Having listened to Woman’s Hour this week on the issue of shared parenting, I was struck by the ways in which two very different shared care arrangements were portrayed by the parents concerned. Working as I do, with families experiencing separation, I know that one of the greatest difficulties facing parents can be how to make arrangements that really work for children. Given the range of ways that post separation parenting can be configured, it can sometimes be difficult for parents to decide which approach is the right one for their child. Should children live mostly in one home and visit the other, should children live in two homes or should children be able to choose when and how they pick up their things and make their home with one or the other parent?
One of the determining factors is how well children cope with the arrangements that are made, especially when, in the early days at least, parents may still be struggling to resolve some of the issues that caused the separation in the first place. In my work with families, where conflict is often high and ongoing, children are faced with having to cross a ‘no man’s land’ of emotional warfare on a regular basis. These are the children who are most at risk of rejection of one parent and alignment with the other, the impact upon them of having to make that crossing becomes, quite simply, intolerable. But whatever the emotional landscape around children, the fact that it is they and not the adults who do the moving between parents and between homes, means that it is they and only they who are witness to the whole of the fractured landscape around them. Whilst parents cope with the impact of the separation on their adult selves, an impact which can feel incredibly difficult at times, at least they only have to cope with their own side of things. Children on the other hand have to cope with both sides and they have to bear witness to the pain, the sorrow and sometimes the anger of two parents not just one. Not only that, but they must achieve a huge psychological task on a regular basis, which is negotiating their way between enemy lines in order to find their way into the other side’s camp (aka home). Little wonder that too many children end up being withdrawing and refusing to undertake that task by rejecting one of their parents.
Parenting a child in transition is not the same as parenting a child full stop. Skills for supporting a child in transition start with the ability to understand the whole of their experience of life and how they and only they are witness to the fractured family landscape in the round. When a parent can come to terms with this fact, it releases the child from the expectation that they will carry on as normal and the parent can adapt their expectations and behaviour to support the child instead of making demands upon them. It can also prevent an escalation of the alienation reaction in a child which can be created and escalated by locating the problem in the child and not in the landscape of the dynamics between the two parents and two homes that a child lives in.
When a child is in transition nothing is as consistent as it was when the family lived together. Whilst children can and do adapt amazingly well to transitional life, they do need support in order to do so. Imagine that you, as a parent, wake up on a regular basis knowing that the bed that you sleep in tonight is not the one that you are currently lying in. Imagine that you must carve out, on a weekly basis, the time to think about packing the things that you need to take with you. Imagine that you are taking your leave of your loved one regularly. Think about your holidays and how you psychologically carve up that time into beginning (exciting, everything is new and you have been looking forward to it), middle (you are lost in the experience of the moment and the past and the future are nowhere in sight) and ending (the future looms and the change to a different pace, a different place and a different way of life is coming). Now imagine doing that on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. That is what the life of a child in transition feels like inside. The carving up of time, the marking of beginning, middle and ending, the accompanying emotional reactions and the physical tasks of remembering everything that needs to go with you.
I am not saying, by outlining all of the above, that children in shared parenting situations do not do well. They do. The research evidence shows that they do well in the right shared care conditions and my own personal and professional experience tells me that children in do incredibly well moving between homes. But the common factor in children doing well in shared parenting situations is the way in which parents are skilled to manage children in transition. The level of understanding that parents have about the needs of children in transition and the way in which these children cope with the psychological task of change is a critical factor and it seems to me, that what is needed is more, much more information for parents about this, if shared parenting is to successful on a much wider basis.
One the Woman’s Hour programme two parents talked about their experience of shared care. One parent said that she lived close to her children’s dad and that their arrangement had been voluntary and born out of necessity as they both worked freelance. The other parent had struggled through the court process and arrived at a shared care arrangement in which his daughter spent weekends with him and some days in the week.
