Separated mothers and fathers have had a difficult time over the past few years, expected to’get on with’ one of the most difficult life changes it is possible to face. The help that has been available, has been delivered by support services which have, at best, ensured that the rights of parents are upheld after separation and, at worst, have contributed to the widening of the gap that is already opening up when two parents decide to go their separate ways. For too many years it has been impossible to discuss the impact of family separation on children, lest we are considered to be pro marriage or somehow anti women and mothers. Those of us who have witnessed the impact of family separation on children over decades however, know that unless we do something different now, another generation of children will grow up with fragile relationship bonds and will, themselves, risk family separation in their own adult family lives.
Family separation in the UK is one of the most difficult problems to address at policy level. This is because what has been set in place in the past, is very difficult to untangle in the present. At the heart of our separated family policies and practice, the current focus is upon the well being of women and their ‘right’ to choose whether to remain in a marriage or relationship. The Social Assistance model of support to our separated families came into being in the last century and protected mothers from depending upon their husbands for support after the end of a relationship. The thinking in this was that women could not choose to end a marriage without financial independence.
I do not believe that anyone should or could be compelled to remain in a marriage or relationship and to do so is to court a return to more rigid times, which in themselves were not good for children. I do believe however that it is time that we revisited some of our social policies and practice around separated families and that we look to modernising the ways in which we support mothers, fathers and their children in the UK. The Social Assistance model no longer works for our families and worse than that, it acts to reinforce stereotypes and unhelpful ideas about who does what when the family separates. It also serves to encourage the notion that it is only mothers who are important to children and that fathers are simply an additional extra, useful as an extra pair of hands when needed, but disposable to the family otherwise.
Fathers are not an additional luxury. Fathers offer children something that mothers cannot, it used to be a connection to the outside world in the days of Winnicott et al. These days it is far more likely to be that plus love, care, nurture and dedication second to none. When families separate however, dedicated dad turns overnight into deadbeat dad, to whom all manner of social ills can be attributed and all manner of horrible things can be done. Working regularly with fathers and mothers as I do, I am aghast at the horrors that are perpetuated by people who once loved each other. Living in the UK, we currently offer mothers the use of the biggest sticks with which to further this nightmare. Fathers, once dearly loved by their children, can be turned into the bogey man all too easily and evicted from their children’s lives without a backward glance.
I am not naive. I recognise that each parent is capable of unleashing hurt and pain and suffering. I also know that our current system of framing all support around one parent and excluding the other must be carefully dismantled in case we throw the collective baby out with the bath water. This is not an issue that be boiled down to equal rights, we cannot divide children into two so that parents get their fair share. Taking new steps towards a different future, must be done carefully, so that anywhere in the UK, when a family separates, the first concern of each parent will be not ‘how do I enact my rights?’ but how will I protect my child from the impact of this separation.
The UK urgently needs a joined up social policy strategy around family separation. Parents need help when they separate and support and information about how to stay involved and close to their children. Most of all, parents need a new message about how children benefit from the ongoing input of both parents and how to achieve that in ways that do not focus upon the assumption that a child will spend a given percentage of its time with each parent.
Even the most complicated family with the highest levels of conflict, can be helped if the support is delivered in the right way. Services to support separated families have to be underpinned by an empathic understanding of the experience of each parent and their different needs for support. It is not the case that one size fits all in the field of family separation, far from it. Each family is different, each person in that family system plays a role in enabling a successful resolution to family separation, or a hideous descent in to fighting over the division of children along with assets from the relationship. Getting the information and messages about family separation to parents in the right way, delivered by the right people, at the right time, is a key task for any government going forward.
Many organisations exist to support separated families, but not many of them actualize the ability of parents to make decisions and choices that suit their children’s changing needs. The Centre for Separated Families does just that and works alongside parents to help them to overcome blocks and barriers to co-operation. This work is messy and not easy, parents who are hurting need consistency and patience in delivery of support. But outcomes that are achieved through this kind of approach, are long lasting, flexible and remain the private business of the families involved.
The Centre for Separated Families is an independent charity, working alongside other agencies in the UK to embed its approach within the community. The Centre trained the first information service to be made available to both parents in the UK, through which around sixty thousand private agreements for the payment of Child Maintenance have been made. The Options service, offers parents a first stop information service around issues concerning Child Maintenance Service, it could be so easily replicated with a service which is focused upon helping parents to understand the impact of separation on their children and how to manage co-operative relationships.
A new way forward for separating families does not have to rest upon whether or not parents get or even stay married. It does not even have to rest upon parents liking each other anymore. It must however, rest upon the fact that family separation, when it is done wrongly, will have a negative impact on children. It must also recognise and acknowledge that losing a parent, as so many children do, through inept and ill fitting policies and practice, is contributing to the repeated intergenerational family breakdown that forms a part of the landscape of our country.
It is time to be brave, to move beyond the arguments about parental rights and to look closer at parental responsibilities and how to support each parent to discharge those on an ongoing basis after separation. Other countries have managed to get it right, its time we did.