The children who have two homes

Ned and Nancy live half the week with their mother, the other half with their father. The model of a good divorce – or a recipe for confusion?

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.

Suggested Topics
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
politicsIs David Cameron trying to prove he's down with the kids?
Businessman at desk circa 1950s
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Linux Systems Administrator

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of UK Magento hosting so...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Development Manager - North Kent - OTE £19K

    £16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A unique opportunity has arisen...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind are working with this secondary s...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: We are working with a school that needs a t...

    Day In a Page

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea