Separation always disrupts the familiar patterns of family life. Routines and responsibilities that had been established 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 parent worried too much, especially in happier times, about who did what and how much actual time each spent doing the hands-on stuff of day-to-day family life.
Why families work well
Traditional family life has its own built-in efficiencies that work well for children, if not always for parents. Children can see both of the most important people in their lives every day. Busy parents can feel connected with everyone on very little time. Each parent takes on responsibilities that fit their skills, availability, and interests, and a natural division with commonsense delegation of domestic activities develops. 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 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 big changes
Because you’re living separately, 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. Now the kids are off to their other home for parts of the week, leaving you feeling stranded and unsettled.
The scene is set for you both to start worrying about potential grievances and uncertainties: what’s fair, 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 paying for everything for the kids, how a parent who’s never been around much for them can look after them properly, and so on. Research on 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 around 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 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 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.
What should parents do?
Because families are all different, no one post-divorce arrangement can be in the best interests of all children. 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.
Parenting takes patience, self-sacrifice, and self-analysis. Separation is an opportunity to rethink your parenting priorities. Your children need time—meaningful time—with both of their parents. They need to feel you are available. They need you to give them guidance, sympathy, discipline, and supervision. They need you to convey a strong sense of their importance to you despite your other priorities. Quality parenting takes time, but having time with your children is no guarantee 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 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 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 equal responsibility. 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. Whatever has happened between you two that caused you to separate, and however angry or resentful you might feel about it, your kids need you both.
So start thinking about parenthood continuing as fully as possible for both of you, 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:
- Put your children’s welfare ahead of your own feelings
- Believe that your children love and need two parents
- Recognize and accept that everyone is different, and different in their parenting
- Work out a parenting plan that is creative and flexible
- Keep at it through thick and thin
Shared parenting can work, and children today will benefit enormously if there’s more of it.
From our eNewsletter. This article has been edited and excerpted with permission fromShared Parenting: Raising Your Children Cooperatively After Separation. Copyright © 2009 by Jill Burrett and Michael Green, Celestial Arts, an imprint of Ten Speed Press, a division of the Crown Publishing Group, Berkeley, CA. Click Shared Parenting to get more information about this book.
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