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Parenting after separation
Separation always disrupts the familiar patterns of family life. Routines and responsibilities that have established themselves as the family grew and developed have to be renegotiated. How your family operated probably came about without a lot of proactive planning. It’s unlikely that either of you parents worried too much, especially in happier times, about who did what and how much actual time you each spent doing the hands-on stuff of day-to-day family life, even though sometimes one of you might have felt unfairly overloaded or unsupported!
It was the biggest emotional upheaval of my life. There are so many clichés about breakups being bad, damaging, and bitter, although ours wasn’t. It was just the sheer sadness and disappointment that things didn’t work out how we’d planned, which at times I found overwhelming, that was the hardest part to deal with while trying to be positive about the future for the kids. –Naomi
Why families work well
Even though today’s breakup rates seem to seriously suggest that something about committed partnerships isn’t working, traditional family life does work for children, if not always for parents. It has its own built-in efficiencies, which are useful, even if whatever might be happening between Mom and Dad isn’t too good. Children can see both of the most important people in their lives (you two!) every day. Busy parents can feel in touch and connected with everyone on very little time. One parent covers the lion’s share of the domestic minutiae of lunch boxes and spelling lists, and gets increasingly efficient at it. The other spends more time at work away from home (and becomes increasingly efficient at it), and spends more time with the family on weekends. Each parent takes on areas of responsibility that fit his or her skills, availability, and interests, and a natural division with commonsense delegation of domestic activities develops. Your adult partnership needs are met at home with your children’s other parent. Whatever partnership frustrations and disappointments you are struggling with, the family you have created is the only one your children know and is what they depend on totally for their security. It’s an effective and uncomplicated arrangement for your kids that meets their growing needs even if it doesn’t always work for you.
Why separating means facing big changes
Because you’re living separately in two different homes, everything changes. There’s no overlapping. When you’re on duty, you have to be able to meet all the kids’ needs, and at the same time find a way to have a life for yourself outside of the parenting arena. You have to adjust to a system of parenting in shifts, in which you are completely on or off. You may have to go for days without seeing your kids, and you might not have bargained on making that adjustment until they were much older. You might have blended your working life during the week with brief family interactions in the mornings and evenings, with the really fun stuff on weekends and on family vacations. But separation puts an end to this. You might have expected your hands-on weekday routine to last for years to come, and your future was already set. Now the kids are off to their other home for parts of the week, leaving you feeling stranded and unsettled.
At the beginning, I really missed my son when he went to his father’s home. I felt cheated of my motherhood, restless, and unsettled when he wasn’t around me. I cried a lot. But gradually it all fell into place. –Jane
Staying in a relationship that isn’t working because you’re dreading being an out-of-touch, occasional parent is about as unsatisfactory as staying in one because you’re afraid of separating and having to share your children with their other parent for long periods of time. Both of these apprehensions are quite natural. By and large, moms still do most of the hands-on parenting and presume that they are going to continue this after separation. So they often resist shared parenting. On the other hand, dads who have assumed a breadwinning role may not have done much hands-on stuff and may be apprehensive about having an occasional parenting role after separating. However, given the opportunity, they may be prepared to make lifestyle changes to progress to fuller parenting responsibilities.
The scene is set for you both to start worrying about a minefield of potential grievances and uncertainties: what’s fair, what’s right, how to juggle everything so you don’t lose touch, whether the kids will love you less if you’re not there all the time, who’s going to pay for everything to do with the kids, how a parent who’s never been around much for them can look after them properly, and so on. Research on the outcomes for children of divorce has produced varied results. However, there is agreement that separation can put children at serious risk in a number of ways. Currently, about 80 percent of the children whose parents are separated live in sole-mother custody arrangements, and as many as a third of them have little or no contact with their fathers. The common arrangement for parenting children after divorce–living with Mom and visiting Dad–often leaves everyone dissatisfied. There is evidence that it does little for solid parent—child relationships and can reduce one parent to onlooker status. Children cared for mainly by mothers can too easily lose contact with their fathers. Mothers can find parenting on their own a tough task and need relief and support. Fathers who experience difficulties maintaining contact often withdraw from their children’s lives, with negative consequences for themselves and for the children.
But recent research brings us good news: children in shared-care arrangements are more satisfied and appear to be better adjusted on several levels; and many studies show that most parents with majority care want their ex-partners to see more of the children.
Your children will not suffer long-term effects from the separation if they have time with both of you–and if you both support this arrangement amicably and flexibly. They will suffer if you only think about what’s fair for you, and if you criticize or interfere with each other’s parenting.
Shared parenting gives both parents the opportunity to be real parents. The kids develop a strong relationship with both of you. You don’t have the burden that single parents have, and you avoid the desolation of being a “non–parent.”–Jim
What should parents do?
