Catherine (8) and Harriet (9) are sisters who have a shared parenting arrangement. They spend one week living with their mum, step-dad Joe, baby-brother Bobby, and step-brothers Phil and Luke who visit on weekends. The following week they live in a house nearby, with their dad, their step-mum, and with step-brothers, James and David. James and David visit their dads and half-siblings on weekends too. Confusing? Yes. Disruptive for the children and detrimental to their wellbeing? Seemingly not. Harriet, Catherine, and James interviewed for a study on children’s family lives, described their family lives as happy and content. As the UK government have been considering introducing a legal presumption of shared parenting, we might ask, what’s the secret of this successful shared parenting arrangement?
Part of the answer is that parents mutually agreed on shared parenting, rather than being forced into it: Catherine and Harriet’s parents are on good terms. They decided for themselves that this arrangement could work for them. They co-operate over decision-making about the girls’ lives, which means they don’t squabble and upset the children.
Another clue to their success is that they are resource-rich families. Harriet and Catherine’s parents have two-family sized homes near to one other, to the children’s school and to other family members who help with child-care. This allows for routine and for the children to have their own privacy and space. Two sets of parents and four people doing the parenting across these two households ensure that the children’s social and emotional needs are well-taken care of. The complex reality of shared parenting means that multiple parents (and grandparents) share the parenting of multiple children across multiple households. Policy discussions presume an un-gendered parent, with an over-sized car to transport the kids from one over-sized family home to another. The contributions of grandmothers (and others) to child-care in these families is taken for granted and invisible. In other words the policy assumes that a certain level of material and social resources will be available.
But what about the parents? Responsibility for daily child-care tasks fall upon Harriet and Catherine’s mum and James’ mum who, exhausted from providing for five and four children respectively, are supported by grandmothers who forsake their own time (and retirement) to help out sons and daughters. Whilst shared parenting has been launched onto the policy agenda by fathers’ lobby groups, the issue of gender and gender-equal child-care for women in these families has never featured as an issue.
The UK government want to introduce shared parenting, in part, to bring about gender equality for men who want equal opportunities to parent their children after a separation. Parents forced to use a shared parenting arrangement will be those who can’t agree on whether their children should live with mum or dad. A similar model was introduced in Australia in 2006 and some European countries have also adopted the policy. However it would be a pity if the UK did not learn some of the lessons from the Australian experience. Here, enforced shared parenting resulted in the breakdown of parenting arrangements in many families, often causing instability and negative psychological outcomes for children; a policy intended to improve children’s wellbeing resulted in practices that actually placed children’s health and wellbeing at risk.
We know that the acrimonious split of parents is often characterised by a lack of social and economic resources. Those parents with lower levels of social and economic resources will be the most challenged by costs associated with accommodating and transporting children, particularly if parental homes are some distance from one another and isolated from other family members. In short, these are the families that wouldn’t necessarily have the resources to ensure that shared parenting can be stable and work in the long term.
Shared parenting isn’t a simple or fair post-separation solution. Looking to Australia and thinking about Harriet and Catherine’s families shows that shared parenting – to ensure happy and emotionally healthy children – need: consensual arrangements; plentiful family resources; parents and step-parents willing to invest time and emotion in the children; and grandmothers willing to sacrifice their own careers/jobs and pension contributions to support their separated children and care for their grandchildren. These are just a few things that will surely prove that this post-separation strategy will not suit all disputing families. Unless of course some additional social and economic support is made available to them.
This post is based on a longer article, forthcoming in Children and Society.
About the Author: Hayley Davies is a lecturer in the sociology of childhood at King’s College London. Her main interests are in children’s family and personal relationships.