This item popped into our inbox this morning from women’s charity Maypole, and we found it thought-provoking and insightful, so we are adding it below:
Mothers face many barriers to sharing care. Are the difficulties you have faced listed here?
The majority of mothers want their child to have a relationship with the father, and actively promote contact. But there are many barriers to sharing care after divorce or family break up.
When contact does not work, mothers’ stories are rarely heard. Instead, mothers are accused of being selfish, abusive, and even of having a personality disorder. Here we list some of the reasons why supporting contact can be difficult, and how fathers, society and the law all contribute to these barriers.
Shared care interrupts primary care
In two parent families, or families where one parent is absent, every child has their needs met through a system of primary care. One parent has overall responsibility for, and knowledge of, the child’s needs and activities, ensuring nothing is missed out.
At family break up, children still need someone to oversee their activities and needs. But shared care does not replicate how the child’s needs were met beforehand. By dividing care according to parental time, rather than parental roles, gaps are created in the primary carer’s knowledge and ability to exercise their overseeing care giving responsibility.
The disruption of the primary care function is a fundamental risk inherent in shared parenting. Children’s primary care needs must be met for children to benefit fully from relationships.
If parents communicate well the gap in the overseeing function can be repaired, but when communication between parents is poor the primary carer is prevented from fulfilling their parental responsibilities.
Protecting children’s need for the primary care demonstrates an understanding of children’s full range of needs, and can and does occur without motivation to obstruct the father child relationship.
Mismatch between the ideology and reality of parenting roles
Shared care is often seen as gender equality, recognising parents have equal rights and responsibilities for their children.
Yet the social reality of parenting shows that all two parent families choose diversity to best meet their child’s needs, with one parent acting as the primary carer with overall responsibility for child care. Changes in fathers’ involvement in child care in recent years has not changed the primary care function.
In most families it is the mother who is the primary carer, even when she works full time, and even when shared care is ordered by the family courts. The division of time after parents divorce or separate does not lead to an equitable division of care.
Fathers are more likely to be involved after divorce if they were very involved in their children’s lives before the split. However equitable the sharing of time, mothers usually continue to assume greater responsibility for co-ordinating children’s routines and care, even when the children are with the father.
Being ‘equally’ important does not mean roles are the ‘same’. Family law emphasises equal parental responsibility, where each parent has equal rights in decision making. In reality, the right to be involved in making decisions can be exercised without spending time with, or caring directly for, a child.
When the father is controlling, mothers can be prevented from making basic decisions for themselves and their children, undermining their ability to meet their child’s needs effectively. The stress for mothers, and children, can be very high, yet often coercive behaviour is not seen as a bar to contact in the family courts.
Conflict could be reduced if family law was sensitive to the social realities of family lives, and replicates the roles parents have already chosen as best for their child, giving children stability and continuity of care. Whilst it is important for fathers to be more involved in their child’s care, family law is not a suitable mechanism for social change.
Lack of paternal experience
At separation and divorce, many fathers don’t have experience of all care giving tasks, and may not even realise there needs to be an overall view of child care responsibilities (primary care), or appreciate its importance. The non-primary carer is expected to take on more child care responsibility just as he loses his daily, ‘in-house’ primary care support.
Fathers’ lack of parental experience can make it difficult for mothers to trust their parenting capabilities. If the father has limited experience, it is natural the mother might lack confidence that he can fully meet their child’s needs. The more a father has shared child care responsibilities before divorce, the more shared care is likely to work afterwards.
Lack of paternal responsibility
Mothers’ biggest complaint after separation is fathers’ lack of involvement. Supporting a child’s relationship with their father is not easy if the father is uninvolved, unpredictable or absent. It is the mother who has to deal with the consequences, when their child is feeling disappointed, rejected, angry or confused.
Many researchers believe that children’s well being is best served with consistent care by the parent who is their primary care giver. Therefore a mother can provide a continuous presence in a child’s life to counter balance the negative effects of a father who comes and goes.
Fathers who want more equal time at separation and divorce don’t always contribute more equally to child care responsibilities:
‘Fathers refused to take on more responsibility after divorce, while still insisting on maintaining contact with their children, it led to real strains in the parental relationship (with mothers) … become increasingly resentful‘ (Silva and C Smart, 1999).
Abdication of parental care
Some fathers, when their children are in their care, hand over their caring responsibilities to a female relative or new partner. Care by another female when the mother (and usually primary carer) is available and willing to care for the child(ren) ignores both a child’s need for continuity and a mother’s deep sense of connection to her child.
Mothers’ concerns ignored
Family courts often minimise or disregard mothers’ genuine concerns, yet there is a proven link between mothers’ (but not fathers’) concerns and children’s well being.
Contact decisions are much more likely to be supported by mothers if their concerns are listened to, respected, and incorporated into a contact plan which manages, rather than ignores, their perspective.