As yet there is no scientific evidence to back a preferred way of dividing parenting time after separating. Because families are all so different, no one post-divorce arrangement can be said to be in the best interests of all children. What is certain, though, is that competent parenting is more likely to produce a good outcome for your kids, however you divide up the time slots. It’s how you parent, not how many hours you put in, that matters, although quantity of time is relevant because it supports quality parenting.
We tend to approach parenting as if it’s a talent that just comes because we became parents. But it takes insight, patience, self-sacrifice, and regular self-analysis, especially in today’s challenging times. Separation is a great opportunity to rethink your parenting priorities. Your children need time with both of their parents, time that is meaningful. They need to feel you are available to them. They need you to give them guidance, sympathy, discipline, comfort, and supervision. They need for you to convey a strong sense of their importance to you despite your other priorities and interests. Quality parenting takes time, but having time with your children is no guarantee in itself that your parenting is going to be meaningful and constructive, unless you make sure it is. What your kids want, need, and deserve is emotional commitment and active participation from both of you, however their time with you is divided, provided you both have plenty of time with them.
Shared parenting can produce happier children and more satisfied parents
Shared parenting allows both parents substantial time with their children, during which they have full responsibility for day-to-day decisions about them. There is no “major caretaker” or “custodian” of the children, no “part-time” or “visited” parent. Time-sharing may be equal, or something approaching that. Both parents share responsibility and authority for their children’s upbringing; both are acknowledged to be equally important for the emotional, intellectual, and physical lives of their children; both have the duty to foster their own and each other’s healthy and meaningful relationships with their children.
Consider a radical overhaul
“Equal time-share,” “fifty-fifty,” “joint custody”–whatever you call it–may not be the best solution or the most practical, desirable, or affordable one for all sorts of reasons. But there’s no reason why your starting point for planning how you organize yourselves shouldn’t be a level playing field. Your children are your equally shared responsibility, after all. This was your starting point for family life as you planned and expected it to be, and separating shouldn’t and doesn’t need to change this. Try not to allow what’s always been the pattern in the family limit what might be possible in going forward. In other words, keep an open mind. Whatever has happened between the two of you that caused you to separate, and however angry or resentful you might feel about it, your kids need you both, and preferably not with one of you having greater control of their lives and the other one being marginalized and “put out to pasture.”
If you have to divorce, this is the best possible way to look after your kids. Being involved in every aspect of the kids’ lives–sickness, school, friends, birthdays, et cetera–is wonderful. And they like it that way. –Jack
So start thinking about parenthood continuing as fully as possible for both of you, however it seems to be divided on the calendar; about the scope for engaged parenting developing in new ways; and about what changes (in attitude and output) you’re going to have to make if shared parenting is to work well for your children. This book aims to help you do just this.
Successful shared parenting means the following:
• Putting your children’s welfare ahead of your own feelings
• Believing that your children love and need two parents
• Recognizing and accepting that everyone is different, and different in their parenting
• Working out a parenting plan that is creative and flexible
• Keeping at it through thick and thin
It can work, and children today will benefit enormously if there’s more of it. But it will be challenging.
A few guidelines for making it work
• You’ll need maturity, easy-goingness, tolerance, commitment, confidence, a genuine child focus, and a sense of detachment about what happened to your relationship (so it isn’t still preoccupying you).
• If you both have similar value systems and are from similar cultural and economic backgrounds, there will be fewer sources of difference and competitiveness between the households, and therefore fewer adjustments for the children to make at changeover.
• The two households need to be geographically close to each other. It requires a great deal of capital to maintain two homes suitable for ordinary life, but they don’t need to be equally well appointed.
• Parents’ new partners and their children need to be introduced sensitively and gradually.
Infants’ time away from important caregivers needs special consideration.
• Children need to be encouraged to be independent, both emotionally and practically. You can inspire their self-confidence by supporting their natural right to form independent relationships with those important to them and by letting them be responsible for practicalities they are capable of managing.
• Be creative, involved, and accommodating of your differences!
Jill says: I’ve talked with many couples who started off quite uncertain about a time‑share arrangement, but got used to it after a few initial difficulties. It requires a lot of trust and a lot of letting go. One parent was pleased when his daughter discovered his neighbor’s child had a similar arrangement and both kids were going to be next door to each other in the same week.
Michael says: It’s amazing how widespread it is now. The child of a friend of mine told me that several of his classmates are doing well in shared parenting regimes. Interestingly, in almost all cases the parents themselves had designed the arrangements without any help or interference from the legal profession or courts.
• Separation disrupts the familiar family pattern and calls for a new one to be established.
• Separated parents must face big changes and be open to new ways of doing things.
• Shared parenting is usually the best post-separation arrangement for both parents and children.
• With shared parenting, both parents share the responsibility more or less equally.
• With a bit of effort, patience, and consistency, shared parenting will work.
From the Trade Paperback edition.