Focus: How to survive the split

Family law is a shambles. It turns former lovers into enemies and drives children away from parents. So how do people manage to beat the odds, and the system, and stay friends? As the Government prepares to announce reforms, Joanna Moorhead talks to mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who couldn't afford to wait for change - and finds out the secrets of living with separation
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If kids are involved, so the saying goes, there is no such thing as divorce. Sure, you can get a piece of paper saying your marriage is over, but don't expect to be able to make a clean break. As long as you're co-parenting children, especially young children, you will need to be in continual contact, and you'll inevitably hear a great deal about what's happening in your ex-partner's life, whether you want to or not.

If kids are involved, so the saying goes, there is no such thing as divorce. Sure, you can get a piece of paper saying your marriage is over, but don't expect to be able to make a clean break. As long as you're co-parenting children, especially young children, you will need to be in continual contact, and you'll inevitably hear a great deal about what's happening in your ex-partner's life, whether you want to or not.

Marriage break-up, particularly making the subsequent child-custody arrangements, is among the most difficult experiences of modern life. And it's even harder when the law gets in the way. The current system allows fathers to be too easily pushed out of their children's lives after divorce, and couples are often pushed into a more acrimonious situation as a result of the legal process involved in splitting up. This week's White Paper on child contact arrangements hopes to iron out some of the most glaring problems, although reform will take time to shake through.

Once the changes do come into effect, more effort will be made to ensure that mothers who have custody of their children keep to legal arrangements allowing the fathers access. Judges will be given more powers to enforce orders permitting fathers to see their children.

But even more importantly, parents who apply to court for judgment in cases where agreement cannot be reached informally will be sent for mediation, as well as being given information about their children's needs and help to come up with their own plans without involving the courts.

It is universally agreed that a courtroom is the last place on earth where a family dispute needs to be aired. The problem, according to Alan Critchley of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), is that once a court order is made, the situation is inflexible. If the court order says the child must be with the father at 5pm, then so it must be.

"The big advantage of informal arrangements is their flexibility, and what we know about child custody arrangements is that things change over time," he says.

"Children get older. Their lives get more complicated and their friends get more important, and you need to change the arrangements about when and where they're seeing the other parent."

There is also a downward spiral about custody cases that end up in court: however bad things are between a couple, if they're worked out informally things might improve. If you end up in court, back to court you must go to get things changed; it's a lot harder, in other words, for the situation just to gradually improve.

But the reality of the situation is that most couples don't end up in court. There are more lone-parent households in Britain than anywhere else in Europe, but in more than 90 per cent of cases where a couple with children split up, the arrangements are made without resort to the courts at all.

A solicitor is sometimes involved, but more often a way of sharing the children is simply thrashed out by the people most closely involved. It's not easy; it's not pain free; it's not always even lasting: but it's the way most people do it, and they will go on doing it despite anything the Government is planning. This is how.

'We gave our children a routine they could trust'

Shyama Perera, 46, a novelist, lives in West Hampstead, London, with Nushy, 13, and Tushy, 10

I always assumed that the common practice of absent fathers having their children on alternate weekends was a template used by family courts across the country. Thus, when my own marriage disintegrated seven years ago, there was no great discussion about how access would work. "I'll have them next weekend, you can have them the weekend after," I said, and my then husband agreed. We thought it was the norm.

The way we organised it, however, was anything but the norm. He had moved 60 miles away to live in a one-bedroom flat with his new partner. To facilitate his weekends with our daughters, I had to move out of the marital home, spending nights on friends' sofas and taking gigs as a cat-sitter. He had to effect a rapprochement with my mother, who had a financial investment in the property and lived upstairs. Most Saturday nights she cooked him dinner.

It was the stuff of situation comedy, but whatever the differences between us, we both agreed that the priority with our children was instituting a routine they could recognise and trust.

Our only blip arose on our first Christmas apart. Even though my ex had not put up a single argument against my having the girls, I convinced myself that when he was better settled he would commandeer the role of stocking filler and turkey cook, demanding that we take turns.

Over a cup of coffee I brokered a deal which he agreed: I would always have them at Christmas and he would always have them for New Year's Eve.

At that point, one month away from the decree absolute, we also agreed the protocol for birthdays. "As I'm doing all the donkey work and the pastoral care and the hard bits," I said winningly, "it's not fair that you should sweep them away to Oxford for the milestones. You're invited, but birthdays are mine."

