As a mother who separated with young children, I totally get how challenging it is for mothers to come to terms with and accept the realities of co-parenting.
The challenge of acceptance is even more difficult when with the full support of the father, they have been a stay at home mother to the detriment of their own career, or they feel the breakup has been thrust upon them by their partner.
Now, if you follow my blogs and Facebook page you will know that I am a firm believer that there are three sides to every story; yours, theirs and the truth so I am not going to deal with how relationships come to end.
Nor am I going to debate the merit or otherwise of stay at home parenting as everyone's circumstances are different and there is no right or wrong approach. I can only comment in our case, because of the travel and overtime requirements of my ex-husband's high-pressure career, and the lack of a Visa for me to work in the country we were expats in, we decided that for the overall stability of our family, I would stay at home.
What happened over a 10 year period for me was that having abandoned my blossoming, well paid and rewarding career in IT, so much of my identity became wrapped up in what I was doing at home. I was by my husband's own admission doing a stellar job for the benefit of our whole family as the homemaker, on-call executive wife support and Director of All Domestic Operations, but especially so, as the mother and primary carer of our children.
I understand a newly separated mother's concerns about handing over the children for stays with their dad when they genuinely and very often with good reason, legitimately believe that they themselves, as the primary carer, are more adept at providing for the day-to-day needs of the children; perhaps they cook healthier meals, supervise risky play activities more closely, ensure all the weekly appointments are met or don't forget to reapply the sunscreen so the kids don't return from an outing burnt to a crisp. I remember having these concerns about sending my young boys off with their Dad for their weekly stays. The fear was real!
I appreciate that we both played a role in the demise of our relationship but when it ended, what I had difficulty in accepting was the immediate expectation that my role as stay at home carer should change to accommodate a desire for my husband to have the kids live with him at least a few days every week. I felt that in a time when we needed stability more than ever, I was better equipped to offer it and as his job specification had not changed, I didn't believe he would be able to parent as well as I would through this difficult time.
Whilst I appreciated that it was important for my ex-husband to spend time with the children, be involved and responsible for the decisions that we needed to make for them and to actively co-parent, what it really came down to was that I just wasn't ready to let go of my own identity so quickly. These are feelings shared by many mums in the early months of separation.
It turned out, on all four counts listed above, my concerns were justified. Both my boys have scars under their chins from accidents that I honestly do not believe would have happened on my watch, they were late or completely missed events and appointments, they ate more Macca's than anyone ever should and they came home sunburnt more than once.
I have real empathy through lived experience for mothers who have to come to terms, and quickly for the sake of their children, with the realities of co-parenting.
That said, something I come across often in my dealings with separating families that really troubles me is manipulative mothers who alienate children from their father.
I'm not talking about hardcore Mum's who take their child away never to be seen again or women who have serious and well-founded concerns about domestic violence, I mean every day loving, caring Mum's who just don't think the Dad is capable of looking after the child as well as they do, believe they have more of a right to parent because they are the mother, have always been the primary carer and so refuse to properly share care with the father.
They do it subtly, sometimes genuinely believing they are doing what is best for their child (albeit solely from their own perspective) and often in blatant breach of Parenting Orders by:
- running extraordinarily late at drop off and collection times
- being out when Dad arrives to collect the kids
- not relaying plans, gifts, messages from Dad to the children
- telling Dad the kids are too unwell to spend time or stay with Dad
- speaking ill of the father in front of the children
- organising events and appointments for the children during the time scheduled for spending time with Dad
- not allowing Dad to be introduced the child's friends or those children's parents so as to avoid normalising socialising time when with Dad
- not packing the appropriate gear for the child's activities thereby forcing either the child to go without and blame Dad or Dad to buy new supplies
- not letting the Dad know of upcoming events that he is invited to attend, and
- letting calls and text messages go unanswered.
I am sure there are single dads who will recognise these tactics and could add many more - please feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments below.
Did I do any of these things all those years ago? Yes, I did, not to any great degree but we are all human and I particularly recall regretting some of the words that came out of my mouth the moment they crossed my lips.
Was it right and in the best interests of my children? No, it was not.
Just as there are Dad's reading and nodding their heads, I know there will be mothers shaking theirs because I can also see the point of many of the mothers I talk to who hold on to the reins too tightly.
There are single dads say they want the shared care but are slow to adapt; those who need to step up to the plate and change their priorities.
When they say they will be picking up the kids at a certain time, that's what they need to do, regardless of whether or not the game went into extra time. When they know they have the kids coming, they should make sure they have good food options in the house. Take away is fine but kids also love it when some effort goes into a simple spag bol at home and a bit of fruit never goes astray. And no, it's not Mum's job to make sure the kids have all the right kit for a trip to the beach. As a parent, fathers are equally responsible for ensuring that all the mundane and thankless tasks that go into raising young children are attended to, like packing the sunscreen and a water bottle.
A short time ago, I spent some time chatting with a newly single dad and it was fascinating and sad to watch over the course of a weekend as so much of the above played out.
He had travelled from interstate. It was not his first visit. The mother relocated with the child, without warning or permission, over a year ago. That isn't the way things should have been done and after spending in excess of $10000 in legal fees, he is not seeking a recovery order, has dropped all legal action and is resigned to letting Mum call the shots in order to keep the peace in order to maintain contact with his daughter. He spends daytime visits with her but he is still denied overnight stays because the mother says "the daughter is not ready for it".
