Do men become better fathers after divorce?

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A few years ago I had an awfully uncomfortable conversation with my bloke.  At the time he was travelling for weeks on end and working insane hours when he was in town. Feeling frustrated and a touch crushed by what felt like almost sole responsibility for our kids, I blurted out that my life would be easier if we split.

He was white faced until I explained what I meant. I knew that if we did break up he would want shared care of the children.  So, it had occurred to me that while I’d be devastated by divorce, I’d have more time to work, more time to myself and more time for my friends. I wasn’t threatening him but it certainly got a reaction and helped focus his mind on family time.  

All around me I see many dads step up to the role of child rearing when it’s all too late.  Couples break up and understandably many fathers can’t cope with the thought of only seeing their children every second weekend.  They argue for and often achieve shared care with weeknights included.  Not surprisingly, they then find to achieve this they have to cut back on work hours, or work more flexibly.  Suddenly they are at the school gate, at sports training, helping with homework.  It’s in some ways fantastic but in others frustrating.  I’ve had many women tell me that after divorce their ex ‘finally became the father I always wanted him to be’. I can understand these women when they express fury, tears and gratitude - often all at once.

In 2006, in response to lobbying by men’s groups and in response to the changing roles of parents, John Howard’s government introduced the ‘Shared Parental Responsibility Act’.  The change to family law included the introduction of a presumption in favour of ‘equal shared parental responsibility’. It aimed to encourage shared care where ever practical and in a child’s best interests.  Shared care is defined as the child spending 35 to 65% of nights with each parent - in most cases this means 4 nights with one partner, 3 with the other, alternating weekends.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies has studied separated families and found equal time is increasingly common.  It’s most commonly experienced when children are aged 5-11 and 12-14.  

While shared care may be on the rise and divorced dads are lifting their game, we’re also getting a clearer understanding of its shortcomings.  Research has shown it’s stressful for babies (thankfully it is rare for those aged under 3). Yet the greatest concern is that shared care is increasing amongst parents who end up in the Family Court. Because of their intractable conflict, these parents aren’t as good at managing the complex negotiations and interactions needed for shared care to work.  Former Family Court Judge Richard Chisholm and child psychologist Jennifer McIntosh found a significant proportion of such proceedings occurred in an atmosphere that placed psychological strain on a child.  A former Chief Justice of the Family Court, Alastair Nicholson has warned this shared parenting approach is not child oriented; a huge concern shared by many.  When there is any concern at all about child safety, shared care is particularly problematic. 

There’s also concern some fathers are seeking more time with children to reduce their child support payments.  Child support assessment takes note of the percentage of care a parent is likely to have.  There’s valid concern that separated mothers are receiving less of the family property than pre-2006, worsening their more disadvantaged financial position. I’ve seen this happen.  Considering many shared care arrangements flounder after a couple of years, this seems particularly unfair.

Yet where parents are co-operating and friendly, when finance is fair, then shared care can offer great opportunities for children and parents.

The vast majority of divorcing parents organise arrangements without the court system.  The National Council for Children Post-Separation believes that children benefit greatly from two separated, engaged parents that manage to put their own issues aside and focus on the best interests of the child. Women can find themselves able to resume stalled careers.  Men can become better skilled, more available and more involved fathers.  They model a fairer form of parenting to their sons and daughters who grow up to expect equal care in partnerships.

I am not saying divorce is a picnic.  I know it’s painful and can involve terrible grief and loss for all involved.  Some women mourn the loss of their children for a couple of nights a week; and find themselves bereft and bemoaning the unfairness of an all too late conversion to child care by an ex.  Yet when the grief settles, many see an opportunity to be able to realise other plans.  There’s loss for fathers too.  And opportunity.  Thomas Matlock wrote in a New York Times blog this year ‘Divorce was the worst thing that ever happened to me. But it was also the best thing for me as a father.’

Of course, at the end of the day, it would be better if fathers could undertake shared care within the relationship.  I’d urge men not to wait till it’s all over to step up to the plate. Increase the care for kids in the relationship if you can.  Who knows, it might even save your marriage.

