Bode Miller with his son (Getty Images)
After a year and a half of bitter battling, Olympic skier Bode Miller has finally settled his custody war with former girlfriend Sara McKenna over their 18-month-old son Samuel — at least that’s what Mom calls him, anyway. The exes are in such strife, they haven’t been able to agree on the toddler’s name. Miller calls him Nate, after the skier’s late brother Nathaniel.
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And while details of the agreement are confidential, the bad blood between the parents is no secret. It started soon after McKenna relocated, post-split and pregnant, from California to New York City because she’d earned a scholarship to study at Columbia University. Miller sued for custody of the child before he was even born, and won, requiring McKenna to relinquish the boy to Miller and his current wife, Morgan Beck, in California. A few months later the decision was overturned, and McKenna regained custody.
STORY: How to Parent Together After You’ve Split
"Neither of us got exactly what we wanted," McKenna told the New York Post Monday regarding the settlement. “But Sam got what he needed, and that’s what’s most important to me.”
Raising children separately is hardly rare, considering the 1.5 million children in the U.S. whose parents divorce every year. The remarkably toxic rancor of this relationship, though, could take a huge toll on little Sam/Nate.
Calling the child two different names “is going to be damaging,” psychologist Sharon Silver tells Yahoo Parenting. “The parents are building a relationship based on confusion and that could play out in anxiety or lack of self-worth for the boy. Your name is your identifier, so this child is left to ask, ‘Who am I? Who do you see me as?’”
The really worrisome part is what this lack of agreement indicates for the child going forward. “Keeping everything so separate shows the parents aren’t likely to communicate in a way that is similar enough for the young child to understand, and now you have a big problem,” says Silver. “They’re laying a foundation of confusion for the child.”
That becomes a big problem for bigger kids. “Research indicates that children are placed at higher risk for developing depression and anxiety after separation or divorce when one or both parents use their children to express their hostility toward the other parent,” psychologist Joan B. Kelly explains in an online presentation for mediators about interventions with parents in enduring disputes. The children also experience “terrible loyalty conflicts,” she notes. And when children are made to feel they have to hide information about the other parent to keep the peace — or hide their love for the other parent — “the message to the child is that the other parent is worthless or bad,” she explains. When this happens, says Kelly, co-author of Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce, the child’s self-esteem “often takes a pounding, because children love and are each identified in some way with each parent.”
The way to avoid all of this is simple, says Silver: Keep all the arguing to yourselves. “Be adult enough to parent with the best interest of the child as your top priority,” she advises. “Once you have a child, you are tied together for life, and you always have to take the high road.”
If you do that, we’ve got good news: “If each of you leaves your children out of your conflict, does not engage them in expressing it or hearing it,” Kelly says, “then they may not be negatively affected, even if your conflict continues.”