17 November 2009
It's too easy to blame dads
When separated families fall out of touch, it's easy to find fault with others. But there is plenty all parties can do.
By Suzie Hayman
When my stepson, Alex, was a child, he lived in Birmingham, and his father and I lived in London. My husband used to scour the capital every weekend for postcards - from museums, galleries, anywhere to send to him. For several years, almost very day, he'd compose some awful bit of doggerel about the picture and send it off - a way of saying "I may not be seeing you today but I'm thinking about you." Alex now has a child of his own; and a box on a shelf that contains every single one of those postcards.
When he fetched the box out last Christmas - postcard after postcard keeping the link - we were reminded how important it was to keep that contact. Adults may be able to hold on to a relationship many miles and many days apart, but it's far harder for children. They need their parents to be there for them.
This kind of regular contact between separated families seems to be getting harder to maintain. Most parents will say that their child's welfare is their main priority during a separation, but according to a new study of more than 4,000 people by the law firm Mishcon de Reya, more than a third of children lose touch with their father after their parents separate.
Whether it's a third who lose touch permanently, or the more frequently quoted 50 per cent (from a 1996 study) who stop contact in the first two years, clearly it's far more than it should be. But what makes keeping in touch so difficult?
One answer could be suggested by a finding of the Mishcon de Reya report - one in five divorcing spouses admitted to having the primary objective of making the experience as unpleasant as possible for his or her former partner.
Mothers may demand money and refuse contact if it's not enough; fathers may retaliate by playing fast and loose, changing arrangements at the last moment. It causes stress, anxiety and rage. And with their eyes on the "enemy", what both often forget is that the person who suffers most is the child, who is often used as an "emotional football", according to the study, feeling "used, isolated and alone".
There are two theories that might explain what happens even to those fathers who want to keep contact with their children. When Dan divorced from Louise, he swore that he'd never lose touch with his eight-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son. Three years on, he never calls, he never sees them. Mention children and his fists curl, his teeth grit and he changes the subject, fast.
His is a classic example of the discontinuity hypothesis, which suggests that fathers who have been highly involved with their children are more likely to become disengaged because of the pain of separation. Every time they see their child, knowing that at the end of the day or weekend they have to hand them back, they feel misery, hurt and guilt.
Children often act out their distress so that bad behaviour before, during or after time spent together places particular strain around the whole issue of contact. Both parents may come to believe that limiting or stopping meetings altogether will clear up the distress.
"It just got too much," says Dan. "Every time I saw him, I wanted to cry. Every time he stayed the visit would end in tantrums and tears - for both of us, frankly. I'd take him back and she'd look at me with such disgust as if to say, 'What are you doing to our boy?' So one day, I just stopped. But there's not a day when I don't think about him."
Other fathers duck out because the discomfort becomes too much for them to bear - they may rationalise it as doing the best for the child, but it may be their own anguish that drives them.
The continuity hypothesis suggests that post-divorce relationships correlate to pre-divorce contact. A father who, prior to divorce focused most of his attention on work, friends or his own interests, may find it hard to continue any relationship. This type of father often loves his children and wants to stay in touch, but what encouraged him to relate to them was always the child's mother. With her now fighting against him, he will be put off.
Bob is typical of some of the fathers who have come to see me in my capacity as a relationship counsellor. "I never knew what I had till I lost it," he says. "I used to make excuses not to have to play with him. Now I'd give anything to see him - I don't know, it's just too much arguing every time I try."
The results can be dramatic and far-reaching. Children of messy divorces can exhibit a range of psychological and behavioural problems in childhood and beyond, from bed-wetting and tantrums to truancy, risk-taking, premature sexual behaviour, pregnancy, and even criminal behaviour, that can be traced back to the trauma of losing their family, losing a parent and not having a father figure around.
Look into the background of any "out of control" child, teenager or adult and it's a betting certainty that somewhere, sometime, loss and rejection form part of the picture. Children need their fathers; fathers need their children. How, as a society, are we going to turn the tide on the loss so many of our families suffer?
