It is Friday afternoon and Ned and Nancy Flaherty are being picked up from school by their mother, Kathleen. They look much like any other family. Nancy, 11, is chatting about swimming and Ned, 13, is complaining about homework. But this is the first time the kids have seen their mum since last weekend.
After their parents split up eight years ago, Ned and Nancy divide their time equally between them. They spend Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights with mum, weekdays are spent a mile away with their dad, Adrian, a 38-year-old teacher. Holidays are split down the middle and everyone gets together for birthdays. They have two homes, two bedrooms, two games consoles and two toothbrushes. Their cats Sooty and Abigail move between houses with them.
Kathleen Saxton, 37, who lives in Kent and runs a headhunting company, says: “When Adrian and I broke up we were determined to make it as easy for the children as possible. It was really important for us to both be involved in their lives, so we focused on putting the children first. It is amazing what emotional pain can be put aside. It’s worked well and the kids love having both of us as a big part of their lives.”
Kathleen and Adrian managed to see through the acrimony and bitterness that can characterise a break-up. Twenty years ago it was unthinkable that following a relationship breakdown, children would live anywhere other than with the mother. Typically, visits from dad would happen twice weekly and there was little room for manoeuvre, but these days residency – it is no longer called custody – is more fluid. Women’s increased economic clout and the recognition of fathers’ rights led to a change in society’s – and the judiciary’s – attitudes.
Conrad Webbe, from support group The Association of Shared Parenting, says: “Shared parenting is not necessarily about two homes. It’s about supporting the idea that a child has a right to contact with both parents after separation or divorce. To cut a child off from a parent alienates them from their grandparents and half their heritage. For a child to be a balanced adult they need a father and mother.”
Ned and Nancy agree. They could not conceive a life in which either parent did not play a full and varied role. Ned says: “I’m glad we don’t live with just one parent because it would give you a feeling that there is another part of you that isn’t in your life. I feel very lucky to have two houses and two parents.”
Nancy says: “I’m happy because I get to see both mummy and daddy and if I didn’t I would be homesick for them. It is fun having two bedrooms because you can have a different style in each room.”
One in three couples – about 250,000 adults – divorce or separate every year and 350,000 children are affected. A study by the law firm Mishcon de Reya found that a third of children whose parents had broken up over the last 20 years had sought solace in drugs, while 10 per cent felt suicidal or became involved in crime. More than a third of children lose touch with a parent after separation.
Conrad Webbe says: “Our experience shows that when parental issues are put to one side, a shared parenting arrangement works well and dramatically reduces the short- and long-term potentially damaging effects on the children of family breakdown. It means they continue to have a real family life with both parents, which makes them feel more loved. It creates equity between the parents.”
Shared parenting is popular in Europe, Australia and parts of America. Britain is lagging behind, although there are celebrity advocates. Blur guitarist Graham Coxon told a newspaper last year that he shares the parenting of his daughter with his ex-girlfriend. He says: “My nine-year-old daughter, Pepper, stays with me on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so it’s an early start on those days … she lives with her mum the rest of the week, but I drive her to school on a Monday.”
Shared parenting sounds like the most child-friendly solution to the damage caused by family breakdown. Why isn’t it enshrined in law and why don’t more people do it?
Karen Woodall, of the advice group the Centre for Separated Families, believes Britain holds deep-seated social and cultural beliefs that men are the providers and women the carers. Until we can shake off these stereotypes, shared parenting will never be fully embraced. She says: “Part of the problem is that we’re still clinging to the idea that a child without its mother is going to be damaged. We need to move beyond that. After separation children do best if both parents are involved. Many mothers who share parenting say they feel they’re being judged for failing their children.” There is no official data on shared parenting but it is estimated that 500,000 households do it.
The Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (Cafcass) – a government body that helps children in family proceedings – supports shared parenting (indeed, it is almost impossible to find a dissenting voice among those involved in family policy). Chief executive Anthony Douglas says that nowadays mothers and fathers have equal residency rights. He says: “When you take out domestic abuse and parenting capacity issues, there is no gender bias in the family justice system. This is a sea change from 30 years ago.” Fathers’ rights groups say the most important advance is not a 50/50 time split but the underlying admission of parental equality.
We may embrace the idea of shared parenting but would we have chosen, or even wanted it as children, and would we want to explain its alleged social benefits to a child who just wants to sleep in the same bed every night? And a report by a former judge found that Australian law reforms regarding shared parenting had negatively affected children from violent and abusive backgrounds.
Many women’s groups and academics believe shared parenting is not always in children’s interests. Deborah McIlveen, a spokeswoman for the domestic violence charity Women’s Aid, says: “We’re concerned that contact is sometimes ordered without a proper risk assessment or consideration of the needs and wishes of the child and we will continue to campaign and work with the Ministry of Justice and other agencies until women and children are safe.”
Around 10 per cent of family breakdowns end up in court – normally because of safety concerns or a parental power struggle. Cafcass says parents should avoid the financial and emotional drain of a legal battle and instead seek advice from support groups or through Parent Information Programmes – available through the courts or solicitors.
A written agreement – however informal – is a solid bedrock for shared parenting. It should detail cultural values, parental boundaries, rules – even bedtimes. Karen Woodall says: “Children fare well when parents set similar parameters. They don’t have to move from vastly different cultural experiences.”
Linda Blair, a psychologist and author of The Happy Child, advises: “Accept that you and your partner no longer have an emotional relationship but a business relationship. Your business is bringing up your children. If you treat it like that you are less prone to be hurt and reopen old wounds.”
Although putting aside old grudges can be tough, the results are worth it. All the research shows that children thrive when both parents play a big role in their life.