Sharing Parenting



Although mothers in the sample varied in their attitudes to gate work, they all presumed a distinctive and central maternal role rather than a position of parental equivalence and interchangability.

Liz Trinder (Trinder L. , 2008)



The time has come to present our case for shared parenting and to challenge the arguments against.  We must be aware, however, that merely sharing parenting time is not the end of the matter, nor even the most important aspect of post-separation parenting, and it creates a false impression that parental responsibility ends when the child is with the other parent: what counts most is how the transitions between parents are handled, and that will be discussed in the final chapter.

First, though, a note of caution when dealing with statistics.  Few of the figures we have are fully reliable: even the number of applications for contact will only be partially accurate – some courts won’t have sent their figures in on time and they will have been estimated.  Most statistics are based on samples; these are supposed to be representative of the population, but there will always be a margin of error.  To be reasonably confident of a statistic – 95% confidence is typical – with a small margin of error requires a larger sample size and many are very small.  It is also critical that the sample is genuinely random, but several factors will influence this: most sampling takes place during working hours, when mothers are more likely to be home than fathers, and most information about children is derived from interviewing the resident parent, who is also more likely to be the mother.  We should be healthily sceptical, therefore, of some figures, and should always seek to analyse the methodology used.

Opinion on shared parenting is starkly polarised between those who believe it benefits the child by maintaining relationships with both parents and those who fear it exposes children to continuing parental conflict and that children need the ‘stability’ of a single home.  There are many factors which influence a child’s adjustment during and following parental separation, and it is not possible to prove definitively that effects seen are due solely to the structures of joint or sole custody.  Thus the findings show correlation rather than clear cause and effect; the result is a debate which often resembles one based more on faith than on reason.  In what is probably the best known study, a meta-analysis of 33 studies involving 1,846 children in sole residence situations, 814 in joint custody and 251 in intact families, Robert Bauserman of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported, ‘children in joint custody are better adjusted, across multiple types of measures, than children in sole (primarily maternal) custody’ (Bauserman, 2002).  The role played by conflict was inconclusive but did not appear to impair adjustment,

Joint custody cannot be proven to be the causal factor in any such difference.  However, such an outcome would be consistent with suggestions that, by providing for an ongoing, close relationship with both parents in a way not possible in sole-custody arrangements that emphasize limited visitation with the noncustodial parents, joint custody may work to overcome the difficulties for the child potentially caused by the parental absence, economic stress, socioeconomic disadvantage, and changes in family processes that might accompany divorce.

He warned that the findings do not support joint custody where a parent is abusive or neglectful or has a serious mental health difficulty, but we would not expect them to; he concluded,

Joint-custody arrangements (whether legal or physical) do not appear, on average, to be harmful to any aspect of children’s well-being, and may in fact be beneficial.  This suggests that courts should not discourage parents from attempting joint custody.

The most recent research, by Dr. Richard Warshak, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, is a survey of 45 years’ worth of scientific literature and has the endorsement of 110 of the world’s top experts.  It concludes unequivocally,

The evidence shows that shared parenting should be the norm for children of all ages, including sharing the overnight care for very young children (Warshak R. A., 2014).

There is now excellent evidence which favours shared residence over sole residence.  Parents express greater satisfaction with shared parenting compared with all other post-parenting arrangements (Parkinson & Smyth, 2004).  Where parents are more satisfied there is less likely to be conflict (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 1996).  Children adjust better to parental separation in joint custody arrangements than in sole custody, they have strong, healthy emotional relationships with both their parents and are generally satisfied with the arrangements; they have enhanced self-esteem and enjoy more positive experiences in their lives.  They are harmed when non-resident parents are deliberately denied contact.

The argument is often made that allowing a child contact with a father when there is conflict between parents is harmful and discordant with the child’s best interests.  The evidence, however, is that a closer relationship with their father is beneficial to children regardless of whether there is parental conflict (Buchanan & Maccoby, 1996) (Bauserman, 2002) (Fabricius & Luecken, 2007).  Some argue that shared parenting itself leads to higher levels of conflict, especially amongst couples where conflict is already high (Johnston, Kline, & Tschann, 1989), but William Bender showed that joint custody helps reduce conflict over time (Bender, 1994).  Psychologists Marjorie Gunnoe and Sanford Braver started with the same preconception but found it to be wrong,

Our expectation prior to conducting this research was that joint custody would be associated with higher rates of postdivorce conflict, particularly among families already experiencing high rates of conflict. Surprisingly, this was not the case  (Gunnoe & Braver, 2001).

