We are in changing times and this post is longer than most. This because the times that are changing are so important to generations of children to come that I cannot write everything I would like to in a shorter way (call it obsessive compulsive, but I cannot do short when such detail is required).
Regardless of whether we think shared parenting after family separation is the right way forward for this country or not, this is what the government has signalled will be the expected norm over the coming years. From the investment of 20 million pounds into family separation support services, to the introduction of a legislative statement within the Children Act 1989, the shared parenting agenda has been set. It is now incumbent upon us to deliver the kind of support that will enable parents to translate the government’s stated intention of children having meaningful relationships with both of their parents, into reality.
In order to write this piece I am ignoring the arguments against the shared care project. I am doing so because the shared parenting project is no longer uncertain. Having made its intentions very clear, the government expects that support will be available to enable parents to get to grips with what sharing care of children looks and feels like. This is the space beyond the arguments, the space that must be filled with the kinds of thinking, attitudes and practical services that enable parents to overcome the pain of the end of their adult relationship so that they can rebuild a shared parenting contract. This is the space in which the parental contract must be re-negotiated in order that children benefit from relationships with mum and dad and their wider family on both sides.
In summary then, the task ahead of us is to make the workforce ready to move from the promotion and support of the lone parent model of post separation support (all services framed around one parent to the exclusion of the other) to support of the collaborative parenting model, in which both parents are supported to care for their children.
This is not a project which can simply be rolled out overnight. Many service providers are, by their very constitution, set up to support one parent or the other. Many service providers have also spent a good deal of time using the dad as a danger to children model in their delivery of services to separated families. As someone from the family separation sector said recently, in relation to the prospect of shared parenting becoming the expected norm, ‘perhaps we should look at when it would be too dangerous to promote shared parenting first and then we could determine which kind of parents we would expect to be sharing care.’
My attitude is, let’s not. In fact let’s turn it the other way around. Lets look at the dad through the dad as an important person in children’s lives lens and examine what he can offer that has been missing for too long. This idea of dad as a dangerous being has driven our family policy for such a long time that unless we turn it around and look it the other way, we will forever be terrified into submission and non action. The DV lobby has, in my view, created a whole industry which is based upon the notion that men/dads are inherently dangerous (I’m with Erin Pizzey here) and has prospered from it. For this to continue, we must all submit to being stymied by the guilt provoking gaze that says if you take away the chains that keep dads in their emasculated place, you will have the blood of women and children on your hands.
But my favourite motto is, if you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you have always got and so for me, at least, it is time to resist that gaze and take off those chains and make ready to bring fathers back into their children’s lives. And when I say fathers I mean real fathers, not fathers who do it like mothers or fathers who have removed all traces of testosterone in order to be acceptable to women.
The kind of masculinity I am talking about was seen in a Panorama documentary about childcare on 27 February 2012 entitled The cost of raising Britain.
This was a programme ostensibly about the high cost of child care and I wasn’t surprised therefore, that throughout the whole programme the issue of child care was only linked to mothers and their need to work. For a country stuffed full of feminist academics, many of whom have been the architects of our social policy around child care, it never ceases to amaze me that a woman’s place, in 21st century is still considered to be in sole charge of children.
What did surprise me about the programme however, was a snap shot of the child care provision in Norway, a country long noted for its commitment to equality. I was surprised at how I felt when the programme focused upon children in a nursery, because what jumped off the screen at me was that two of the nursery workers were men. More than that, the clip showed children playing out doors, learning how to strike matches and build fires, using knives to carve wood and, most startling of all, the voice over that talked about the children having a sleep over once a month cared for by those nursery workers, including the men.
The inclusion of men, not only in the care of their own children, but the care of other people’s children, was such a startling contrast to the feminized environment of the early years sector in our country that I couldn’t believe how shocked I felt at actually seeing this in practice, and I, a long time advocate of the men into childcare project.
`This programme showed men caring for children as well as taking them outside and letting them run loose and have fun. It also showed men taking responsibility for helping children to manage risky things, like striking matches and building bonfires all of those things long gone in too many of our children’s lives today.
This kind of risk taking is, for children, an important part of growing up and learning to be responsible and it seems to me, that in removing men from our children’s lives we have removed those opportunities too, for fun and adventure and learning how to be physical in the world. And before anyone accuses me of falling prey to the stereotyping I try to avoid in my work, yes, mothers can do that with children too and yes, fathers can provide care and nurture for children too. But it seems to me that what our children get these days, particularly after family separation, is an overkill in one area with children being smothered into almost a standstill in terms of their taking risks and an almost complete absence in the other. This cannot be a good balance for our children who according to Allan Schore, the co-developer of interpersonal neurobiology need both the input of mother and father and wider family members as well in order to kick off positive hard wiring on the left and right side of the brain.
We are therefore, when we look into that space which is opening up ahead of us, considering the needs of children to have relationships with parents who can give good care and who can also bring the reality of the outside world into their lives. Our principle attitude, in promoting this to parents must, it seems to me, be the notion that mothers and fathers are important in children’s lives because of the different things that they bring to their lives.
The workforce that touches the lives of separated families in this country has a part to play in this. Too long steeped in the principle of sole care by mothers is good enough care, the workforce must be helped to understand the difference that dual care and responsibility brings to children. And granted, it must also, to my mind, be skilled enough to be able to ensure that children who live with solo mothers where there are issues preventing father input, are not stigmatised or prevented from having access to strong relationships with other men in the world. Men like those in the nursery in Norway.
