Centrice Mulfinger is baking cookies — chocolate chip, gluten-free cookies — for her three children. She and her husband, Lucas, raise her daughter, Mavalynn McAfee, his son, Aidan Mulfinger (both of whom are their children from previous relationships), and their youngest son, Nevin Mulfinger. The family kitchen is where they inevitably end up hanging out for meals, bonding, and educational experiences.
“My husband and I have a ‘yours, mine, and ours’ household family,” Centrice, 29, says. “We were married in 2010, and have raised our children together for almost seven years. We have strategically prioritized our family schedules, birthdays, and holiday celebrations, and facilitated the same family values for Mavalynn, Aidan, and Nevin, so our children feel equally loved and connected in our home.”
Theirs may not be a traditional family, but the Mulfingers promote and encourage family values that resonate with each of their three children and bind them so closely to one another that when Aidan and Mavalynn need to leave the Mulfinger house for their respective mother’s and father’s places, they’re extremely sad.
“I don’t get to spend a lot of time with my dad, and it’s really hard to leave,” 7-year-old Aidan says.
For Mavalynn, leaving both of her parents — she splits her time between her mom and dad — is hard, even if she knows she’ll see them again in a few days.
“When I am with one parent, I don’t want to leave that parent,” the 11-year-old says.
According to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Vital Statistics System, the divorce rate in the United States, and in Pennsylvania, went down between 2000 and 2011. In Pennsylvania, the rate went from 3.1 to 2.8, while nationally it went from 8.2 to 6.8.
Still, those numbers do little to help children and parents who are dealing with divorce or separation.
Like many children whose parents are either divorced or separated, Aidan and Mavalynn have a complex schedule of days, dates, and times (Aidan’s is even more convoluted than Mavalynn’s, Mulfinger says) that determines how they will split their time between two homes. It’s not an easy burden for a young child to bear, but both children would rather have it this way than any other way, they say. And that’s largely due to the Mulfingers’ decision to prioritize their children’s needs rather than their own, and focus on creating the most positive and supportive extended-family network possible for them.
Transitioning from home to home is very difficult for children, and even adjusting to simple things such as differing breakfast options in both houses can be a challenge to handle.
The bigger stuff is even more challenging, which is why Centrice believes it’s important for parents who are going to split up, or who are single or remarried, to first and foremost lay solid foundations that reduce stressful transitions, minimize coparenting conflicts, and increase a child’s paternal and maternal family-support network. She has spent countless hours, she says, conversing with Mavalynn’s father to make sure this happens so as to minimize the impact of parental separation.
The pair have done everything to ensure their daughter is always surrounded by family and that her transition from mother’s to father’s home is as seamless as possible.
Mavalynn’s grandparents on her father’s side were and still are heavily involved in her life, Centrice says. Their support through the years with everything from school pickups and drop-offs, dentist appointments, and spur-of- the-moment babysitting has not only helped Mavalynn, who enjoys a loving and healthy relationship with all her grandparents (the parents of Lucas included), but also has been crucial to Centrice, allowing her to go ahead with whatever she needed to do in order to get ahead in life and make things better for herself and her children.
Lucas is equally committed to ensuring their family unit be as strong as possible.
“Being an active parent and an involved father to our three kids has been and is always an important goal of mine,” he says. “I think because of our dedication, our children are fortunate to have tons of memories with us as a family unit. ... And maybe even more important is for them to see me, their father, pick them up from school and take them to appointments, independent of Mom or Stepmom, as I want [Aidan and Nevin] to someday be responsible and involved fathers, too, regardless of how their family structure may be.”
Soldiering forward solo
Centrice and Lucas are fortunate to be able to continue to leverage off an established and dedicated family-support network, but for many divorced or separated parents and children, things are not that easy.
Lorraine Taylor, 43, office manager of the University Club in downtown State College, who came here from New Jersey nine years ago and was a solo parent even before then, doesn’t have any family in the area. And although “my friends have, in a sense, become my family,” it has been and continues to be extremely difficult to manage everything solo, she says.
Not only can it get tough financially (“when you’re a solo parent and you have three kids, you have to make choices for everything from school shopping and who needs it the most to who can go for what summer camp,” Taylor says) and logistically, with her three kids — daughters Charmee (21) and Kaitrin (19) and son Tyrin (10) — on all different schedules and only one parent to pick them up and drop them off, it’s most difficult to make what she calls “life-altering decisions” on her own.
“Determining what’s best for each individual child when you have only yourself to bounce things off is very, very difficult,” she says. “You can run things by your friends only to a certain extent, but there comes a point where you really don’t want to wear people out and you just got to figure it out on your own. That’s really hard.”
Her children’s fathers have little or no input in those big decisions, she says, partly because of the physical distance between State College and New Jersey, where each lives, but also because “they’re not involved in their kids’ lives on a day-to-day basis, so it’s hard for their fathers to help make those decisions,” she says.
But despite the many odds that are stacked against single parents such as herself, she is still firmly committed to her children and continues to ensure that they have all the support they need. Communication is of the essence, she says, and making sure to talk regularly to her children in order to listen to what they think and feel is a key priority in her life.