Subsequent researchers have replicated this finding that conflict levels fall following divorce (Adamsons & Pasley, 2006), and that only a minority remain conflicted (Johnston, Roseby, & Kuehnle, 2009); one study actually revealed better adjustment than in the control group (Wolman & Taylor, 1991).  It is the adversarial litigation over contact disputes which increases conflict and hostility, which is an argument for out-of-court resolution, efficient court procedure and the reduction of delay.  Parental conflict does not increase because there is paternal contact, or increase as paternal contact increases (Buchanan & Maccoby, 1996) (Fabricius & Braver, 2006) and eliminating paternal contact does not eliminate damaging conflict, while it does consistently cause life-long harm; levels of conflict are higher in sole residence arrangements.  These relationships are complex: Valarie King and Holly Heard found lower levels of conflict at the extremes (sole maternal custody and equally shared custody) and highest where paternal contact was modest (King & Heard, 1999).  A lack of conflict can mean a father has given up the fight, whilst a degree of conflict may mean he is still involved and committed; disagreement over parenting is quite normal in marriages and its continuance after separation does not preclude shared parenting.

Parental conflict itself need not be harmful to children, what matters more is the type of conflict and the way parents allow it to impinge on their children; the worst damage is caused by guerrilla conflict: denigration and alienation, using a child for emotional support, using a child as a go-between, interrogating the child about the other parent (Emery, 2004) (King & Soboleski, 2006).  Children’s adjustment is worst when they are made to feel caught in the middle of a battle (Buchanan, Maccoby, & Dornbusch, 1991) (Johnston, Kline, & Tschann, 1989).  Conflict can be reduced by simple strategies such as making an effort not to involve the child in disputes, eliminating parental contact at handovers (the ‘switching hour’), increasing a child’s time with each parent to minimise handovers or by conducting handovers in public places; even conflicted parents can find strategies to avoid meeting.

There is a correlation between higher income, well-educated parents and cooperative parenting (Kelly, 2006) (Melli & Brown, 2008), and this group can more easily afford lawyers, but it doesn’t mean poorer, less well-educated parents can’t succeed at shared parenting as well, and not all studies have confirmed this correlation.  Parents need not cooperate for their children to benefit from shared parenting arrangements – a business-like relationship with a minimum of interaction can work well.  Parents do not need to talk to each-other or coordinate their two households (Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992); what matters for successful outcomes is the relationship each parent has with the child rather than their relationship with each other.  The significance of relationships with fathers for children’s well-being is clear and adjustment outcome is consistently related to their quality (Dunn J. , 2003).  Detailed joint custody arrangements help remove the opportunity for dispute and this lowers the stress in conflicted relationships; where arrangements fail it is more likely the result of a poorly drafted order than a flaw in the principle of shared parenting itself.

Bender found that fathers in joint custody arrangements are more likely to comply with child support – ‘when a court enforces paternal disenfranchisement, that court is decreasing the likelihood of compliance with child support’ (Bender, 1994).  In their meta-analysis of 63 studies, Paul Amato and Joan Gilbreth replicated many of Bender’s findings, including the link with child support compliance (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999).  They noted – unfortunately, because it has been misrepresented, as we narrated in Chapter Nine – that they found no direct correlation between the quantity of time spent with a father and children’s outcomes.  This, coupled with the finding that a father’s economic support improves health and educational outcomes, has been used as an excuse to reduce contact time to negligible levels and enforce child support instead.  The Labour Government employed the same discredited argument, ‘Research has also found that it is the nature of contact with the non-resident parent rather than frequency of contact that is most likely to make a difference to a child’s well-being’ (Labour, 2007).