Attachment theories tell us that mothers and fathers are both important in children’s lives and, most importantly, that when an intact family attachment hierarchy begins to break down, children will suffer. For too many years we have ignored the suffering of children affected by family separation, looking the other way when generation after generation have been shouting the impact from the rooftops. Now is the time however, to begin to look at our children, to understand their behaviours and the way in which these reflect their experience of broken and interrupted attachment. All services which aim to support collaborative parenting must, in my view, put the experiences of children at the heart of what they are doing. Education and information play a very big part in helping parents to understand what they must look out for as they move from an intact family to a parenting apart situation. A workforce of men and women who are also educated and trained to understand children’s behaviours and how to help parent to manage these together, is going to be a vital foundation for supporting the cultural change we are looking for.
It would seem therefore that we must, if we are to make a success out of the UK shared parenting project, keep in mind three important things.
- Divorce and separation harms children.
- Mothering and fathering and the difference between these activities are each important to children’s neurological, emotional and social development.
- If separated fathers are going to be more involved, separated mothers are going to have to stand aside in order for that to happen and we need to incentivise and support that to happen.
Paul Amato, a researcher from Pennsylvania with a background at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, has recently released a new piece of research concluding that there is no such thing as a ‘good divorce,’ when it comes to impact on children. Amato’s study of 944 parent-child pairs was divided into three categories; co-operative parents, parallel parents and single parents with children who have no contact with their other parent. A control group of children of married parents was used to compare outcomes across 12 areas. The outcome of the study showed that whilst co-operative parenting brought with it benefits, they were not as high as expected and it was no better than those children who did not see their other parent at all, whilst the worst off group was the one where parallel parenting was happening and where the relationship between the child and the other parent was intermittent with parental relationships being unco-operative. A further conclusion is drawn in commentary on this research by New Zealand researcher Jan Pryor, co-author of Children in Changing Families:Life after Parental Separation, who said that there is now evidence that the least beneficial pattern of parenting time is every other weekend.
In accepting that divorce and separation harm children, we are going to need more education and information around the impact on children and their different needs at different ages. This is,in my view, going to be critical to address the first issue. In providing this however, we must also avoid at all costs, the ‘let’s ask the children what they want‘ lobby, which is, to my mind, quite possibly the most dangerous development in separated family support services since the introduction of CAFCASS. Asking children what they want to happen after divorce and separation is like breaking someone’s legs and then asking them what shoes they would like to wear. Divorce and separation risks children being elevated to the top of the hierachical family tree and asking them to decide what should happen after separation only convinces them that they are ultimately responsible for the well being of their own parents. Our task is NOT to listen to the ‘voice of the child’ it is to teach and support parents to keep on being mum and dad so that children can continue their childhood, uninterrupted by the adult eschewing of responsibility.
When parents understand what is happening to their children and how they themselves can change that, it can, in itself, lead to greater co-operation. It is often only when professionals and others come hurtling into the crash scene with either a parental rights based attitude or a ‘don’t worry they will be fine’ approach that things can become really nasty. Education, information and the right kind of delivery of both is going to be needed from day one of our new shared care project. If I had my way, every parent in the land would undergo a divorce proofing your kids for life course on the day that their first child was born.
The second of the three important things is that which has been disputed for the past four decades and it is this which could be the most difficult and intractable barrier to overcome. The importance of mothers and fathers in children’s lives. There are however, a number of studies which show how brain development in children is kicked off by relationships with mother and father and then wider family members. There are also those which show when relationships with mothers, fathers and wider family members become most important to children. Whilst not falling into the trap of seeing neuroscience as the catch all answer, I do consider it to play a hugely significant role in the lives of children affected by family separation. I also see how, in my own work over twenty years, with children from separated families, divorce and separation has different impacts at different times in children’s lives. An education programme, which contains clear information on how different care patterns and different transition patterns are suitable for children at different ages is another important addition to our tool box of family separation support.
Finally, to address point number three, we must urgently consider how we can incentivise mothers to combine care with provision for children, in short how we can help more mothers to work and make use of the time that the other parent is caring. For many years now we have had a lone parent model of support to separating families, placing the burden upon mothers to be full time carers and the onus on fathers to provide financially for children. Moving away from this is going to be difficult whilst we still have such deeply gendered ideas about what makes a good father and what makes a good mother. The Child Maintenance Commission, with its gender mainstreaming approach to its Options service, underpinned by training design by the Centre for Separated Families has already shown that it can be done. Gender proofing front line services in the same way as well as examining how separated mothers and fathers can be incentivised as well as supported to share care will be key to making point three happen.
And so there you have it, how to bring about the UK’s first shared parenting project in three easy steps. I hope that those of you who have made it to the end of this missive will find something in it to agree (or disagree) with. Whilst its not going to be immediately possible to fill this cavernous space beyond the parental rights fight with all the support that parents need, we are making a start at the Centre for Separated Families and moving beyond the old and into the new.
And in doing so we are finding unexpected treasures that I thought had been long rendered off limits in our dad averse society. The possibilities of men as early years workers for example bringing risk back into our children’s lives and the celebration of dad as the adventurer. The fascinating way in which the hard wiring of children’s brain development takes place in the relationship between their mother and their father and the balance that the difference between men and women can bring to the way in which our children grow into fully rounded human beings.
Shared parenting after separation is not always easy. As I say often to the parents that I work with, if you are going to give your children the life that you hoped they would have on the day that they were born, each of you is going to have to compromise something of what you hoped for and of what you dreamed of giving (and receiving). Because when adults compromise, children don’t have to and that balance of strong relationships, born of everyday details and tiny little moments is protected.
Its a brave new world we are entering, and there is hard work ahead of us as well as a road that needs building for others to travel on. I for one, have my toolbox, my compass and my map at the ready.