Co-parenting: how to change it from ‘battle of wills’ to shared job
Survey highlights emotional and social barriers adults encounter in trying to raise children after separation
Karen Kiernan, chief executive of One Family, which commissioned the study: “I would love an agency that deals purely with separation.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
In theory it sounds simple. Two adults who are no longer in an intimate relationship park their differences to ensure the children have a continuing relationship with both parents when they go their separate ways.
In reality “shared parenting”, although generally in the best interests of children, is complex and highly challenging, as reflected in Ireland’s first national shared parenting survey launched on Monday. It highlights some of the emotional, societal and systemic barriers that even well-meaning adults encounter in trying to share the joys and burdens of caring for children after separation.
The report, compiled by One Family, calls on the Government to remove the obstacles that make it harder for parents to share parenting positively and to implement appropriate supports to reflect the challenges these families can face.
Its recommendations range from further investment in family support and parenting services to reform of the family law courts, as well as social welfare changes aimed at reducing child poverty. The rules that apply to the one-parent family payment and jobseeker’s transitional payment, for instance, “discourage shared parenting after separation and need to be amended”, it argues.
One Family has worked for many years with families who are separating and parenting alone, but, increasingly, it has found its clients are “really sharing parenting, in small ways and very significant ways”, its chief executive, Karen Kiernan, tells Health & Family. It commissioned the survey to shed light on this progression from the outdated concept that it is always the mother left holding the baby.
“We know it [shared parenting] is happening but we don’t understand how people are doing it and how many people are doing it. And we wanted to hear from parents themselves – how they perceive and experience it and what would help them to do it better.”
Although one in four families with children is a one-parent family, the national census does not capture statistics on the number of families who are sharing parenting. A UCD study led by Tony Fahey, drawing on data from the Growing Up in Ireland survey of nine-year-olds, found that there is some sort of contact with the nonresident parent daily to weekly in 72 per cent of divorced or separated lone-parent families, and in about half of never-married lone-parent families.
“I don’t think any of us fully understand how people are sharing parenting – that includes our policymakers and our service providers,” says Kiernan. She hopes the varied picture that emerges from the results will help inform improvement in the provision of much-needed support and services.
However, even the definition of “shared parenting” is problematic. One Family defines it as follows: “Shared parenting is when both parents, who live separately, have an active parenting role in their child’s life, irrespective of how much time they might actually spend with their child.”
Some survey respondents took issue with that. Kiernan says her organisation wants to be inclusive as possible, but acknowledges that some lone parents would ask how somebody not paying maintenance and only turning up once a month, or twice a year, could be considered as “sharing” parenting.
“Because these parents are in children’s lives we are trying to reach them – it is not about them being good or bad,” she explains. “It is about them being in the child’s life and how can we make it work better.”
Some 47 per cent of the 1,000-plus, predominantly female, respondents to the online survey live on their own with their child(ren) in a one-parent family. Another 23 per cent say they live in a one-parent family, but share parenting with the other parent. Just five per cent say they live partly with their children, who then reside with the other parent the rest of the time, while 7.5 per cent have set up home with a new partner but share parenting with the other parent.
Only 27 per cent of the survey participants say that the time each parent spends with the children was agreed amicably between them. Another 22 per cent agreed it between themselves, but with difficulty, while eight per cent did it through mediation. In 21 per cent of cases it was ordered by a court.
Among parents who have the children living with them most of the time, nine per cent say that the other parent spends time or has contact with them daily; for 33 per cent it’s weekly; 12 per cent say monthly; six per cent during holidays; and 26 per cent “less often”.
Just 37 per cent of respondents agree that they make decisions jointly with the other parent on issues impacting on their children. While 52 per cent of parents who have the children most of the time say the other parent contributes financially and 32 per cent say they don't.
It’s clear from the responses to open-ended questions in the survey that both mothers and fathers feel that society, including policy- and law-makers, treats them unfairly because of their gender. Women tend to feel judged as single mothers and think that their role is put under more scrutiny, while fathers are more likely to believe their gender works against them in court hearings and mediation.
Open communication is seen as a prerequisite for shared parenting. Once this post-separation approach is established and working well, it is seen as bringing benefits not only to the children, but also to parents, giving them “time off” and somebody with whom to share responsibility for decision-making.
However, the challenges to achieving this ideal range from communication difficulties and lack of control to perceived lack of interest on the part of the other parent and domestic violence.
“Domestic violence is actually littered throughout this,” says Kiernan. “I don’t think in Ireland we have yet at all understood the connection between domestic abuse in its baldest sense in the home, the impact on children and then how parents have contact with children where they maybe a perpetrator of once-off or ongoing violence.”
It was one of the biggest issues One Family encountered when running a pilot programme of child contact centres from 2011-2013. Despite a highly positive evaluation of the scheme, there was no funding forthcoming for continued provision of such supervised, neutral spaces for nonresident parents to spend time with their children.
“People are being forced to facilitate contact where they think it is not safe or appropriate – and maybe it is not safe or appropriate,” says Kiernan. “Sometimes the courts get it right and sometimes they don’t have all the information.”
The “chasm” in all of this is the absence of a court family welfare system, she says, along the lines of the UK’s children and family court advisory and support service, most commonly referred to as Cafcass.
