This is a guest blog post by Melanie Barnes. Melanie is qualified as a Solicitor Advocate and is trained as a mediator. She has a specialism in child support law and currently sits on the Resolution National Committee for Child Maintenance. She has a particular interest in international child maintenance and has been actively involved in policy discussions on this issue. She has also been commissioned to write a book dealing with this area of law. You can find her at @MelCVBarnes.
Shared parenting: reciprocity and Colin
The point is, relationships are difficult enough to manage even where there is a degree of understanding, but when that balance is challenged upon separation, the resolution of conflict can become undeniably hard. It is therefore no surprise that various governments have tried to address the balance in order to help parents in the transition from parenting together to parenting apart without (a) costing the government money (b) costing them even more money and (c) costing lots and lots of money. Oh, and stuff about welfare.
On Tuesday, the most recent attempt at achieving parental harmony was announced in the form of amendments to the Children Act 1989 which are assumed to relate to section 1 with a statement to be inserted that it is in a child’s best interest to have a ‘meaningful relationship’ with both parents. To those who aren’t in the know, any challenge to the sacrosanct principle that the welfare of children is paramount is equivalent to the Catholic Church announcing that they aim to modernise the bible by renaming the son of God ‘Colin’ and support gay marriage. Yes, it’s that astonishing. No doubt though, the consultation itself will cause a huge storm and we will once again see a fresh attack by partisan groups who will hurl statistics and rhetoric across the muddy trenches of gender debate whilst each trying to win an inch more of philosophical support through the barren wastelands of academia.
Rather unhelpfully, the press has also paraded the usual headlines relating to domestic violence and ‘custody battles’ even though that term disbanded about the same time as Duran Duran. Clearly it helps the media to promote the idea that either men are denied rights or that women are victims but it’s disappointing that despite all the positive focus by solicitors, mediators, collaborators and counsellors, the issue is defined as gender specific. In my own household, as with many others, my relationship is not defined by traditional roles. At Christmas for example, my husband gave me a Bosche Cordless 18V Hammer Drill (mmmmm hammer drill) and I spent an absolute fortune buying him a Le Creuset frying pan. Consequently, I put on loads of weight eating nothing but fried food and we now have 218 unwanted shelves around the house…..though it does show that even people who are fundamentally different can find ways to communicate and achieve reciprocity.
Bearing in mind that society does present the traditional view, and this is encouraged by ‘influencers’ at separation, it is easy for parents to become positional, especially with the value achieved by the label of ‘main carer’. Promoting a ‘single parent model’ in society can also leave the other parent feeling that his or her contribution to the family is no longer valid and struggling to understand why a parental relationship is now redefined as ‘having contact’. In many ways, it’s not dissimilar to the couple who can’t even agree on how to have an argument, with one parent left outside in the cold without feeling that they are being heard. It can also difficult for one person to feel that they are left with the financial burden simply because this represents the status quo. Frankly, I would feel the same as if I divorced, my husband would have sole residence of our Labrador, I would need to maintain him each month and would no doubt spend the rest of my left resenting him bitterly whilst surrounded by unwashed dishes, empty bottles of wine and a life-size cardboard cut out of David Tennant (mmmm David Tennant).
It was clear from the government’s response to the Family Justice Review that they recognise parents need meaningful and holistic support upon separation and in my view, any attempt to address imbalance that may prevent negotiation and trust should be welcomed in order to reduce the risk of conflict. Whilst this may be perceived as blue-sky thinking, the starting point should surely be this: in these circumstances and within this family, what is the best emotional, practical and financial contribution that these parents can make to achieve the best possible outcome for the children?
It is not an issue of presumption and time. It is not an issue of one parent having more rights than the other. It is an issue of equality, a commitment to welfare and a solid foundation to enable a reciprocal relationship to continue despite the pain and upheaval of relationship breakdown. In times of stress, where collaboration appears impossible, take a deep breath and ask yourself this. What Would Colin Do?