Linda Nielsen, Professor of Educational and Adolescent Psychology at Wake Forest University, North Carolina, conducted one of the most comprehensive meta-analyses, examining over 100 papers in order to challenge opposition to shared parenting (Nielsen, 2010).  She showed that the flaw in the ‘quantity versus quality’ argument is the failure of the studies on which it is based to distinguish between duration of visits and frequency or to record the incidence of overnight contact which is the type of contact which has greatest influence on children’s development.  Time, clearly, is important to enable relationships to be developed and there is evidence the effectiveness of a father’s interaction increases over time, and is associated with intrinsic activities such as encouragement and problem solving and not with extrinsic activity such as visits to the cinema or buying presents (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999).  Longer contact periods with overnight staying reduce the number of handovers and opportunities for hostile confrontation.

Most researchers gather data only from mothers, who tend to under-report and under-value paternal contact.  Nielson also noted the failure to distinguish between divorced fathers and never-married fathers, despite the large differences between these groups.  Looking at highly conflicted couples she showed that 1 in 5 was nevertheless still able to share parenting a year after separation, and that support programmes were effective in reducing conflict.  Where shared parenting was not possible was, uncontroversially, in cases of personality disorders, mental illness, substance abuse and violence.  For the remaining 85% to 90% of parents shared parenting is the most appropriate solution.

The quality of the father/child relationship is crucial, and in both married and separated families children benefit most from parents who are authoritative, responsive, attentive, emotionally available, supportive, involved, and interested in their children, ‘It is the quality of fathers’ relationships with their children that has the most significant impact on their social, psychological, academic, and physical wellbeing’.  Nevertheless, this quality cannot be achieved without quantity as well, and 15% or 20% of the child’s time is insufficient, nor is weekend and holiday time the right kind.

Evaluating a wide range of available literature, Joan Kelly, Executive Director of the Northern California Mediation Center, observed that the arrangements made by most parents which generally result in the sole maternal custody scenario are ‘based on cultural traditions and beliefs regarding postseparation parenting plans, visitation guidelines adopted within jurisdictions, unsubstantiated theory, and strongly held personal values and professional opinions’ (Kelly, 2006).  They ignore the ‘large body of social science and child development research generated over the past three decades’.  She concluded that these traditional arrangements are ‘outdated, unnecessarily rigid, and restrictive, and fail in both the short and long term to address [children’s] best interests’.  The traditional approach remains a barrier to fathers who want to remain involved; Kelly’s account confirms what fathers allege, ‘Because a large majority of mothers seek full physical custody, these fathers must either negotiate, mediate, or litigate to obtain more than every other weekend contact, and risk being labeled as a high-conflict or uncooperative parent by the court because of those efforts’.  She identified as a second barrier the adversarial win/lose system which escalates conflict and hostility and encourages polarised thinking.  Maternal ‘gatekeeping’ reduces fathers’ opportunities for involvement and parenting and their consequent lack of parenting skills reinforces the effort put into gatekeeping.  Liz Trinder explains the gatekeeping mind-set,

Although mothers in the sample varied in their attitudes to gate work, they all presumed a distinctive and central maternal role rather than a position of parental equivalence and interchangability.  Mothers positioned themselves as child care experts and family managers… Similarly, whereas the maternal bond was considered to be unbreakable, father-child relationships appeared contingent (Trinder L. , 2008).

A disturbing finding by Edward Kruk is that it is the fathers who were most involved prior to separation who are most likely to become disengaged after separation (Kruk, 1992).  Fathers who have limited involvement before family breakdown find it easier to adjust to the low levels of contact imposed by the courts, but fathers who have been fully involved find it hard to handle the pain of intermittent visitation and the reduction of ‘real fatherhood’ to an avuncular role entirely at odds with their sense of themselves as fathers.

For children the loss of the non-resident parent is the most destructive aspect of divorce and they are distressed by the standard alternating weekend pattern of contact, with half wanting more contact and only 2% wanting less when fathers were ‘very angry, difficult or uninterested’.  Closeness to fathers increased as time spent with them did.  One or more overnight stays per week was associated with better social and psychological adjustment.  The quality of a child’s relationship with their father is important and should involve ‘help with homework and projects, emotional support, age-appropriate expectations for their children, and authoritative parenting’ (Kelly J. , 2006).  As Bauserman found, contact with fathers who are abusive, mentally ill or incompetent parents is not beneficial, but this applies equally to resident parents.

