This morning, the Telegraph appears to be heralding a whole new world of possibilities in the post separation landscape. Sceptics will say that they will believe it when they see it, but if the Telegraph is to be believed, it appears that this government is about to ignore Norgrove and install the concept that a child should have a meaningful relationship with both parents into our collective consciousness and perhaps even our legislation. The dropping of the recommendation from the Norgrove Report on the Family Law Review, ignited the anger of fathers rights groups up and down the land and prompted threats of escalating action from F4J. The news that the principle that a child should have a meaningful relationship with both parents after separation is not, after all, going to be lost, should bring welcome relief to many as it represents a huge step forward in terms of equalities in the field of family separation. What happens now, in terms of how the principle is enacted, in the family courts, in our social services and most of all in the lives of families, is going to be critical. Now is not the time for banging the triumphant drum. Now is the time for all of us working with separated families and experiencing family separation ourselves, to work out how to build a new future for our children.
Many will consider that this principle is the starting point for a whole raft of changes that will rebalance the power dynamic between mothers and fathers after separation. Rebalancing the power dynamic, should mean that both parents are enabled to have meaningful input into their children’s lives. It should also mean that mothers and fathers are enabled to work together to make choices and decisions about the things that matter in their children’s lives. The kind of input that has been denied to many parents (usually fathers) for far too long.
My view is that this is indeed a first step towards a greater potential for collaboration and co-operation. It is also a first step towards greater liberation for mothers from the confines of the role of primary carer. I have long considered the feminist project of burdening mothers with the role of carer to be suspect. My understanding of second wave feminism, before it was hijacked by the liberal feminists, was that liberation from the strait jacket of strictly divided gender roles, was a major driver in the fight for equality. Somewhere along the road, the notion that women should be the primary carer for children and liberated from the need for men in either their own or their children’s lives, took over. A grave mistake in my opinion and one that has lead to generations of boys and girls who have grown up without the internalised experience of mothering and fathering in relationship to each other. Little wonder our girls grow up believing their primary role is to care for children and our boys grow up experiencing themselves as dispensable as fathers.
At last, however, someone is listening and not only hearing but acting upon what is being said. Iain Duncan Smith and Nick Clegg are both cited in the Telegraph as wanting to reinstate the concept of a child’s right to a meaningful relationship, whilst others in the government are hard at work building the infrastructure that could bring the concept to life. Times are, indeed, changing and there is a real opportunity now to consider the way in which we can, together, successfully enshrine children’s meaningful relationships with both of their parents within our culture, so that whenever a family faces breakdown, the first question parents deal with together, is how will we make sure our children continue to have a relationship with both of us that matters and makes a difference.
Easier said than done I would argue. Having experienced it myself, and having worked in the field for two decades, I can testify that family separation brings with it a tsunami of feeling that can be about as toxic a human emotion as it is possible to experience. Mix up the sense of hurt, betrayal and sheer injustice, with grief, loss and fear that comes with family change and you are dealing with human time bombs. Unfortunately, for too many families, the catalyst for the point of catastrophic explosion is relationships with children. As the pain of separation becomes too great to bear, mothers and fathers become vulnerable to transferring their feelings about each other to their children and chaos erupts. In the midst of this, people working with these families are faced with allegation and counter allegation. Sorting out a way forward ends up, for too many families, with the idea that children are better off out of the conflict, which effectively means without a relationship with one of their parents. Because our cultural narrative remains sharply gendered (good women are caring and nurturing, good men are out working and supporting their families), the outcomes are, inevitably, that children lose their relationship with their father.
But a different way forward is possible and I firmly believe that we have the building blocks for this already available. Getting the starting point right is setting out the concept that children have the right to a meaningful relationship with both of their parents. The next steps are about setting out, to parents and those who work with them, what this means, what a meaningful relationship looks like and how to get there from the toxic place of pain and suffering that is experienced at the point of separation.
A meaningful relationship is more than an after school visit for tea once a week and it is more than a visit to dad’s every other weekend. Meaningful relationships are not about visiting anyone, anywhere, at any time. Meaningful relationships are about the warmth and closeness and safety and security that children have once enjoyed with a parent and about finding ways of continuing that. For some children, those who were not able to be close to one parent before the separation, perhaps because of work commitments or a separation early in the child’s life, meaningful relationships are about the opportunity to get to know a child, develop that relationship and maintain it. All of this requires commitment from both parents, commitment to the importance of mother and father and commitment to ensuring that despite adult differences, a child’s relationship with their other parent will be respected.
For many years the notion that mother is the only important parent in a child’s life has held sway. The reality is that in the early days, it may well require mum to do more of the primary caring. As children grow, however, they naturally begin to separate from their mother and their relationship with their father has more meaning. Different children at different times in their lives will grow closer or more distant from one parent or the other. Helping separated parents to understand this is one of the key strategies for building the skills for parenting apart. Helping parents to understand that their roles can be flexible and interchangeable is another step forward. Successful separated parenting depends upon both mother and father being able to understand the concept that the key thing a child needs is consistency and reliability. If changeover from mum to dad happens at the same time each week so that it becomes a predictable event in a child’s life, it is absolutely possible for parents to share care. If however, time spent with one parent or the other is erratic and subject to change too often, children find it difficult to make those transitions. A meaningful relationship with both parents requires equality of commitment to being there for a child as well as equality of opportunity to be involved.
Those of us working with separated families need to understand how to support a meaningful relationship between children and both of their parents, something that many practitioners that I work with, seem to struggle with. Hardly surprising when dad is waving his Contact Order around and demanding that the child be delivered to him at a particular time each week. My starting point in working with meaningful relationships is to help practitioners to understand that the dad waving his contact order around in an angry manner is a disempowered dad, one who is very afraid that he is going to lose his relationship with his children entirely if he does not enforce his ‘contact rights’. Building empathic understanding of angry parents, helps practitioners to engage with parents in a meaningful way, by walking in their shoes, practitioners can start to understand what a parent experiences when the family falls apart. This therapeutic approach to supporting parents, means that the pain and the suffering is heard and heard well. Acknowledging the blocks and the barriers to co-operation that parents face also ensures that the toxic feelings are ventilated and spent. If a parent is telling the story and processing the pain, they are less likely to be storing up the tension and the risk of emotional explosion is reduced. This approach is more than mediation, the sticking plaster that is often seen as a cure all. Mediation can work, where the mediator really cares and really understands. But if we are going to help parents to ensure that their children have meaningful relationships with both of their parents, its going to take more than mediation to make it work.
I am however optimistic about the possibilities. Surveying the landscape, I can see some real changes ahead of us, changes that will make it possible for us all to work together to bring about a different future for the next generations of children. If the report in the Telegraph is accurate, then the government has taken a brave and incredibly sensible step in ensuring that the concept of meaningful relationships between children and both of their parents is not lost. It is incumbent now, upon all of us, men and women alike, to ensure that the balance is brought back into our children’s lives in a respectful, committed and, most of all, meaningful way.