Parenting when Separated or Divorced - Custody and Access
In an ideal, post-separation world, the parents would each live close by, so that the kids have easy access to both parents, and that the parents can retain a strong sense of shared responsibility and involvement in their children’s lives. There’d be enough space and money in each household to create a personal space for the children to feel that they have a place and a stake in their Mum’s, and their Dad’s, lives. Sadly, of course, we do not live in an ideal world. Money is often tight after separation and divorce, geographical relocation is often a reality. Just the other side of town may seem a very long way from a child’s perspective.
The divorce settlement may speak of joint, or shared, child custody, but more often than not the reality is that one parent (usually the mother) becomes the main custodial parent, with the other (usually the father) having parental access for the occasional/regular overnight or weekend. Inevitably, this unequal division of parental access, effort and involvement, may create feelings of resentment, or envy between the estranged couple. When one fails to do what the other asks, or reneges on a commitment, the other may well feel inclined to response in like fashion. Sadly, it’s the kids who suffer most when child custody arrangements become a running sore between the couple. At its worst, the kids may feel that they are little more than inconvenient baggage that the parents fight to avoid being lumbered with. If you find yourself frustrated with your partner’s stance or reactions, it might be useful just to imagine how you would feel if you were in the other’s place, having a greater, or lesser, amount of daily contact with your children. What would be better, and what would be worse for you? Does that help you understand your partner’s stance a little more?
The practical elements of coping with post=separation parenting is challenging enough for both parents. The resident parent will frequently complain of feeling left to get on with it and very put upon. But non-residential parents face challenges too. 80% of non-residential parents of dependent children are men. A third of those men lose all contact with their children within a year of the separation. This is not necessarily because they don’t care about heir kids, but because they find the emotions stirred up by the process of being a ‘weekend Dad’ or occasional parental access, marked by awkward hellos and painful goodbyes contrasting with extended periods of little or no contact, all too painful. Too often they deal with that pain by removing themselves from the equation altogether. If meeting up with our kids feels awkward, and at the end of the weekend it feels terribly sad and empty, we may well want to draw back from future meetings, telling ourselves it is for the best. In fact, it is almost always for the worst. The kids will not feel that Dad has backed out of our loves for our own good, but because he doesn’t care about us.
A special message for non-residential parents (especially Dads): Don’t try to avoid the sadness. If there are tears, accept them as gift, a sign that the relationship matters. Don’t be afraid of the kids’ tears, or your own; no-one’s ever drowned in them. Reach out through the tears. Tell the kids you miss them too; it’s because you love them. If the meetings seem and feel a bit awkward sometimes; tell them you feel it too. Tell them it’s ok; that it’ll get easier with time, and practice. Don’t try too hard to make everything jolly, or just so. Be yourself. Be real.
And put in place regular arrangements for contact and do your damndest to honour them. It’s the best way of helping your kids (and your ex-) build up trust in the new arrangements. In time, new significant adults may enter your kid’s lives, as step-dads or step-mums. Follow the link to our Step-Parenting information in the Support Library. They may come to occupy an important place in your children’s lives. It will help if you and they can get on and respect each other’s relative roles and positions. But remember, your children will only ever have one father, one mother. Honour your own role in the way you conduct yourself as a parent and remember, even when there is no separation or divorce, most parents spend far more of their lives living apart from their children than with them. Parenting survives and goes on, long after separation.