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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.