person’s psychological identification as either male, female or non-binary. Transgender is the term used to describe an individual whose biological sex assigned at birth does not match their gender identity (Goldstein, Corneil, & Greene, 2017).   Research shows that individuals start having recognition of gender differences in their perceptions in infancy.  These are based upon social constructs as to what is embedded into society as male or female gender-role identifiers (Dunham, Baron, Banaji, 2016).

Gender-related self-identification of a child starts at age 2-3 years old.  By that time, it is common for parents to have immersed their child into gender stereotyping simply by way of clothing and toy choices thus creating an environment where a child is encouraged to conform to gender stereotyping associated with their sex assigned at birth rather than an innate development of gender identity (Winters, 2017).  Their environment can significantly affect initial concepts of gender identity based upon the social feedback (both positive and negative) associated with choices and preferences a child shows in their environment such as color and play choices.

Within cognitive theories, children are viewed as internally motivated who construct their own concepts of gender.  Those concepts then morph into gender conformity which children see as a way to conquer the concept of gender.  Also, within this theory, children (ages 2 through 6 years old) may have phases of awareness, followed by rigidity, and then flexibility (Halim et al., 2014) associated with their gender identity based largely in gender expression.  Utilizing clothing as a tool, children can use their learned gender stereotyping to express their own internalized gender concepts because the rigidity allows them to try to conquer this rather complex concept (Halim et al., 2014). 

Within a concept of social learning theory, Albert Bandura opined that humans are neither entirely able to act inherently independently nor entirely controlled by external forces and are, instead, able to develop self-regulation to a degree that they have control over their own actions (Wulfert, 2018).  Self-regulation is one’s ability to plan behavior but then modify based upon situational need to adapt (Montroy et al., 2016).  This social theory as applied to gender development would lend itself to the idea that children are able to recognize their own gender identity even if they are exposed to social modeling and gender stereotyping. 

There is, undoubtedly, a complicated relationship between sex assigned at birth and gender identity.  Social constructs have a significant influence over defining gender roles and expectations and privileges associated with a particular gender designation. As such, a child’s freedom to discovery gender identity that is innate and self-determined lies significant with those adults and peers creating the environment and modeling roles, gendered or otherwise, for those children.

References 

Bosacki, S. (2014).  A Longitudinal Study of Children’s Theory of Mind, Self-Concept, and Gender-Role Orientation.  International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 6(2), 213-228. 

Dunham, Y., Baron, A., & Banaji, M. (2016).  The development of implicit gender attitudes.  Developmental Science, 19(5), 781-789. 

Goldstein, Z., Corneil, T.A., & Greene, D. (2017).  When Gender Identity Doesn’t Equal Sex Recorded at Birth: The Role of Laboratory in Providing Effective Healthcare to the Transgender Community.  Clinical Chemistry, 63(8), 1342-1352. 

Halim, M., Ruble, D., Tamis-LeMonda, C., Zosuls, K., Lurye, L., & Greulich, F. (2014).  Pink frilly dresses and the avoidance of all things “girly”: Children’s appearance rigidity and cognitive theories of gender development.  Developmental Psychology, 50(4), 1091-1101.

Montroy, J., Bowles, R., Skibbe, L., McClelland, M., & Morrison, F. (2016).  The development of self-regulation across early childhood.  Developmental Psychology, 52(11), 1744-1762.

Winter, G. (2015).  Determining Gender: a social construct? Community Practitioner, 88(2), 15-17.

Wulfert, E. (2018).  Social learning according to Albert Bandura.  Salem Press Encyclopedia of Health.



W.A.D. v. R.M.C.: Proof that One Parent’s Bad Behavior Will Not Be Rewarded by the Courts

On October 5, 2018, the Appellate Division handed down a decision in W.A.D. v. R.M.C., a case that was appealed from Essex County Superior Court, Family Division. 

Plaintiff and Defendant met in 2009 and shortly thereafter began an intimate relationship.  By autumn of 2009, Defendant moved into Plaintiff’s single-family home in West Orange.  In 2011, the parties’ relationship deteriorated because Defendant wanted to have children, but Plaintiff did not.  Defendant moved out of Plaintiff’s home, but the parties remained in contact.  Defendant became a licensed foster parent during that time.   