Taylor’s daughter, Charmee, a senior and theater major at Penn State, can vouch for the extra mile her mom has always traveled in order to be there for herself and her two siblings.
“It’s easy to look at our home and say we look like a great family, but that came with a lot of sacrifice,” she says. “My mom had to sacrifice a lot of things that many women wouldn’t have to sacrifice, but she always said, ‘The kids come first,’ so if we look and are happy, it’s because of her hard work, her blood and sweat and tears.”
State College offers great opportunities for children from single-parent or separated homes, Charmee says. It’s a very community-oriented town with lots of activities. However, it also is, by and large, Charmee says, a town where two-parent families are the norm. As such, it’s easy to think of that as an ideal, she says, particularly for small children, but “I realize now that coming from a single-parent family I have some skills that others may not have, that I have to be that much more resourceful if I want something in figuring out on my own how to get it. I really value those skills today,” she says.
And because Charmee is the oldest of her children, Taylor has often relied on her help and her input in vital family decisions.
“My mom does share a lot of life-altering things with me, which means that I feel heard and that my opinion is a huge part of the family, and that is a good thing,” Charmee says.
Being able to communicate openly with her mother is extremely important, she says, because ultimately, a truly successful family unit, no matter how it’s composed, “has the foundation of love and people who can openly communicate.”
Communication before the courts
Of course, divorce and separation are often acrimonious and can result in a great deal of bitterness and rancor between couples that often impedes any kind of rational communication. But Centrice Mulfinger believes that for those couples who do have the good fortune of having a family network to rely on, it’s even more important to focus on communication, and parents who are splitting up should do their best to set aside any hostilities as best they can in the interest of their children.
“It’s too easy to file a paper and say, ‘I am filing for full custody and that’s that,’ ” she says. “But that often doesn’t result in a positive outcome at all, and I believe that parents need to really think about facilitating options that are safe, practical, and beneficial to their children.”
Having a cordial relationship with Mavalynn’s father and his family was more important for Centrice, and ultimately more beneficial to Mavalynn, she says.
On the other hand, her current husband, Lucas, spent six years in the court to get “what he has now with Aidan, which is 50/50, and it was expensive and horrible,” she says. “Thankfully, Aidan can now enjoy equal time with his father and mother, but it was a difficult battle for everyone, including Aidan. His dad was initially just like a babysitter to his infant son — a stranger who comes every other weekend to him from a home the court granted as a primary residence.”
Trying to help people avoid those kinds of situations, which, she says, don’t ultimately benefit anyone, is the main reason why Centrice set up her organization, Child Focused Family Centered. She facilities programs designed to provide support and develop specific skills that help divorced, separated, remarried, and never-married parents to better manage their coparent experiences through more effective communication that ultimately helps parents understand each other’s values and priorities, and how these can either positively or negatively impact their children.
“I have seen increased interest and response to the newest support-group programs for single parents, stepparents, and remarried parents,” she says. “The support-group programs are designed to provide a strong network for parents wishing to learn about resources, information, and events that encourage participation in current activities related to their support network.”
Today, an increasing number of separating couples are keen on maintaining a positive and open communicationwith each other, and, according to State College- based Rana Glick, a licensed marriage and family therapist with advanced training as a divorce coach, the “collaborative divorce” approach is becoming much more popular.
This practice began about 15 years ago, she says, launched by two attorneys “who were sick of what they were doing,” and came up with an alternative model for divorce that brings together an interdisciplinary team of professionals — lawyers, mental-health professionals, financial specialists, and mediators — all of whom work together for a more peaceful and healthier outcome for families.
“The parties, currently at odds with one another having relied on one another for years as resources, are now told not to speak to one another as the attorneys iron out their divorce outcome,” Glick says. “Not only is there no healing in that between adult parties, but the children and the generations after are also affected, so we end having emotional cutoffs that cascade through generations.”
The idea of a collaborative interdisciplinary team approach tunes out the legal noise and haranguing, and allows individual voices to be heard, particularly those of the children, Glick says. Furthermore, the collaborative interdisciplinary team of specially trained professionals work together from the beginning to the end of each case, with the core attribute of transparency governing the nonadversarial process.
“Good candidates for collaborative divorce are people who are committed to the health of their children, are good parents together, and can have a decent enough communication around parenting,” she says. “They also have the desire and the intention to move forward without holding onto any emotional baggage. That doesn’t mean that they are not hurt and they are not angry as hell, but they have the capacity to master this challenging chapter of their lives.”
Ultimately, though, divorce is a legal procedure, and so is child custody, so every decision that’s taken by a divorcing couple has to get a legal stamp of approval.
If couples who are splitting up can have the important conversations early on in the process and, to the extent possible, outside of the courts, they will find it easier to manage things and avoid a lot of anger and disappointment, Centrice Mulfinger says, which will ultimately prove more beneficial overall to their families.
At the end of the day, Taylor says, “you need to know, as a parent, that beyond a shadow of a doubt you have done everything for your children to the best of your ability, based on the cards you’ve been dealt and the information and the resources that you have.”