In focus

Billie Piper finds co-parenting ‘enormously difficult’ with Laurence Fox? So do most exes

The actor’s words mirrored the concerns of many separated parents, says Olivia Petter, who spoke to experts and legal professionals about the best ways to avoid conflict

Thursday 21 March 2024 07:35 GMT
‘Children deserve not to be extensions of the parents’: Piper’s comments were the first time she’d spoken publicly about Fox since their split
‘Children deserve not to be extensions of the parents’: Piper’s comments were the first time she’d spoken publicly about Fox since their split (Getty)

Raising a child is surely one of life’s greatest and most challenging responsibilities. It’s hard enough without any added complications. So imagine doing it with someone you can’t stand. Or worse, someone you can’t stand but used to love. Unfortunately, this is the reality for many separated couples with joint custody in the UK, whose responsibility it is to raise their children harmoniously together, regardless of how much animosity may still exist between them.

As we gleaned last week, among those navigating such murky waters are exes Billie Piper and Laurence Fox, who were married from 2007 until 2016 and share two sons together: Winston, 15, and Eugene, 11. Speaking to British Vogue, the 41-year-old actor was asked how she navigates co-parenting with Fox, an actor-turned-controversial political commentator, and replied: “with enormous difficulty”.

She continued: “I close everything down and keep a very strict routine with the kids so that there’s consistency. I keep them close. That’s all I can do. What is paramount for me is the privacy and anonymity of my children. They deserve not to be extensions of the parents and to forge their own identities.”

The quotes prompted an online furore given it’s the first time Piper has spoken publicly about Fox since their split. In response, Fox, 45, shared a statement on Twitter/X, writing: “The reality is that not all marriages work out and the world isn’t perfect. I do however take great exception to the assertion that co-parenting with me is enormously difficult.”

He added: “I have never tried to deny our boys access to their mum and I would never wish her anything other than a stable family. My only focus these past years has been to be present in their lives and be a loving dad. I’m not perfect, but I’ve done my absolute best to put the kids first.”

Piper and Fox were married for eight years (Getty)

Neither party has elaborated on the dynamic or how they manage it. Though speaking to The Times in 2020, Fox admitted that the logistical difficulties of divorce never end but that he and Piper try to be “as lovely as we can to each other for the sake of our children”. “Certain aspects of the family court system are difficult as a man,” he added, lamenting the perception that women “are better nurturers and raisers of children”, when “all of the facts are that children need both parents”.

Suffice to say, the internet has concluded that it’s not exactly been an easy situation for either of them. And research shows that they’re far from the only ones dealing with such difficulties. According to one 2021 study published in the Psychological Bulletin journal, on average, relationship satisfaction declines during the first 10 years of being together whether couples are parents or not. But throughout that timeline, satisfaction is lower for parents than for non-parents.

Of course, if a marriage is crumbling, it may be more beneficial for the children if the couple split. But evidently, that doesn’t always make things easier, particularly not for the parents. “One of the main reasons it can be so difficult to co-parent with an ex is that there is often emotional baggage from the relationship history and breakup,” explains psychotherapist Kamalyn Kaur.

“There can be feelings of grief, sadness, anger, resentment, or bitterness that you can carry which will interfere with any conversations you have about co-parenting. All these feelings will be further exacerbated if both parties have different approaches to parenting or if there are trust issues with your ex.”

There is also the emotional difficulty of dealing with the collapse of your imagined future, given that it’s unlikely either one of you imagined your relationship to become quite so dire when you first got pregnant. “When we are co-parenting with an ex, it can also be harder to visualise the future of our family unit,” says counsellor Georgina Sturmer. “There are so many other factors that can potentially come into play. Maybe there will be new romantic partners in their lives, or one person will want to move to a different location.”

When we are co-parenting with an ex, it can also be harder to visualise the future of our family unit

Georgina Sturmer, counsellor

Legal issues could come into play, too. Although current custody laws are rather different from those people might have in their minds from popular culture, which tends to show mothers being favoured in custody agreements in heterosexual splits. “These days the courts are very clear that both parents are equally important to raising their children (unless there are safeguarding issues),” explains Kate Barber family partner at law firm Thrings. “It is all about what is in the best interests of the child under Children Act 1989. It doesn’t mean they automatically share their time equally between parents but the arrangements need to work for everyone, so individual family dynamics are important.”