On December 3, 2011, a child (G.M.) was born, and the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P) contacted Defendant and advised her that the child could be placed with her immediately.  That month, Plaintiff and Defendant picked up G.M. from the hospital together, and all three began living in Plaintiff’s home in West Orange.  The parties agreed that the child would call Plaintiff “Mamma” and Defendant “Mommy.”  Two years later, in 2013, the parties found out that G.M. had a brother who was also available for adoption.  Defendant wanted to adopt G.M.’s brother; Plaintiff did not.  The parties’ relationship once again deteriorated.  Notwithstanding the parties’ failing relationship, they both agreed that they wanted to adopt G.M.  However, given the fact they were a same-sex couple, they believed that the process would be delayed, and as such, they agreed that G.M.’s adoption would be in Defendant’s name ONLY, and that Plaintiff’s would go through the process at a later date.  Defendant formally adopted G.M. on November 11, 2013 (while still residing in Plaintiff’s home). 

In 2014, the parties ended their relationship.  In June of 2014, Defendant began dating another individual (referred to by the initials C.M.C. in court documents), then moved out of Plaintiff’s residence and moved to Union County, into the C.M.C.’s residence.  At that time, G.M. was a few months shy of his 3rd birthday. 

In June 2015, Plaintiff filed an application in Essex County Superior Court seeking joint legal and physical custody of G.M., as well as seeking to have her name placed on G.M.’s birth certificate and to have G.M.’s last name hyphenated to reflect both parents’ surnames.  The Court entered an Order scheduling a trial, temporarily granting Defendant sole legal and residential custody, appointing a Guardian ad Litem for G.M., and appointing an expert to determining whether there was a psychological bond between Plaintiff and G.M.  Plaintiff soon thereafter amended her pleadings to seek an order designating her as G.M.’s parent of primary residence (PPR). 

In July 2015 Defendant married C.M.C.  In November 2015, Plaintiff filed a complaint for adoption of G.M. in Essex County.  Coincidentally (or not) that same month, C.M.C. filed a complaint for adoption of G.M. in Union County.  C.M.C.’s complaint for adoption was ultimately dismissed and she was ordered to pay Plaintiff $26,000 in counsel fees.  The Court awarded the fees because (among other things) C.M.C. failed to advise Union County Court that the child she sought to adopt was the subject of custody litigation that had been pending in Essex County for several months. 

The parties’ trial in Essex County commenced on May 10, 2016 and concluded on September 23, 2018.  Judge Craig Harris presided over the trial and rendered an opinion on November 18, 2016.  Judge Harris’ Order set forth that Plaintiff had met the criteria in V.C. v. M.J.B. to be deemed a psychological parent to G.M.  (163 N.J.  223 (2000)).  He also found that it was in G.M.’s best interests for Plaintiff to be designated as PPR.  Plaintiff’s request to be placed on G.M.’s birth certificate, as well as her request to hyphenate G.M.’s last name to reflect both parties’ surnames were also granted. 

Defendant filed a motion for reconsideration of the court’s November 18, 2016 Order.  Her motion was denied.  Thereafter, Defendant appealed the orders on several grounds, the most important of which were the contention that the court erred in finding that Plaintiff was a psychological parent to G.M., and that the Court erred in ordering joint legal custody with Plaintiff as the PPR. 

The Appellate Court affirmed the trial judge’s findings and rulings.  The Appellate Court echoed reiterated one of the tenets from V.C., which states that “the psychological parenting doctrine is based on the ‘recognition that children have a strong interest in maintaining the ties that connect them to adults who love and provide for them.’” The Court outright rejected Defendant’s arguments that proper weight was not afforded to her status as an adoptive parent. The Court stated that once an individual is deemed to be a psychological parent to a child, they stand “in parity with the legal parent” and that the standard deciding custody and visitation issues in that regard is “best interests of the child” in accordance with N.J.S.A. 9:2-4. 

The Appellate Division also rejected the following several arguments Defendant made, which were nothing more than attacks on Plaintiff’s style of parenting (such as referring to Plaintiff as a babysitter, and a playful caretaker).  The Appellate Division instead focused on the abundance of proof in the record that Defendant was a deeply uncooperative co-parent and did things such as: 

  • Failing to provide Plaintiff with information regarding G.M.’s medical providers (on several occasions) 
  • Unilaterally removing the child from his school district 
  • Registering the child in a new school 
  • Denying Plaintiff parenting time during the holiday 
  • Refusing to allow the child to participate in activities with Plaintiff’s family 
  • Disparaging Plaintiff on social media 
  • Moving several times in a short time span (contrasted with Plaintiff remaining at the same residence for 15 years) 

The Appellate Division recounted expert witness testimony that stated that the degree of vitriol coming from Defendant was affecting G.M. and” had the potential to cause him to sustain significant and lasting harm.” 

The trial court’s admonishment of Defendant’s refusal to co-parent, as well as the Appellate Division’s affirmation of the trial court’s decision should serve as a warning to parents in ugly custody battles; acting as a child’s only parent, and making unilateral decisions with respect to the health, education and general welfare of the child, can and will (and should!) backfire in a custody trial.