Although mothers favour sole custody, due to cultural expectations, it does not benefit them and their relationships with their children deteriorate: ‘custodial parents are typically overwhelmed by sole responsibility for their children’s care, and diminished parenting results, as parents are less physically and emotionally available to their children’ (Kruk, 2012).  Following divorce sole mothers find disciplining boys difficult; mothers in joint custody arrangements are more satisfied than mothers with sole custody and are better adjusted and supported (Bender, 1994) (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999).  Litigation and re-litigation are lower where there is a presumption of joint custody and, even where parents disagree, re-litigation is no higher; there are thus good economic reasons for joint custody.  Sole residence arrangements victimise men, who are further victimised when contact orders are not obeyed; non-custodial fathers lose self-esteem and their parenting role is impaired, further harming their children, ‘Society needs more effective father role models in the lives of children – not fewer male role models’ (Bender, 1994).

Gunnoe and Braver studied a relatively small sample of 78 couples but their study of legal as opposed to residential custody has been influential (Gunnoe & Braver, 2001).  Legal custody, or ‘parental responsibility’, tells us little about the actual relationships between the child and his parents.  They found no correlation between joint legal custody and child support compliance, but did find fewer child adjustment problems.  Mothers with joint legal custody were less satisfied, but this did not affect their relationships with their children, and they were 3 times more likely to live with new partners, which is important for maternal mental health.  Fathers’ relationships with their children, on the other hand, were improved in joint legal custody arrangements.  There was no evidence of any adverse effects on children, ‘With respect to the theoretical benefits and risks of joint custody…, the present results provide more evidence for benefit than risk’.  They concluded, ‘while mothers clearly prefer sole custody, the awarding of joint legal custody serves to preserve father-child relationships, facilitate mothers’ repartnering, and deter some child adjustment problems’.

Studies of young adults are few; 70% of students at Arizona State University favoured equally shared residence as the best solution; of those who had experienced that arrangement 93% were satisfied, feeling loved, reporting fewer feelings of loss, and not defining their lives through parental divorce.  They were also more likely to be satisfied when their views were taken into account and when they could see the non-resident parent whenever they wanted (Fabricius, 2003) (Fabricius & Luecken, 2007).  In one of two studies conducted in Miami 80% of boys and 90% of girls said they wished they had spent more time with their fathers after divorce (Schwartz & Finley, 2005) (Finley & Schwartz, 2007).  These studies show repeatedly a desire amongst young adults to have been allowed more time with their fathers and deep-seated insecurities about whether they were loved.  By the time they reach adulthood it is too late to make up for lost time and relationships remain awkward and superficial.

Other large scale studies have shown that children are less likely to be left with babysitters or in day-care, and are more likely to be taken shopping by fathers and have their fathers attend school and family events.  Mothers benefit from more reliable and higher levels of child support and parental relationships are more amicable or at least business-like.  Even where there is still hostility (in about 15% of cases) shared parenting works effectively and, where shared residence is ordered against mothers’ wishes and relations remain conflicted, children nevertheless do better academically, socially and psychologically (Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992) (Buchanan & Maccoby, 1996).

The argument for ‘stability’ maintains that children cannot cope with living in two homes, or with the frequent moves between them.  The successful 2006 campaign in North Dakota against a presumption of shared parenting utilised a poster campaign, illegally paid for from public funds, depicting a confused-looking child with a suitcase and the caption, ‘Where do I sleep tonight?’  US campaigner Stephen Baskerville commented, ‘federal bureaucrats are now using taxpayers’ money to strong-arm citizens from democratic decisions that, by relieving a serious social problem, threaten to render the bureaucrats redundant’ (Baskerville & Sanderson, 2006).  Opponents of shared parenting use emotive words to describe the movement of a child from one home to another like ‘bounced’, ‘dragged’, ‘shuffled’; they call them ‘suitcase’ or ‘duffle-bag’ kids.  The evidence shows this to be fallacious: with stable routines and schedules these arrangements need not be stressful; children can deal very well with two homes, provided certain criteria are met (Smart, Neale, & Flowerdew, 2003): the needs of the child must be prioritised, there must be flexibility over arrangements, and children must be able to feel settled and truly at home in both households.  Continuing high conflict tends towards ‘maternal drift’ – the move towards sole maternal residence – as does living more than an hour apart; parents need to make sacrifices and changes to their lives if shared parenting is to work effectively.