A good beginning would be to go one step farther than the Children Act that 20 years ago tried to put the needs of children at the centre of divorce proceedings. The act moved court proceedings from being a fight for "custody" of children, as if they were belongings to be fought over and won, to residence and contact. The presumption was that the child's right to contact with both parents was the vital issue.
But there is still an assumption that children live with one parent - usually the mother - and 'visit' another, usually the father. What we should now do is to make an assumption that children have two parents and that both are full-time parents, even when children do not spend 100 per cent of the time with each. There needs to be an understanding, for instance, that children should be able to be in contact with both and either parent whenever they choose, by mail, through mobiles, or email if necessary.
When parents are at loggerheads, there should be much more done to sustain the interests of the father and child. When a mother turns her child against the father, when a mother refuses to comply with a court order on contact, nothing is done because it is felt sanctions against her would not be in the interests of the child. But is the situation as it stands in that child's interests? We pay only lip service to the rights of a child to have contact with a father and we need to do better.
When parents part, the courts prefer them to settle their differences and make arrangements between themselves, only calling upon the legal process in extremis. But there is no requirement for parents to access any of the excellent help and support that would make it so much easier to manage co-parenting apart.
If parents were expected, encouraged or even required to go to mediation or counselling, they could settle the unfinished business of their rage and pain, put it aside and get on with bringing up their children in partnership, though no longer partners. More people need to be made aware of Parenting Plans - a guide for separating parents published by the Department of Children, Schools and Families that covers everything from day-to-day arrangements to holidays.
We also need to put money into doing so much better for children. Increasingly, schools are inviting Relate and other counsellors in to talk to children and offer confidential consultations. But it's still a postcode lottery - not all local authorities make funding available, and not all schools use it. It should be a given that all children have somewhere to go to speak to an objective professional with their needs in mind.
Overhauling the way we deal with parenting, with divorce, with separated families would have significant effects on the lives of so many families. It might cost millions, but what it would save in emotional terms is priceless.
And in Britain particularly, it's much needed. The 2007 UNICEF report A Review of Child Well-Being in Rich Countries makes sobering reading. It looked at a range of indicators to measure wellbeing among children and young people, including healthy living, risky behaviour and relationships with family and friends. Out of 21 countries, the UK's average ranking was 18. In quite a few important indices, we came 21st. Can we afford to go on accepting that a third of children lose their fathers?
What dads can do
- Keep in daily contact with your child: texts, cards, emails, Facebook, Twitter - use anything that keeps you communicating.
- Get help and support from family, friends and charities such as the Fatherhood Institute, Parentline, Families Need Fathers and the Centre for Separated Families.
- Negotiate, conciliate, mediate and communicate. While you may feel that your ex is behaving badly, your anger hurts your child most of all.
- Go to mediation or counselling. If your child's mother won't go too, then start without her.
- When you see your child, accept that it can be painful for both of you. Allow for some negative feelings and behaviour on both sides.
- Foster contact between your own parents and your children too.
- Don't allow living in another town or country from your children to make a difference. Use technology to stay in touch and meet them as often as possible.
- Lobby your MP for more money to be put into services for parents in conflict, before and after separation.
What mums can do
- He may no longer be your partner but he's still your child's parent. Put your feelings aside and help him to stay in contact.
- Encourage children to stay in touch with a non-resident dad. Whatever you think of him as a partner, he can still be an excellent dad.
- Never criticise your former partner, even if you think that your child can't hear you. Think of and refer to him as "my child's father" rather than "my ex".
- Ask for help from friends and family or call Parentline on 0808 800 2222 (Britain ONLY), open 24 hours a day.
- Use mediation or counselling to end your disagreement and decide on how to co-parent.
- Money and contact are different issues: refusing contact because of rows over finances hurts your child most.
- Don't forget grandparents - your parents and his. They can be a point of stability for children.
What children can do
- Accept that the split is not your fault. You are not to blame for your parents arguing or separating.
- Get some help to understand what is happening and feel better from websites such as itsnotyourfault.org
- Talk to someone - a friend, family member, teacher, counsellor or youth worker.
- Talk to both your parents, too. They may not have realised how much you know and how much it hurts - so trust them to want to help.
- Let the school know that you are having a tough time. They can help - and if it affects your schoolwork, they need to know.