He bemoaned the fact that firstly the mother had planned an ice-skating play date on the morning he arrived which he was only informed about and instructed not to attend by text upon landing. Mum then turned up 2 hours later than the rescheduled drop off time and had 'forgotten' to pack a swimming costume. Last time he was here, the little girl (7 years old), had taken a swim in our pool in her undies and the mother had accused the dad of being a pervert. So it was no swimming at home and off to the shops to get some bathers before a visit to the beach. When they returned several hours later, the little girl was woefully sunburnt. She'd only eaten and ice cream all day and the soles of her feet were sore as she hadn't wanted to put her shoes on for the walk back across the dunes.
In reality, the novice approach to day to day parenting of my boy's Dad in the early days didn't actually harm the kids. It may even have added to their resilience and things gradually improved as everyone became more used to the new realities. The chances are, the dishevelled approach of two parents at odds has probably not left lasting scars on our 7-year-old guest but I can assure you that both parents were frustrated and annoyed with each other and it did not make for a pleasant pick up at the end of the day for that little girl or debriefing session for us that evening.
When I coach newly separated parents, I try to encourage Dad's to appreciate how difficult it is for Mum's to let go and to help Mum's realise that although the food may not be as nourishing as what they may have prepared themselves, the extra time the child spends with their father will be and they just have to let go of the reins a little for the sake of their child.
I have often thought of writing a "How to be a Mum" manual for separated Dads, of course, it would have to have a freestyling section in it for the Mum's to compete with their own instructions as no woman who identifies so strongly with the role of 'Mother' is ever going to believe that a book of instruction will be sufficient to ensure her children are cared for to her standards.
Anyway, I digress. The preamble started as a few short sentences to introduce this blog article which appeared on a UK website which struck a nerve with me.
I do not know what the answer is but I dearly wish I could find a way to help parents to avoid these long drawn out court cases that result in a poor ongoing relationship between the parents, Orders which are subsequently ignored and ulimately a bad outcome for the child.
Whilst the case outlined below was heard in England, I it shares far too many parallels with the current system in Australia.
“This afternoon, a wholly deserving and tearful father has asked the court for permission to withdraw his application to enable him to spend time with his son. It is poignant that that application comes before me just six days before Christmas.”
So begins the short judgment of His Honour Judge Bellamy in the case Re J (A Child – Intractable Contact). The case is a story of frustration and failure: the frustration of a father who should have had contact with his son despite the best efforts of the mother to thwart him, and failure of the family justice system to ensure, both for his sake and the sake of the child, that he did have such contact.
As I said, the judgment is short, so we don’t have very many details of the case. However, we do know:
- That the parents began a relationship in 2010.
- That the child, ‘J’, was born in December of that year.
- That the parents separated in January 2011, J remaining with his mother.
- That “J has been at the centre of an intractable, high conflict dispute between his parents since he was 3 months old.”
- That the mother alleged that the father had physically and sexually abused J. These allegations were considered by Judge Bellamy at a fact-finding hearing in 2015. At the end of the hearing, he concluded that the mother had not satisfied him that any of her allegations were true. On the contrary, he found that the mother had emotionally abused J. He made this finding having regard in particular to the frequency of the mother’s interrogations of J, to her video and audio recording of J and to her past unilateral decisions to withhold contact on a whim.
- A hearing took place in September 2016, at which the parents did agree that J should see his father. A contact order was made, including an agreed provision for the father to have alternate weekend staying contact with J from Friday until Sunday.
- The contact got off to a bad start (we are given no details), as a result of which the mother applied to vary the order. The father made a cross-application to enforce it.
- At a hearing in November 2016 the father made an application to the court to withdraw the proceedings. Judge Bellamy did not think that this would be in J’s best interests, and therefore refused the application.
- The father renewed his application for leave to withdraw the proceedings, and this application went before Judge Bellamy last December. The father was not represented.
It is important to understand the father’s reasons for his application. These were explained by Judge Bellamy:
“The father’s position today, as I have already indicated, is that he still wishes to withdraw his application. He takes that position not because he does not love his son – indeed, I am in absolutely no doubt that he loves J a great deal – or that he has lost interest in this litigation. These proceedings are emotionally distressing for the father. He is immensely frustrated that, as he would see it, this mother has deliberately flouted orders made by this court and the court has appeared powerless to do anything about it. As he rightly points out, two years ago the court made a clear finding that J’s mother has emotionally abused J, yet the court has not been able to deliver an outcome that helps J to recover from that abuse or prevent that abuse from continuing into the future.”
“From the father’s perspective, continuation of these proceedings may well do more harm than good so far as J is concerned. After seven continuous years of litigation – litigation which has singularly failed to enable him to have a meaningful relationship with his son – it is time to give up the fight and, although he does not put it in these emotive terms, to admit defeat.”
Judge Bellamy concluded:
“I am acutely conscious of the fact that, in allowing this father’s application to withdraw these proceedings, I am taking a step which may not be in the best long-term interests of this little boy. However, with both misgivings and regret, I accept that it is appropriate to accede to the father’s request to withdraw his application.”
The case will no doubt be seen by some as a damning indictment of the family justice system, which clearly failed this father (who, as Judge Bellamy pointed out, had done more than many fathers would do to try to establish a positive relationship with his son) and, more importantly, failed this child.
The question, of course, is: what else could have been done?
Whatever, the case is a tragedy for father and son alike.
The full report of the case can be found here.