If we had a similar organisation here, a lot of the problems would go, Kiernan argues, because “you have got somebody who is working with the family, supporting them, assessing them, giving accurate, unbiased information to the courts. We have real inequality in terms of justice here because people who can afford to pay for private assessments will pay the €3,000 for a section 47 report and people who need it and who don’t have that sort of income can’t.”
It doesn’t guarantee a good outcome for children if the courts don’t have all the information, she points out.
Many parents comment on the need for mediation before legal procedures, with 34 per cent saying they had attended such a service. But opinion was divided on its usefulness.
Anything that can help people stay out of courts is better, agrees Kiernan, but where there are power imbalances or violence, mediation isn’t going to work.
As to what people say would help them share parenting better, more than half of them agree that improved family court services, counselling, access to relevant parenting courses and improved supports for children, such as play therapy, would be beneficial.
Kiernan recalls the comment of one mother who said “I would love an agency that deals purely with separation”.
“That really struck me: one place to go for help with finance, emotional support, family law, to help you figure that all out – wouldn’t that be amazing? The smoother this becomes and the more normalised, the less the negative impact.”
The full results and recommendations of the national shared parenting survey are available on onefamily.ie
‘I CO-PARENT BETTER WITH THE GRANDFATHER THAN I DO WITH THE DAD’
Single mother Keri Knapp believes in sharing the parenting of her nine-year-old daughter with her former partner, but in practice it is hard to achieve.
“I know it is probably sad to say but I have just kind of given up trying to involve [my daughter’s dad] in her life, because the more I try, the more he seems to back away,” she says.
“I co-parent better with the grandfather than I do the dad. In a lot of ways I do feel that I am parenting with the grandfather.
“Any medical issues, I call him; parent-teacher meetings, I call him. Overall if I need any kind of support, he would be the one I would go to.” She hopes this filters back to her daughter’s father.
An American, she and her former partner were in their early 20s when their baby was born. They drifted apart and she moved out of their Dublin home with her daughter when she was four.
“I just packed our things and left. We both knew it was coming; we weren’t on speaking terms, and even though we lived together we could go days without seeing each other.”
She and her ex did sit down together and discuss what time he would have with their daughter. With him working nights and her daughter in school, there wasn’t much chance for him to see her during the week.
The agreement was that he would take her weekends, alternating between one day and two days, she explains.
“He rarely upheld it. I would go to drop her off and he wouldn’t be home.” In practice it worked out that he would take her for a few hours one Saturday a month.
However, his now widowed father, with whom he lives, would take her about once a week. “He would collect her from school, have her overnight and then take her to school the next morning.”
Knapp, who has since had a second daughter whose father migrated to Australia, moved to Waterford with her two children in 2015. She was finding Dublin too expensive and felt it was very hard on her eldest daughter, knowing that her father was only 10 minutes up the road but rarely seeing him.
Change in maintenance
She applied to court for a change in maintenance and hoped that a new visitation plan would also come out of that hearing. Her daughter’s father, who, she says, had no objection to them moving, attended court, and they agreed that she would lower her maintenance and that he would come down to Waterford every other weekend to spend a few hours with her, and that they would negotiate separately about time during school breaks.
“It went well for a while; he was coming down. Some weeks I would even, for a change of scenery, bring her up to Kilkenny where he would have her for a few hours.”
After a few months, he started missing weekends due to work engagements and he said he would come two weeks in a row, “which sometimes he did and sometimes he didn’t”.
However, he has always supported her financially, “and when it comes to Christmas and birthdays he has always done more, or beyond, what I do”.
The grandfather came down for one night after Christmas and he texts and phones her daughter nearly every day.
“That relationship is as solid as a rock – she loves her ‘pop-pop’,” says Knapp, who is also full of praise for her former partner’s extended family, describing them as “amazing people, you can’t fault them”.
Knapp no longer communicates with her former partner. Instead she is happy to keep in contact with her daughter’s grandfather, knowing her father can ask him for updates. He does know about events coming up in the child’s life, she stresses.
“I put them out there and if he wants to reach out and be a part of them, he can. But I don’t want her to witness me asking him and getting no response, because that hurts her feelings.”
While she believes in the importance of the father-daughter bond, she doesn’t know how much longer she can keep trying to maintain it without damaging her child.
“I don’t know if I can keep pushing it, or if I should just let it fade away, which it seems to be doing.”
VIEWS ON SHARED PARENTING – THE GOOD AND THE BAD
“It is difficult sometimes to put individual grievances aside and understand that because someone wasn’t a good partner, it doesn’t mean they aren’t a good parent.”
“Separation and divorce are very distressing for children, but I feel that by adopting a shared-parenting approach, I am making the most functional choice for my children in their daily lives that I can.”
“With both parents holding very different values and beliefs regarding the children, it becomes a battle of wills as opposed to shared parenting.”
“There is a lack of protection from the ‘other parent’, who is dangerously abusive towards me and our child. The State/court system seems to favour parental contact, regardless of the abuse therein.”
“Although I was granted legal guardianship to my son, his mother refuses to inform me or to tell me anything about his life. I have raised this issue with the courts, but the judges just do nothing and there are no consequences for his mother.”
“Mediation should be compulsory for separating couples and the interests of their children should be hammered home at every opportunity.”
“He used mediation as a place to say horrible things about me in an attempt to have his actions validated by someone in authority. It wasn’t very helpful.”