The secret of a happy divorce

You've lost the wife, but do you have to lose the children as well? There may be an alternative for weekend fathers.
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The Independent Culture
Six years ago, when my partner of 13 years wisely decided that her future lay with someone else, we engaged in negotiations over how the components of our lives should be divided up: I would stay in the house, she would be reimbursed for half the equity; I would keep the television, she would have the fridge. And then there were the children.

There were three of them: an eight-year-old girl and two boys, one aged three and the other 18 months. Neither of us could contemplate life without their everyday presence, and, although I recall arguing that it would be best if they stayed with me in our big, scruffy east London terraced house, I suppose it was a relief that, from the beginning, the children spent three or four days of most weeks with me and the remainder with their mother under the roof of her new companion.

Not having the children around the house every day gave me more of one of the things lone parents treasure most: time. Time to catch up with the shopping, washing and cleaning, time to sit down and think. Mostly, I thought about how to keep paying the joint mortgage on my income alone. Soon I took refuge in the numb survival mentality of what I now call my Gloria Gaynor period.

My great compensation, though, was that I hadn't lost the kids. True, I didn't see them every day. But they were with me for roughly half of every week, so I still took and fetched them from school, nursery and childminder, still cooked for them and ate with them, still read and (poor lambs) sang to them.

In other words, even though the children were no longer daily residents, they remained integral to my daily life, to the ordinary business of ordinary days, in marked contrast to how things might have been had I become a "weekend parent". So often such fathers - and, sometimes, mothers - find it difficult to make their children feel anything more than special house guests - whose emotional needs are far harder to meet precisely because they can no longer think of dad's home as being their home, too.

I've no doubt that the children feel much the same about my ex-partner's home as they do about mine - it is, without qualification, their home too. Consequently, the three of them - now aged 14, nine and seven - do not see themselves as living in one home, but in two. Without planning it or putting a name to it my ex-partner and I have been practising what is known as "shared parenting" - a practice which, I believe, can often offer the best way of mitigating the damage done to children by a family breakdown.

"Shared parenting" can be a confusing term. The same two words are often used to describe an intact couple who look after their children scrupulously equally. But, in this context, shared parenting means any post-separation arrangement under which children spend a minimum of about 30 per cent of their time living in the home of each parent.

Things eventually settled into a formal cycle, which still operates today. The children spend alternating stretches of three days in each of their two homes. The six weeks of summer are divided into two blocks so that the children can go on holiday with both parents. Christmas Day is cut in half, the kids waking up in one home in the morning and having Christmas lunch and evening with the other parent. In the event of some special event peculiar to one household falling on a day when the children are scheduled to be in the "wrong" house, there is enough flexibility in the system to "borrow" a day on the understanding that it is "repaid" later.

I don't deny that our system has its drawbacks. Yet I'm convinced that shared parenting has provided my children with the best resolution to their situation that circumstances allowed.

Of course, they sometimes get tired of shuttling to and fro. Furthermore, managing their needs has been made more difficult by the complete breakdown in relations between their mother and me. The fact that the arrangement seems successful despite this is a strong recommendation for it. The children, I am sure, could not countenance any set-up that relegated either parent to the margins of their lives, something that occurs all too easily with most families that fall apart.

In some places, notably California, shared parenting arrangements are far more common than here and are much more likely to be sanctioned through the courts as a creative alternative to the standard "residence- plus-contact" formula. American researchers have found that adolescents after divorce who live in shared parenting arrangements scored higher than those not in such arrangements in every category of emotional and psychological development. In their conclusions the researchers stressed that parents should avoid criticising ex-partners in front of the children or doing things that undermined the other partner's importance or authority. Attempts to change children's schools or alter their surnames without prior agreement can be particularly damaging. Yet the researchers also found that the adolescents' sense of belonging to both their parents equally seems to spare them the worst of the wrenching conflicts of loyalty when disagreements are too fundamental to rise above or conceal.

My own experience supports all these findings. However, my greatest difficulty with shared parenting came right at the beginning. Having to broaden my repertoire of parenting skills was tough - but the really difficult thing was lack of money and the anxiety that went with it. For parted parents who run a household on a single income, it is often financially impossible to own a property that is big enough for children to have their own bedrooms.

Notwithstanding such obstacles, shared parenting may be an idea whose time has come. Through it, I have not only gone on loving my three eldest children but gone on knowing them too.

Dave Hill will be speaking at the Association for Shared Parenting conference being held tomorrow at Birkbeck College, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1