My ex agreed. His eldest son now joins us for the annual celebrations, and I imagine the routines work in his and his baby brother's favour as they know exactly when their sisters will be with them. It certainly works for their sisters. Weekend and holiday access is currently agreed to July.

In the summer break, each of us will have the girls for a fortnight, and they're at camp - a family tradition on their father's side - for the middle two weeks. I get a whole month to myself. It's the pay-off for the graft of single parenting year-in year-out.

Pay-offs, it must be said, matter. My ex and I have argued about all manner of things, but never about access. He has always met his financial responsibilities and acknowledged my role as chief carer, never questioning that we should split what we can 50-50.

I have friends whose ex-husbands refuse to ease the load, arguing they can't take time off because they need to work all hours to pay X per cent of their income towards the children. Given that most of the women are paying 100 per cent of their incomes to meet the needs of their children, no wonder this causes bad feeling.

It's often at this point that disagreements start over access. I notice that newspaper reports on the men who campaign for father's rights usually include allegations that these men are not meeting their financial responsibilities. The two are clearly connected.

I imagine women worn down by argument feel utterly resentful that any contact should be maintained in these circumstances. Will a change in the law help? Who knows? I'm just glad we got it right in my own case.

'You can find a way without the courts'

Jon Wilson, 46, has three children by his previous wife and three by his current partner. He lives in Hampshire.

Our children were young when we split up - the eldest was seven. At first we made arrangements very much on a week-by-week basis: we'd speak by phone and decide who was having the children when, depending on what else was happening.

Then it became clear that we needed to do something a bit more formal, and we decided on the children spending three days with me, then three days with their mother, and so on. It worked, but we fairly quickly realised that it wasn't ideal for the children: it was unsettling for them that no two weeks were ever the same. My ex-wife was reluctant to enter into discussions, so eventually we agreed to a mediator on the principle that the children would spend half their time with me, half with their mother. We came up with a complicated calendar arrangement that divided the year up exactly fairly, but had patterns of time when weeks would be the same: the start of the week with me, the end of the week with my ex, the weekends alternating.

Broadly speaking, that's the arrangement we still follow: it's very tricky sometimes, but it does work as well as anything could in our situation. Our experience shows that, even if you're not getting on and the relationship remains acrimonious, you can find a way without resorting to the courts. ( Names have been changed.)

'Isobel is getting the best of both worlds'

Stephanie Fraser, 42, lives in south London with her daughter, Isobel, 12.

I split from my husband when Isobel was two. I've always felt very strongly that Isobel needs a male role model. She and her dad adore each other, and he's a devoted father.

Our arrangements are very amicable: my ex now has three children with his new partner, and Isobel goes to stay with them every other weekend and half of every holiday. In some ways I feel she's getting the best of both worlds: with me she's an only child and gets lots of time. With him she's seeing life in a big family.

We have had our disagreements - once over Isobel's education, and another time right at the start when he said he wanted her every weekend, and I had to point out that would mean I had no chill-out time with her, just the schooldays. It helped us in the early days to have a go-between who took Isobel between my house and his, so we didn't need to keep meeting at a time when everything was still very raw and painful.

You need an emotional distance, and that can really help. Also we communicate a lot by text, which makes it easier. I wouldn't have thought I'd ever be able to have a relationship with his subsequent children but I do, they're a real joy. Sometimes I even have a cup of tea with his wife. Time is a great healer.

'No pettiness: the child is first'

Tracey King, 38, lives in Lichfield, Staffordshire, with her son, Reuben, three.

Dave and I were never married; we split up when I was four months pregnant. Perhaps not having a long history together has made it all a lot easier. We both saw parenting as a serious responsibility: Dave worships Reuben and they have a great time together. Dave made a decision to move away from south London, where he'd always lived, to the Midlands to be nearer us. That was a big sacrifice, and a very brave thing to do. It says a lot about how committed he is to parenting Reuben.

Currently Reuben spends one night during the week with Dave, and every other weekend. It works well. I really respect Dave and I like him and that helps a lot. I think Reuben deals with it very successfully; when he's older he'll ask questions and I'll answer them as truthfully as I can, and I've also got albums of pictures of us so he can see the history of our life together before he was born.

I'd say the two things that matter most are putting your child first, and not being petty. Some people slag their ex off in front of the children - you've got to avoid that at all costs.