That’s not to say fathers are more likely to get custody than popular culture suggests. But as John Boon of Roythornes Solicitors points out, “Section 1(2A) of the Children Act 1989, which came into force in October 2014, contains a presumption that the involvement of both parents in a child’s life will further their welfare, unless there is evidence to suggest that the involvement of one of the parents would put a child at the risk of suffering harm.” This, he adds, means it’s vital that separated parents “can work together for the benefit of their children and put aside their differences and any personal animosity, as this will only negatively impact on their ability to effectively co-parent”.

According to Barber, the parent who caused the marriage breakdown is unlikely to feature at all in the consideration of custody by the courts. “And the days where the traditional family set up sees the child primarily staying with mum are becoming less,” she adds. “This has moved on considerably where parents now both work and so need to share the responsibility of looking after their children.”

Once custody is sorted, though, there can also be key conflicts around child-rearing, with each parent having different views around what they should and should not do. “The biggest issues lie when parents are not on the same page,” says parenting expert Hannah Love. “Inconsistency in rules around sleeping, feeding, behaviour, bedtimes and approach to schoolwork can leave the children confused. It can also lead to a little one playing one parent off against the other and setting the rules themselves, which can make it incredibly hard for everyone.”

That being said, there are ways to make it work. But it will require commitment from both people, as there are plenty of challenges to overcome first. Of course, the way to do this is primarily to have effective communication. “Being able to have discussions with an ex means you are more likely to be able to resolve issues without having to resort to lawyers, mediators or other professionals,” says Louisa Whitney, an accredited family mediator who advises couples who’ve separated on how to manage childcare and finances, among other things. This saves time, energy and money.”

But that is much easier said than done. In terms of how to actually go about having healthy communication with someone you have an unhealthy relationship with, Whitney points to “the four Cs”: calm, constructive, conscious and compassionate. “It’s not rocket science that people that can remain calm and feel less triggered are more effective communicators,” she explains of the first C.

Simple language tweaks can make a huge difference to how communication takes place and it only takes one person to make changes

Louisa Whitney, family mediator

“As for ‘constructive’, language can make a huge difference to the way that we communicate,” she adds. “For example, if a co-parent says something about ‘my children’ they will get a very different reaction to if they talk about ‘our children’. Simple language tweaks can make a huge difference to how communication takes place and it only takes one person to make changes.”

“Conscious” is about being mindful of where these discussions take place, and under what circumstances. “Lots of co-parents end up having conversations about important issues without having really thought about where, when and how it’s best to have the conversation,” says Whitney. “Agreeing a place, and a time and a means (whether it’s over the phone or in person) to have that discussion means everyone is prepared and doesn’t feel ambushed.”

Finally: compassion. Given that exes will inevitably disagree with their co-parent on some, or many, issues, it’s crucial to be able to have a conversation in which an agreement is reached, however much parents’ viewpoints clash. “Seeing each other’s views as valid, even if they’re different, can be helpful,” says Whitney. “If that’s a stretch then try to see the other parent through your child’s eyes as that can help to find a little compassion. Your child or children want to know that both their parents are OK. If a child worries about a parent it can make it harder for them to leave that parent, which may lead to other issues.”

It’s crucial, too, to find a support network to help when things get particularly difficult – and ensure it isn’t the children. “Know who you can lean on,” says Sturmer. “Ideally, you need to keep things civil with your ex-partner, and calm in front of the kids, so make sure you know where to go for support. This might be trusted friends or family, or it might involve reaching out to online support networks or to helplines where you can feel heard.”

Maintaining boundaries is important in many cases as well. This could range from limiting conversations to those around the children and ensuring that both parents have a degree of privacy around their personal lives. “Do the pickups and drop offs at a neutral territory but not your own home or theirs,” suggests Kaur. “Your home is your ‘safe space’; if your ex is coming to your door to drop the kids off, then don’t invite them into the house – be ready to step out and collect the children from the doorstep.”

Ultimately, as both Piper and Fox’s words suggest, the most important thing is that both parents are focused on prioritising the wellbeing of the child or children they share. The former relationship, as toxic as it might have been, is ultimately rendered irrelevant when it comes to these scenarios. Shifting the focus away from an ex-partner and onto the children might help remind both parties of this when times get tough.

“Sometimes you might feel overwhelmed by the challenge of co-parenting,” adds Sturmer. “Remember that your children come first, and that you are doing your best as a parent in order to try to maintain a situation that works for them.”

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