It was 10 p.m. on Aug. 13, and everyone knew where Britney Spears‘s children were: The glum-looking pop singer and her two boys were finishing a dinner of lemon chicken salad and crab ravioli at the L.A. eatery Cravings. “The kids were very well-behaved. They are adorable,” says general manager Emrah Ergenc. Leaving the restaurant, with a sea of photographers swarming her, Spears carefully secured Jayden James into a car seat while a companion took charge of Sean Preston. But if Britney thought having a quiet meal with her sons was a way to demonstrate her parenting skills in public, her actions only drew more fire from her critics. Says a source close to her ex Kevin Federline: “Who takes a 2-year-old to dinner that late at night?”
That’s the least of the potentially damaging questions she may face as the custody fight between Spears, 25, and Federline, 29, gets down and dirty. On Aug. 8 Federline’s lawyer Mark Vincent Kaplan filed papers requesting primary physical custody of Sean Preston, 23 months, and Jayden, 11 months. According to Kaplan, “Kevin is concerned that the more time the children spend with him, the more insulated they are from risks.”
What risks exactly? Kaplan will not comment on the specific reasons Federline is now seeking additional custody, or what he hopes to get from subpoenas issued to Spears’s friend Alli Sims, her bodyguard Daimon Shippen and former assistant Shannon Funk. But there’s a dossier of headlines for his lawyers to sift through to build a case against her. In the last 30 days Spears—who earlier this year spent time in rehab—has been seen driving aimlessly through L.A., melting down at a photo shoot, doing shots and clubbing until the wee hours with pals and dipping her lollipop into a friend’s champagne glasses. And while in Las Vegas with the kids on July 26—a trip that violated her agreement with Federline—Sean was briefly in the middle of an alleged tussle between two photographers and her bodyguard. As if the paparazzi evidence wasn’t enough, several former employees have surfaced with alarming stories about Spears’s home life. One woman who worked as a nanny for Spears earlier this year tells PEOPLE, “She’s very loving with the kids, well, when she’s around and awake. When I was with her, she was out partying a lot, and she would wake the kids up when she got home at 3 in the morning because she wanted to see them. Then she would sleep in until 1 in the afternoon. It would make my night awful because I would have to try and get them back to bed.”
A source close to Spears insists that “she’s going out when [the kids] are with Kevin. She’s not going out and partying on nights when the kids are with her because there would be nobody to stay and watch them.” At the moment Spears doesn’t have a nanny—and doesn’t want one. “She has two kids under the age of 2 who are doing okay and Britney wants to be that hands-on mom,” says the source.
For all the love Spears has for her children, the pop star is “an inexperienced parent,” concedes a family friend. “She doesn’t have people around her to guide her in being a mother.” Adds another source: “Her circle is quite small right now. No Mom. She’s out. Same with Dad.” In fact, her mother, Lynne, 52, has been spending time with Federline since falling out with her daughter earlier this year. “Lynne was ready to file herself and exercise her grandparent’s rights,” says a source close to Federline. “She really lit a fire under his feet. If Kevin gets more time, Lynne will too.”
When the kids are with their father at his house in Tarzana (he has them three days one week and four days the next), “Kevin has a wonderful nanny who cares deeply for the children,” says a Federline friend. “Sean and Jayden often play with Kori and Kaleb [his children with Shar Jackson].”
As gasp-worthy as Spears’s behavior has been, is it enough for a judge to rule that Federline is the better parent to have primary physical custody of the kids? Perhaps not. “A judge is looking at who is acting appropriately and inappropriately only as far as parenting is concerned,” says Beverly Hills family attorney Neal Hersh, who is not working on the case. And even Federline’s lawyer says that Spears, at this point, is not in danger of losing access to her children. “[Kevin] wants them to have a good relationship with both parents, but he wants them to be in the best possible environment,” says Kaplan.
In the wake of the custody filing, observers have also questioned whether Federline—who released a much maligned rap album last year and has dabbled in acting—wasn’t financially motivated. “He’s not a saint,” says a source who knows him. “And he does need more money for things like security, his mortgage.” Says Kaplan, his lawyer: “I can tell you unequivocally that this has nothing to do with finances. Kevin has never made finances a link to custody.”
Spears will have a chance to make her own allegations when her legal team files papers, likely in the coming days, responding to Federline’s request. He then has a chance to respond to Spears’s papers. “This could go on for years,” says Los Angeles attorney Vicki Roberts.
With subpoenas flying and both sides hunkering down, “The whole thing, how it is working out, is saddening,” says Federline’s sister-in-law Alisha Federline. “He just loves his kids and that is pretty much what it takes to be a good dad. To love your kids and make sure they have everything they need.” As for Spears, “Britney needs to calm down and get with the program, but she’s a good mom who loves her kids very much,” says a friend of the singer’s. “This will be a tough battle.”
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