111 comments

  • Great article. Fathers who work full time should impose a mandatory 2 days of solo parenting for themselves per month to keep in touch with the bloody difficult daily job of their wives. It seems to me that full time working Fathers often over value their contribution to the family based solely on the financial rewards of their paid work - which they would be doing whether they had kids or not. Because they are the only money earner, they unduly inflate the value of their contribution, ignoring the effort metric that is the Mothers currency of contribution. 2 days of solo parenting would remind Fathers of the value of that effort and equalise many a perception of superiority.

    Commenter
    Rachael
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    March 12, 2013, 9:16AM
    • blah blah blah. Get off your back-slapping, self-congratulatory high horse. Looking after my 4 daughters (all under 10) and maintaining the house far easier than my regular job, which is very physical and outdoors - rain, hail or shine. My time is split 3 days at home (solo) and 4 days at work. After 6 years of doing this I can say that being at home is far easier and more rewarding. If you had ever done any type of physical work you would understand.

      Commenter
      Dirk
      Location
      relaxing at home
      Date and time
      March 12, 2013, 11:09AM
    • I've done the house work for up to 3 weeks when my wife has gone overseas. It's not too difficult, we've got only one kid though. I don't do it to the same standard that she does, but she doesn't have a unilateral right to decide the housework standard in our home.

      I disagree with your claim that he men would be doing the same job regardless of family and children. All the men that have worked for me over the years have worker more hours and wanted higher pay after having children. The single men and women who I know work fewer hours and under much less pressure than family men. Bringing up children is expensive and hard work, not bringing up children is cheaper and easier.

      Commenter
      JohnA
      Date and time
      March 12, 2013, 12:59PM
    • I work full time and i parent full time. My wife has exercise classes in the evening so i get home in time to feed, bathe and put our nearly two year old to bed. then i make the missus dinner (cause she ain't no cook...)

      Being bitter about working fathers seems a bit pointless. Perhaps communicating expectation to them about their involvement might have prevented this?
      Dunno but the " effort metric that is the Mothers currency of contribution" sounds like shrill propaganda.

      Commenter
      SamDavisJr
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 12, 2013, 1:51PM
    • Hear hear Dirk!

      Commenter
      Four of my own
      Date and time
      March 12, 2013, 1:56PM
    • Ah shaming men into doing more.
      I thought we had established that the practice of shaming was wrong.
      Many men out there working with stay at home partners I am sure would gladly take more time with ( and seriously want it) if they were not constantly ridiculed over everything they do around them. only recently on here endless women voiced there own concerns about males and predatory behaviour around children in playgrounds etc. So how do we " allow" men more access without divorce.
      Personally Sarah I would been deeply insulted to be spoken to like that

      Commenter
      david
      Date and time
      March 12, 2013, 2:09PM
    • I agree with @Dirk

      Staying home and looking after kids and the house is so much easier than my job, and it was an office job so not even physical or outdoors. But I find cooking and cleaning and organising the household fun so maybe I'm weird.

      Commenter
      T
      Date and time
      March 12, 2013, 2:18PM
    • @ Dirk Crap! If looking after 4 daughters is easier than paid work, you arn't doing it right.
      @ John A Wanting to work longer hours suggests to me they are avoiding the juggle going on at home. Although Im coming from a corporate perspective and I suspect you are talking labour jobs paid by the hour.

      Commenter
      Rachael
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 12, 2013, 2:18PM
    • Oh quit complaining Rachel! Like Dirk I look after four children under ten and its nowhere near as hard as having to go to work. Dealing with four kids is easier than the hundreds I would have to deal with at work. The kids can and do entertain themselves when I am busy. The dogs follow me around more than my kids.

      Commenter
      The masses
      Date and time
      March 12, 2013, 2:36PM
    • Rachel says; If looking after 4 daughters is easier than paid work, you arn't (sic) doing it right.

      According to who Rachel? Put your money where you mouth is and provide some evidence.

      Commenter
      Once in a while
      Date and time
      March 12, 2013, 3:04PM

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