Robert Young was, until recently, one of those rare fathers who devotes more time to his kids than to his career. An architect by training, Young, 47, years ago chose to stay at home with his daughters, Baylor, now 13, and Avery, 10, while his wife, corporate lawyer Alice Hector, ably acted as family breadwinner. Hardly a day went by that Young didn’t show up at Pinecrest Elementary School to volunteer in a classroom or the school’s media center. “A lot of adults have trouble making a connection with kids,” said another Pinecrest parent, David Harper. “Bob has this energy and enthusiasm that pulls them in.”
Yet there is at least one parent in the upscale Miami suburb who remains dubious about his interest in child rearing: Alice Hector, 54, now his ex-wife. The couple, who divorced in 1996, have been locked in a pitched battle over custody of their daughters ever since. Hector, who earns at least $240,000 a year, has accused Young of becoming a Mr. Mom in a premeditated bid to win alimony and child support after she asked for a divorce in 1993 (a charge Young denies). The first judge to hear the custody case sided with Hector, citing her greater earning power and the fact that Young—who had already admitted to having had an affair and who once spent more than a year away from home on a fruitless hunt for hidden treasure in New Mexico—had been less of an influence in their daughters’ lives. Hector retained primary custody, while Young was awarded liberal visitation rights.
Young promptly appealed, arguing that he had been the girls’ chief caregiver (a claim Hector vigorously challenges) and that Hector had been awarded custody simply because she is the mother. “The law is supposed to be gender-neutral,” says Young, who persuaded a three-judge panel of Florida’s third district court of appeals to overturn the original custody decision in 1996. Now it was Hector’s turn to appeal.
In July the full court of appeals restored primary custody to Hector, but not before Young’s gender-bias argument had ignited a national furor. “It sent a chill of terror into every professional woman,” says Chicago attorney Joy Feinberg, a former chairwoman of the custody subcommittee of the American Bar Association’s family law section. To many observers, Feinberg says, it seemed Hector had lost custody of her daughters “because she dared to work hard and be successful.”
Baylor and Avery are once again living with their mother in Pinecrest while their father petitions the Florida supreme court. “I was naive enough to think the process really was about the best interest of the children,” says Young, who until recently was a senior program director at a YMCA.
Neither combatant could have imagined the battles ahead when they first met at a Thanksgiving Day potluck dinner in Santa Fe 20 years ago. Hector, who grew up in Florida and was then working as general counsel at an environmental organization in Albuquerque, had already been married once and had two children of her own—Morgan, now 28 and a Denver attorney, and Zachary, 24, a premed student at Tulane University. Young, who had grown up in Fayetteville, Ark., had also been married but had no children. He was taken with what he describes as Hector’s “open and carefree” attitude and gladly accepted when Hector suggested a date. For her part, Hector recalls Young as “very attractive and somewhat charming.”
By the time the couple married in 1982, Young had started up his own residential architecture firm in Albuquerque. A couple of years later, Hector opened her own law firm. But their career trajectories diverged sharply in 1988. Hector prospered, while Young watched his business slump following the 1987 stock market crash. They moved to Florida in 1988, but Young had trouble finding work. He started to spend more time, he says, with the girls—though not, maintains his ex, by mutual agreement. “We never had a discussion about him staying home,” says Hector, who signed on with a Miami law firm and routinely put in 10-hour days. “I was always saying, ‘You need to get a job.’ ”
Young eventually returned to New Mexico, where he joined a quixotic search for gold—and had his extracurricular romance. Hector stayed behind and took care of the girls, and when Young returned to Florida in 1993, the marriage was on the rocks. They spent 19 months negotiating a divorce.
“The kids were Alice’s last priority,” says Young. But Hector contends that she woke her daughters in the morning, served them breakfast and drove them to school. “I’ve” taken care of these kids their entire lives,” she says.
Young hopes Florida’s supreme court will decide within six months whether to hear the case. Meanwhile, neither spouse doubts that the other cares deeply for their daughters. Each just wants primary custody. And although he hopes to prevail, Young knows that victory will come at a high price. In a case like this, he admits, “nobody wins.”
Fannie Weinstein in Miami