I will state the premise of this piece right up front: Parkinson’s disease, in and of itself, does not make an individual incapable of being a good parent. I am writing this blog because I have been contacted by a number of people who find their right of access to their children is being challenged because they have PD. The diagnosis should never be the sole factor in custody decisions.
So why does PD appear in custody battles? I won’t speculate on the motives of either spouses or their divorce attorneys other than to say that no one enters a court case with the intent to lose. A chronic neurological disease like Parkinson’s is often so grossly misunderstood by the general public that it may seem like a compelling opportunity to cast the spouse who has it in an unfavorable light. Throw words like incurable, progressive and debilitating into one legal document or courtroom statement and it is quite possible to play upon public misperception.
However, Parkinson’s courtroom appearance is in truth a by-product of acrimony that has developed around the disease. While it may actually appear to be the cause of the marriage failure, this is simply not the case. Marriages marked by commitment and adaptation to change are too abundant to support a conclusion that PD alone will wreck a marriage. There is no question it can put stress on a relationship by amplifying communication difficulties, disagreements about child-rearing, financial pressures, division of chores, roles within the marriage, etc. These problems are like fissures that can break apart when the pressure of PD is applied to them.
Parkinson’s has no face. But in the heat of the emotional uproar of a divorce, it can be projected onto the person who has it. If blame for the breakup is placed on Parkinson’s, all too often, the person who has the diagnosis will become the diagnosis. The person no longer simply has PD, he or she is PD in the subsequent discussion. When this happens, other qualities of that person, including parenting skills, can be pushed aside by this “face of Parkinson’s.” This projection is inevitably colored by what one thinks one “knows” about PD.
Too frequently, a fractured marriage puts the welfare of the children in second place to the individual emotional needs of the parents. Any chronic disease, including Parkinson’s can make parenting a challenge. Challenge does not mean impossibility, however. A motivated parent is a good parent. A parent meeting Parkinson’s head-on with grace and dignity has a lot to teach a child.
Custody is a complex issue. The court and the couple must weigh many factors in coming to a decision that is in the best interest of the children. Limitations arising from PD must be considered but should never be the sole deciding factor in this process.