One of insideMAN's readers recently got in touch to tell us how he worked with a mother whose commitment to 50:50 post-separation parenting with her former husband was both moving and inspiring. So much so in fact, that he decided to write her an imaginary letter, setting down how much he admired her dignity and conscientiousness in standing against the formal systems and informal pressures that in his experience invite and expect mothers to act very differently. Here it is.
First, I'm truly sorry for your children in the situation they find themselves. And I'm truly sorry for both of you as parents and as human beings. No matter how right in conscience the decision to separate, the path ahead is never easy.
That's why I respect and admire you both for making the commitment to sharing equally the parenting of your children – genuinely putting them first.
In some other countries in Europe you would not have had a decision to make. Where 50:50 shared parenting is the default position the parents can go on to discuss the finer details that suit not only their children at their age and stage of development but also allow both parents to continue the careers that give them their self-respect and financial stability.
That approach makes sense. The children who probably didn't really want their parents to separate in the first place are spared the distress of finding themselves the prize in a tug of war.
Wealth of research
It isn't like that in the UK. Here, Linda, you had to opt in to doing the right thing and I admire you for doing it. That's why this letter is addressed principally to you.
Of course many parents like you and your husband do behave well even while they work through the traumas of separation. There is a wealth of research that confirms that in general children whose parents live apart, but are both equally and fully involved in their child’s lives and have equal public recognition, do better in measures of educational attainment and personal well-being than children who live primarily or exclusively with one parent.
A recent study in Denmark and Sweden showed that shared parenting is not only better for the children but also for BOTH parents.
Only last month the Ministry of Justice published a large scale “Analysis of the Millennium Cohort Study, exploring child outcomes after parental separation” which found similar patterns of experience for children in the UK.
'Unhelpful disincentives and perverse incentives'
But despite such positive evidence the default position in the UK remains that when parents separate that one - usually the mother - will become regarded as the principal carer and the other - usually the father - will be secondary. The terminology has changed over the years but the reality has remained the same.
There are unhelpful disincentives within the UK to genuine shared parenting and perverse incentives for separated parents to compete for time with their own kids.
The disincentive is that the Department for Work and Pensions and HM Revenue & Customs want there to be one main parent who will get the child benefit and the child tax credit and child support. It can cost one parent and probably both hard cash to share parenting.
The incentive is the moral zero-sum game that sucks in parents if they can't agree on sharing time with the children they both love. They are invited by the law as it stands to disparage each other's character and parenting capacity in the name of the children's best interests. Children's best interests are rarely served by encouraging their parents, already usually hurting and often angry at their estrangement, to deride each other further.
'Not a level playing field for dads'
It's not a level playing field. I spend a great deal of time helping non-resident fathers cope with discovering that they now have to prove their worth as human beings to continue to do the things with their children that were regarded as normal parenting without a second thought up to the date of separation.
They are shocked and diminished as individuals when their legal advisers tell them not to ask for too much time with their kids in case a judge decides they are being confrontational or impractical or ideological. They'll be told – accurately – that some judges here have a visceral dislike of even the phrase “shared parenting”.
Even as weekend dads (with maybe a midweek meeting with their kids) they will have to explain themselves over and again to their children's school or GP and brave the isolation of the school gate mothers' meeting. They hear politicians who should and do know better talking about “lone mothers” and “absent fathers” when they are doing their damndest to be as present as possible. I am lost in admiration at the effort so many make and the humiliations so many swallow just to stay in their kids' life.
And that, Linda, is why I admire you for what you are doing. I know it is not easy for you.
Sharing the parenting equally will be good for the kids in the long term but hurts like hell for the parents. Like so many non-resident parents, I have no doubt you also feel the sense of bereavement when you hand your kids over for their time with their father while you return to your home still ringing with the echo of their voices, picking up their bits and pieces that have to be put away til next time. He will feel the same when it's their time with you.
And, like your husband, when they are with you will overthink the things you do with them that previously didn't require thought at all. They came naturally.
You will wonder if you are doing the right thing and whether the hurt is worth it. Please believe me, Linda, you are and it is.