The limitations of coerced agreements
Whilst the law can order contact, or mediation encourage settlement, they cannot nurture trust, respect, good communication, or adequate parenting skills – the necessary requirements to make shared care work. When conflict is caused by domestic abuse, both parents are not equally empowered to end the conflict.
Living in two houses
Substantial shared care requires children to move from house to house. It is not possible to have two of everything, some things can’t easily be transferred, and some things ‘walk’. Constantly moving is time consuming and disruptive, and can be very stressful and disorientating for children, no matter how much they want to see both parents.
It is the child who does most of the physical and emotional work, not the adults. Living in two houses is frequently cited as being best for children by adults who have never actually tried it for themselves. In many cases children are divided equally or near equally even though the child did not see both parents equally before divorce.
Recognising the challenges of living in two houses for children is child-centred; refusal or resistance to acknowledge these challenges puts relationships with parents at the centre of the child’s life, rather than recognising children’s full range of needs, and how they are met.
Resistance to the misuse of power and control
Abusive fathers can use child contact to continue to control and coerce their ex partner, and child(ren) after separation. Despite this, children can still be bonded to an abusive parent, and may still want to have a relationship with him.
Finding a balance between promoting the father/ child relationship, and protecting the mother and child from further abuse can be challenging. Although the benefits of contact might conflict with a child’s need for protection, the family courts rarely order no contact. As result, women are frequently expected to hand over their children in situations where they have genuine fears for the child’s wellbeing.
In all other aspects of society knowingly putting a child at risk would be considered negligent. When women do not support contact in these circumstances, it is not the presence of the father they reject, but his attempts to deprive others of their autonomy and safety.
Children deserve the same level of protection from coercion and abuse in family law as they do in all other aspects of society.
Rejection, abandonment and loss
Anger is a natural reaction to the losses that the end of a relationship brings, and can be particularly acute for a parent who is on the receiving end of abuse or rejection. Preventing child contact as an expression of anger is to put the parent’s needs before the child’s, but so too is domestic violence and, arguably, the pursuit of personal relationships outside the family.
Therefore judging one parent’s behaviour in isolation, rather than in context of family dynamics, is to relieve the other parent of their share of responsibility.
Mothers are much more likely to compromise their career to provide child care, which has a detrimental effect on their employment skills and earning potential. If the parents separate, financial settlements rarely cover the true value of lost income and pension.
If a mother loses her role as main carer at family break up, she will continue to have substantial financial commitments, in maintaining her home and continuing to provide for her child, yet maintenance payments will be reduced, and she will not qualify for child related benefits.
Unless substantial support is made available to women who have been financial disadvantaged as primary care giver, economic devastation will remain a pervading fear for many women. The concept of parental equality in family law practice can exacerbate inequality in living standards after separation.
Sharing care therefore represents a financial risk that some mothers simply cannot afford to take.
Institutionalised insensitivity to the maternal role
Mothers, as primary carers, have a biological, emotional and cognitive connection to their child’s needs. The identity of a primary carer is centred foremost on the child, and putting the child’s needs first. It is for this reason mothers are more likely to modify their working life to ‘juggle’ child care. Being a mother is ‘an identity and not just a job’ (Silva and Smart, 1999).
Current family law, which assumes a gender neutral approach, ignores the fact that women as primary care givers are usually the psychological parent to children. Many mothers want fathers to share child care responsibilities after separation, but sudden or enforced changes in caring patterns deprive mothers’ psychological need for a continuous connection to their child, and robs them of their identity.
The method by which all children’s needs are met in every family is invisible in family law. Through separation and divorce mothers’ psychological connection to their child is undermined and sometimes broken.
Primary care is not about not letting others care for your child, it is about letting go slowly, with trust and confidence the chid is safe. Primary care is instinctive, devised by nature as the best way to ensure all of a child’s needs are met, appropriately and consistently.
Enforced changes in residency are ‘unfair to the mother and potentially harmful to the child’ (McBean, in Boyd, 2003). Depriving mothers of their psychological connection to their child tears at mothers’ instinct and peace of mind, and has long term consequences for women, children and society generally.
A reluctance to support contact could, for many women, be a defence mechanism, in the absence of legal recognition of the importance of continuing primary psychological parenting, for mothers, and their children.
It is a credit to mothers that they make the personal sacrifices they do, to support their children to the best of their ability, in circumstances which are sometimes discriminatory and distressing.
When mothers appear to fail in supporting the father-child relationship, addressing the barriers to sharing care would be more effective in ensuring all of children’s needs are met, and their relationships are protected.
If we haven’t listed a difficulty you faced, let us know and we could add it to the list.
If you have experienced any of these issues and need support, find more information on our web site.
You can also send this list to your local MP and ask what their party intends to do to help mothers.