Ask the Expert: Separated dads struggle to maintain their roles
Q) I am a separated father and my daughter is 10 months old. My relationship with my ex-girlfriend ended, and then she discovered she was pregnant. Since my daughter was born, things have been difficult with my ex and she allows me to see my daughter for only one or two hours each week. I am hoping to increase this and to be more involved in my daughter’s life, but my ex says she does not want this. Last week, she threatened to cut off all contact and I threatened to go to court. What legal rights do I have? I wasn’t married but had lived with my ex for two years.
A) As an unmarried father you have no automatic legal rights and, depending on where you live, you may have to apply to court to gain guardianship or parental responsibility. There is good information about this process and the challenges of being an unmarried father on treoir.ie and lawandparents.co.uk.
However, the best way to be more involved as a father in your daughter’s life is by agreement with her mother.
While of course you have a right to go to court – and you should get the best legal advice – there are many dangers associated with a legal process; it can increase the antagonism with your daughter’s mother and this does not serve you in having a better relationship with your daughter.
Therefore, the first port of call is to try to get agreement with your daughter’s mother about your role in your daughter’s life and to achieve some shared parenting.
The better you can communicate and work civilly with your daughter’s mother as coparents, the easier it will be to have a good ongoing relationship with your daughter.
Working with your daughter’s mother
Take time to understand your daughter’s mother’s point of view, and where she might be coming from. Is there a particular reason that she does not want to increase or share the care of her daughter for a longer period? Perhaps she finds the practicality of the contact difficult to accommodate. Perhaps she is still upset about the break-up and finds extensive contact with you difficult.
The more you can understand where she is coming from emotionally, the better you will be able to negotiate with her. Focus on your daughter’s needs and try to persuade your ex of the value of your ongoing involvement as a loving father.
Try to make any increased contact you have fit with her schedule, and what she needs as a mother. For example, offer to mind your daughter when she is working or busy or when she needs a break, or agree to allow a third party such as a grandparent manage the handover at contact, if that is easier.
Make sure also to share in all the parental responsibilities of caring for a baby – financial, practical and emotional – so your daughter’s mother sees you as a resource to her daughter as well as to her as a coparent. Show her in words and deeds of your commitment to parenting your daughter and to support her as your daughter’s mother.
Finally, if it is difficult to have these conversations, contact a family mediation service and seek its assistance in negotiating solutions or attend a course about parenting when separated.
There are also lots of other resources and supports for parents who are living apart from their children.
Q I separated from my wife two years ago when my daughter was 14 months old. It was a difficult time, with a lot of conflict with my wife, and I did not see my daughter for a few months. About four months ago I got back into regular contact with my daughter through the courts, and I am to have access twice a week.
The problem is my daughter is often reluctant to come with me. My ex-wife tells me my daughter is anxious about the contact and upset when she comes back, but I am not sure whether to believe my ex, who just wants me out of her life.
A In the context of conflictual separation, it is a challenge for the parent who leaves the home – usually the father – to maintain contact with children, especially when they are very young. Your situation is made harder by the fact that there was a long gap in contact with your daughter, meaning that you are effectively at the stage of trying to re-establish a relationship with her. Given that she is so young, and primarily attached to her mother, she may well be anxious about the contact and unsettled by this.
Find a way of getting the support of her mother
The key to moving forward is to try to get the co-operation of your daughter’s mother. The more her mother can be positive and reassuring about your role in her life, the more easily your daughter will settle.
When her mother raises concerns about your daughter being reluctant, ask her for advice and assistance in helping your daughter settle and enjoy contact with you.
How can you change how visits are organised to make her more comfortable? Could you spend some time playing with her in her home, with her own toys and so on, with the clear support of her mother? Or could the three of you visit a playground together and let your daughter see her mother’s support on the trip?
The more your daughter sees the two of you communicating civilly and normally, the easier it will be to have contact. Alternatively, could you visit another family member such as grandparents during your contact time, or could you take her to a playgroup or on an activity she is familiar with, as this might put her at her ease?
If it is hard to negotiate with her mother about contact, consider getting some help and going to family mediation or some other support services (see above).
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and founder of the Parents Plus charity. See solutiontalk.ie