Mothers commonly argue that, if fathers spend relatively little time with their children prior to divorce, they should get no more time after divorce.  This principle that levels of post-separation contact should match pre-separation contact is referred to as the ‘approximation rule’  and is advocated by Edward Kruk for parents who cannot agree a parenting plan; but it conflicts with his own preferred solution of an equally shared parenting presumption, and he admits it is a compromise to appease the feminists,

The approximation standard, drafted by feminist scholar Katharine Bartlett for the American Law Institute, incorporates feminist concerns regarding parenting after divorce (Kruk, 2013).

Philip Marcus, a retired Israeli judge, argues that the rule ‘would also almost inevitably lead to litigation over the question what in fact happened for several months or years prior to breakup, exhausting the parents emotionally and financially’ (Marcus P. , 2013) and would thus increase conflict between parents who cannot agree.  The argument falsely assumes post-separation families behave in the same way as intact ones, and underestimates the amount and quality of paternal interaction before separation – the quantity/quality argument cuts both ways.  Nielson challenges the argument for seeking to punish children for their fathers’ faults: surely if a man wants to take more responsibility after separation than he did before, he should be encouraged?

It also ignores the decisions couples make about the division of time between child care and work – most married fathers want to spend more time with their children, but cannot do so because of financial pressures.  In modern families the gender differential is less than some might think; young fathers under 30 spend very nearly the same amount of time with their children as mothers do (Galinsky, Aumann, & Bond, 2009); a study by the Equal Opportunities Commission found that mothers recorded an average of 2 hours 32 minutes per day looking after their children, compared with 2 hours 16 minutes by fathers (O’Brien & Shemilt, 2003),

It is becoming increasingly evident that the expectations that fathers have of the way and amount they are involved directly with their children is altering.  Fathers want to spend more time with their children, and are doing more of the direct care for them (Working Families; Lancaster University Management School, 2010).

It also ignores the obstacles separated fathers face – many lack legal custody and most have been disenfranchised by the traditional sole-maternal-custody-plus-contact paradigm – exacerbated by a hostile maternal attitude and distance; ‘Feeling discouraged and disheartened, unwanted and unnecessary, many dads realize from the outset that they have little or no chance to be the fathers they once were’ (Nielsen, 2010).

Feminists fiercely resist shared parenting.  Mary Becker argues that mothers invest more in child care and have greater empathy with their children and the courts should therefore defer to their wishes (Becker, 1992); Martha Fineman states the sole-custody model is the only one which ensures children’s welfare because of the qualitative differences between the parenting offered by mothers and fathers (Fineman, 1988).  The organisation Maypole Women (of which OXFLAP’s Mavis Maclean is a trustee) provides a list of the reasons women do not support ‘allowing’ fathers contact; the reasons have more to do with women’s grievances with men than with child-focused parenting and they obstinately reject the idea of shared responsibility.  They say mothers ‘are connected to their child’s needs in a way their partner is not’ and that a mother is ‘the psychological parent to children’, arguing that the failure to support contact is ‘for many women, a defence mechanism, in the absence of legal recognition of the importance of continuing primary psychological parenting, for mothers, and their children’ (Moffitt, 2011).

Some campaigners lobby to deny a father even the right to make court applications where a mother has offered what they consider to be reasonable contact.  OXFLAP’s Julia Brophy argues that shared parenting disempowers women by continuing to impose pre-separation power relationships (Brophy, 1989).  It is clear that in the feminist mind a man cannot, because of his masculinity, be a complete parent who can fully relate to his children – only a mother can be that.  Once you believe one section of humanity to be inferior you can justify any abuse or denial of rights.  Nielson observed that where there is a lack of research evidence there is a tendency for courts and others to rely on the irrational fear of what might happen to children in shared arrangements rather than on the knowledge of what we know actually happens under sole maternal custody.


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