Both of these parents considered that they were sharing the care of their children and I would agree, shared care looks like many different things and it does not have to be one set pattern. But for a child, life in two homes, with two separated parents can be made easier or much harder by the skills that their parents possess in supporting their ability to make the transition from one place to the other. And when children struggle with the transition, stepping up with higher level skills and higher level awareness of what is happening to children is an essential part of successful shared care for every parent.
A couple of years ago I worked with a family in which the child concerned was aged 14. This teenager had transitioned almost all of her life as her parents separated when she was under three years old. For the subsequent years of her life, she had lived with her father for half of the week and her mother the other half, moving on a Wednesday evening and a Sunday morning. Transitions had been easy for much of this time, a matter of making sure that she remembered her swimming things when she moved and that she knew what clothes she might need to take with her. When she was a child, she had left one home and arrived at the other in a consistently chirpy and happy mood and had seemingly adapted well to life with two homes.
As she approached the age of 14 however she began to struggle with transitions, not wanting to pick up her things and go and becoming angry with her mother and her father at the way in which her life felt ‘split in two.’ Although she lived in homes only five miles apart, the friends with which she went to school lived near to her father’s home and not her mothers and so she came to want to spend more time with her dad, not because she wanted to be with her dad more, but because it was convenient for her to be there, it suited her growing social life.
Eventually, over a period of six months, this teenager had become so difficult for her mother to handle that there was a complete breakdown in the shared care arrangement and the mother came to the Centre for Separated Families saying that her daughter had been ‘alienated’ against her by her father. What else could it be, this mother told us, when her daughter had been so happy, so compliant, so much settled in the shared care arrangement.
By the time we arrived to support this family the mother and daughter were completely estranged and the mother and father were at loggerheads. Court action was being discussed and angry letters were being exchanged. Without intervention, that family would have been a war zone and the daughter plunged into the middle of a battle that threatened to alienate her from both of her parents, never mind one.
There was a very simple solution to the problems that this separated family faced. That solution was a short parenting support programme for parents of children in transition. It didn’t take more than an hour into a six hour workshop for the penny to drop for these parents. When children in transition enter into psychological change themselves, the arrangements around them must change to meet those changing needs. This was not a case of alienation, it was a case of parents lacking the skills to parent a child in transition. Give them those skills and everything changes again, ruffled feathers are smoothed, old jealousies are laid to rest and anxieties about relationships are calmed. Had this girl gone to school close to her mother’s home, that is where she would have preferred to be and mum would have been the ‘chosen’ one for a time. When these parents understood that, it was possible for them to begin to configure arrangements that suited their daughter’s needs and the conflict between mum and daughter reduced, daughter was encouraged to spend some quality time with mum on a regular basis and dad could stop feel guilty and anxious that he was somehow influencing his daughter’s difficult behaviour.
Shared parenting is not rocket science but neither is it the breeze that some would have us believe that it is. Whilst the argument about whether we should start from a point of presuming that a child will live equally with both parents or not rages on, don’t be fooled into thinking that winning or losing this argument is all that is needed to make shared care work. Those who speak of presumption being the magical answer to all of our prayers are not the children who have to cross the no man’s land of anger, blame and confrontation and they are not the children who have to find a way to cope with the whole of the fractured landscape of a family separation. Presumption or not is not the issue, making shared care work effectively for children is and doing that requires an ongoing and sustained commitment to learning the skills of parenting a child in transition. When parents get that right, then things begin to fall into place. And when parents learn how to do that over a child’s lifetime, then children get that ongoing emotional conduit that gets them safely across no man’s land in the good times as well as the bad times.
As shared parenting continues its way through the social and political scrutiny towards a wider acceptance and practice, it is time to focus our attention on the needs of the children who will live these shared care lives, the only ones who will live not just one side of it, but the whole of it. For the success or failure of the shared care project over their lifetime, will set the sails for the fate of their own children. Teaching parents how to share care now could bring change for many more generations of children.