Parenting after separation: the case for sharing

Ian Maxwell describes the importance of shared parenting and suggests that the parenting strategy should emphasise this as the norm rather than the exception.

'I want to be a dad to her. Pick her up from her grandparents after school and give her tea in mine before taking her back to her mum's. I want to go to parent evenings, see my daughter as often as possible and play a positive role. How can I when my ex calls ALL of the shots, no access is defined, I have no parental responsibility and my contact is dwindled down to the point where my ex can tell all and sundry that I'm some deadbeat down the bookies all day who doesn't care?'

This posting on our forum is echoed daily in phone calls to Families Need Fathers (FNF) Scotland. We sometimes hear several such stories in a day, with over 1,000 fathers contacting us in the last 18 months. New partners, other family members and other organisations, such as Grandparents Apart, recount distressing stories about being cut off from grandchildren, nephews and nieces by unreasonable behaviour and hostility from the parent with care.

Given the complicated nature of family splitting and reforming it is difficult to know how widespread this problem is, though studies such as Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) indicate that around a fifth (21%) of children in the birth cohort and around a quarter (26%) in the child cohort had a non-resident natural parent.

Contact and fathers

Sweep 3 of GUS found that only about two-thirds of non-resident fathers have any contact with their children (Marryat, Reid and Wasoff 2009). We do not know how many of these 'missing' fathers have abandoned their children and what proportion were pushed out. The information from GUS tracked some interesting data amongst resident parents but the parent who has left the home is not included in any of their surveys.

The same study found that fewer than a third of mothers always asked for the non- resident father's views when making major decisions about the child (31% birth cohort, 26% child cohort). Greater contact was significantly associated with increased involvement in decision making and it is reasonable to assume the parent with care's indifference or hostility to sharing decision making is likely to reinforce the feeling of exclusion many fathers report.

When David Cameron made his Father's Day comments comparing absent fathers to drunk drivers deserving stigmatisation there were angry responses from the many fathers who had tried to be responsible but whose efforts were thwarted by their ex-partner.

Court action

FNF always advises people to try to reach agreements without using lawyers or courts but, too often, they end up in the family courts. Fathers are no more, or less, likely than mothers to be saintly after separation but the non-resident parent often ends up feeling they have no choice. 'What else can I do if she won't talk?'

Every year in Scotland there are around 2,000 applications to court for contact (McGuckin et al. 2004) (2004 estimate). Far more contact disputes settle out of court through legal correspondence or minute of agreement. In some cases, agreement indicates some cordiality between the parents. In others, it is because the father agrees under duress or because he has run out of money. A quick tot up round the table at a recent FNF meeting revealed legal fees already incurred of £250,000. As one person observed, That's money my kids should have, not my solicitor's kids.

Some mothers are also separated from their children. A recent Radio 4 documentary on the humiliation felt by a non-resident mother at the hopelessness of spending two hours every fortnight in a public place and her sense of bereavement when handing them back drew widespread sympathy from FNF fathers who know the pain only too well.

Even allowing for the very small number of situations in which violence or other issues make it undesirable for children to see a separated parent, this leaves many families in which contact is lost or reduced to an add-on to the children's lives because of continuing conflict between the adults about money, past behaviour, concern about a new partner or just spitefulness.

There are usually two sides to every story but the adversarial imperatives of going to court frequently heighten the conflict rather than resolve it, at the expense of the children. Judges acknowledge that to parties daily but fathers' legal advisers, if they have them, often feel their duty is to their client, come what may.

The effect on children

Various studies show that children who grow up apart from their fathers are disadvantaged, during childhood and later life. This includes the meta-analysis by Amato and Gilbreth (1999) which demonstrates that positive forms of father involvement (offering praise, expressing warmth, talking with children about their problems and providing supervision) are more important than frequency of contact.

Compared with previous generations, today's fathers are far more involved with their children. From attendance at birth, through to sharing in childcare, their expectations are very different from their grandfathers'. But once parents separate, the traditional template reasserts. Children mostly stay with their mother. Even fathers who attend FNF Scotland groups say that it never occurred to them to ask for more. If the split is acrimonious, the father often has to justify contact with his children against arguments about his unworthiness or the inconvenience to the mother, even if he was the main carer when they lived together.

Shared parenting

A presumption of 'shared parenting' could address most of the issues. This does not necessarily imply a stated proportion of parenting time being allocated to each parent with children shuttling between homes according to the timetable on the fridge. The 'standard ration' that children are offered - a fortnightly visit to their non-resident parent, plus some time around holidays - is not shared parenting. Parents with so little parenting time cannot, effectively, be involved in decision making about their children.

The FNF Scotland definition of shared parenting is based on the following objectives:

  • Children should feel that they have two properly involved parents
  • One parent should not be able to dominate the lives of the children to the detriment of the other or to control the other parent through the children
  • Parents have broadly equal 'moral authority' in the eyes of the children and children have free access to both their parents over routine as well as major matters
  • Children are able to share their lives with both parents 'in the round' - for example not being with one parent all 'routine time' and the other only for 'leisure'
  • There is no part of children's lives - for example, school life or friends - that one parent is excluded from by virtue of the allocation of parenting time
  • There is no part of a parent's life that the children are excluded from by virtue of the allocation of parenting time
  • Children do not develop stereotyped ideas from their parents about the roles of women and men, for example that fathers are for money and treats, and that mothers are responsible for everything else

The Children (Scotland) Act 1995 would need to be amended for this presumption to have a sound legal footing, and to give force to the presently unenforced and unenforceable obligation of the parent with care to support a good relationship between the children and the non-resident parent.

We were heartened to see the recent government response to the Family Justice Review covering England and Wales (Ministry of Justice and Department of Education 2012), which states The Government fully supports the Review's view that the vast majority of children benefit from a continuing relationship with both parents, and that shared parenting should be encouraged where this is in the child's best interests and is safe and goes on to suggest that legislation may have a role in supporting shared parenting.

Changing behaviour involves more than legislation. We already have a Parenting Agreement for Scotland (The Scottish Executive 2006) which provides a guide to shared parenting after separation although it appears to have dropped off the checklist for many solicitors arranging divorces. It ought to be at the top. The national parenting strategy could consider some form of shared parenting as a default position - not compulsory, but needing good reasons to reject it - to support parents before and after separation. The need to understand more about fathers has already been acknowledged but the proposed strategy provides an opportunity to redress the prevailing imbalance.

The challenge for the strategy is to help parents do the best they can for their children by making shared parenting the norm rather than the exception.

About the author

Ian Maxwell is the national development manager of Families Need Fathers Scotland, a charity which promotes shared parenting and seeks to ensure both parents remain involved in the lives of their children after separation. He established its first Scottish office in Edinburgh in 2010. Previously, he was deputy director of One Parent Families Scotland.

References

Amato, P.R. and Gilbreth, J.G. (1999). "Non-resident fathers and children's well-being". Journal of Marriage and the Family 61 557-673

McGuckin, B., McGuckin, A. and The AMA Consultancy (2004). Contact applications involving allegations of domestic abuse: feasibility study. Edinburgh: Scottish Executive - Social Research. Available at: http://www.gov.scot

Marryat, L., Reid, S. and Wasoff, F. (2009). Growing Up in Scotland: sweep 3 non-resident parent report. Edinburgh: The Scottish Government. Available at: http://www.gov.scot

Ministry of Justice and Department of Education. (2012). The government response to the family justice review: a system with children and families at its heart. Ministry of Justice and Department of Education. Available at: https://www.gov.uk

Scottish Executive (2006). Family matters: parenting agreement for Scotland plan. Scottish Executive. Available at: http://www.gov.scot