Ok, so I write an awful lot on here about the injustices of our current system. Given we are highly likely to be entering new territory soon, I felt perhaps it might be useful to write a bit more about how sharing care can actually work for kids.
Having been a mother with sole care with a biological other parent who had gone to the ends of the country to avoid co-parenting with me, and also, eventually a shared care parent with my daughter’s step dad, I have sufficient experience (I think), to offer a look at the future from the other side of the lens.
This then, is part one of an occasional series of lessons for mothers who are either willingly seeking to share care or who have that arrangement proposed or imposed upon them.
I shall write this as a question and answer piece, these questions are those that I have spent a long time grappling with as I came to understand my current day position.
1. I carried the child inside of me therefore surely I am the most important parent?
On the day of your child’s arrival in the world you were indeed the most important parent, without you your child would not be here. In the days afterwards you were also at the top of the hierarchy as your child established a sense of self in the world. However, coming a very close second is your child’s other parent and he will eventually overtake you in terms of his importance in your child’s development, especially if your child is under five years old. We do indeed carry our children inside of us and this, I would argue, means that our feelings about our children remain deeply held within the fibre of our being. Days past, when men were not encouraged to bond as deeply with their children, it could have been said (perhaps) that the maternal bond was felt differently, in more recent decades, when men have become involved in every aspect of child rearing, from pre birth to beyond, It seems to me that the maternal and paternal bond post the very early days are very similar indeed.
2. But children need their mothers more than their fathers surely?
I would argue that what children need is their mother and their father and most of all they need a relationship between their mother and father that is conflict free and calm and possible to learn from. If a child has to be on red alert each time mum and dad are together, then mum and dad together are not doing the children any good at all. The argument that children need their mothers more than their fathers illuminates the feelings of loss and displacement that many mothers feel when they are confronted with the idea of sharing care. Children need both of their parents, ideally in relationship together, if not then at least working together in a business like arrangement.
3. But when my child stays over she always comes back upset and tired. He doesn’t put her to bed on time and she gets into a terrible mess with her routine.
Children who are making transitions to the other parent need to be helped to do so in ways that are beneficial to them, not their parents. The separation between adults is adult stuff and should be dealt with as adults. Is your child spending enough time with her other parent? Is staying over one night a week enough for her? Perhaps if she were able to stay in blocks of three nights with her dad she would settle into a routine at dads home too. How much are the two of you able to co-ordinate your routines? Children who have the same bedtime in each home, the same bedtime routine, the same smells even (check what washing powder he uses and either ask him to use the same as you or change yours to what he is using), are those who are best able to settle. Transition is a big thing for children and one night a week or worse, one night a fortnight is just not enough. If dad won’t deal with your questions because he is taking it as an attack on his parenting, show him this and let him know its not about you its about your child(ren).
4. But he never turns up on time and he misses out on important days.
Parents who consistently do not turn up on time or miss birthdays and other important days are letting their children down not you. Ultimately it will ruin their relationship with the children. However it is your responsibility to ensure that the boundaries are kept so that children are not confused or upset. Use the three strikes and your out routine, turn up late once and there is an excuse, turn up late twice and you are on dodgy ground, turn up late three times and there are no grounds for further discussion, the agreement must be renegotiated, get to a mediator and do it fast (and I can hear dads shouting at me for giving mums power to decide, however in my view it doesn’t wash, if someone is letting a child down consistently, then the other parent must act and act fast). Similarly, I would advise a father to use a three strikes and you’re out approach and get into mediation and if necessary the court process (yes I know that currently dads have less power to do that but we are talking about the future here when the process will, I hope, have more teeth). I am also strongly in favour of the three strikes and you’re out approach to enforcement of orders in the court. Mums who deliberately interfere with parenting time should, in my view, face punishment and before any tells me its terrible to send mum to prison, the kids will be with dad throughout and he will be providing his usual parenting time care plus the time mum is serving inside.
5. He’s only doing it to reduce his maintenance payments.
I am sure there are a few dads who will give it a go for this reason, there are many many more that want to share care because they want to care for their kids as well as pay for them. What do you do in terms of maintaining your children? Use the time you are not caring to go out and work, volunteer, go back to learning. Life as an active parent ends and one day, when your kids are grown and gone, you will be thankful for the chance you had of developing your ability to look after yourself.
6. He won’t share enough of the care.
Tricky one this because the status quo, which is the assumption that mothers will just do whatever dads won’t do and he has the choice whether or not to do it, is supported by the legislation we are trying to unpick. Some dads do just up sticks and go and they have permission to that in our society because the state steps in and replaces him. If he is sharing some of the care but doing it on his own terms then you are going to have to talk tough about what that does to his children. If he wants the shared care status but not the responsibility you are going to have to hold some boundaries and make sure that you are not picking up too many pieces for him. Difficult when your children are the ones at risk I know, ultimately, if you are trying to share care and he is not doing his bit, you have the right to ask for it to change and you should. Use the three strikes approach and then act.
7. But my children don’t want to go when it comes to changing homes
Learn as much as you can about transition difficulties in children, most kids suffer them at some point. However, the more fuss you make and the more upset you get, the worse it will get for the kids. Just like when you drop them off at nursery and they fuss and they cling, if you hang around for five minutes and take a peek at them, they are usually fine and have forgotten you because the sandpit is far more interesting. Kids find the crossing of the emotional boundary between mum and dad hard sometimes, especially if there is tension. If it is too difficult then get someone else to do it for you but keep in mind that communication between the two of you is what will make it better.
And finally –
Dads out there, avoid the following like the plague; a) being stroppy/weepy/anxious on handover with your children’s mother b) using handover to have a go at the other parent c) not allowing your kids to take items back and forth.
Mums out there avoid the following like the plague; a) being stroppy/weepy/anxious on handover, b) using the handover to have a go at the other parent c) not allowing your children to take items back and forth (and that means clothes too, its not ok to hang on to kids clothes and not allow them to wear them back and forth, your kid is not a doll and their clothes do not belong to you, they belong to your child).
And sharing care, where there is violence on either side of the fence is not something I would advocate. Family violence hurts children, as does making allegations of violence where it doesn’t exist. I am not advocating that anyone who is in danger or whose children have been hurt (and I mean by mothers as well as fathers) should be forced into a shared care arrangement.
Sharing the parenting of your children after separation is not something you or their other parent are inherently equipped for but you can learn how to do it and how to do so that you are child focused and not adult focused. Sharing parenting is not about dividing the child, its not about allocating fixed blocks of time that never change, its about renegotiating the parenting relationship between you which is separate from the end of your adult relationship. This requires you to be an adult, to accept responsibility for what is your stuff and to know the difference between someone being hurt and angry and someone being abusive.
Too often we mix up the personal, emotional mess that comes at the end of the relationship with the relationship we have with our children and they become the carriers of the toxicity between us and their other parent. Avoid this outcome at all costs, when your kids are mixed up in your hatred of their other parent, it is they who suffer most.
Your children are not just your children, they are the product of the love that once existed between you and their other parent. Give them the respect that they deserve and love the whole of them enough to put your adult feelings about their other parent to one side. And be adult enough to expect the same from the one that you once loved enough to bring children in to the world.
When you do that, your children will continue to be children and one day, when they are parents themselves, they will thank you wholeheartedly for it.