Written by Henry Brookman

Senior Partner at Brookman Solicitors

Henry was admitted as a barrister and solicitor in South Australia in 1971. He has been practising and specialising in family law in the UK since 1977. He is highly experienced in both UK and Australian law.

Many single fathers find that social traditions die hard. Even today a lot of people regard a man who takes on his full share of child-raising as a bit too strangely domestic. The traditional division of men going out into the world of work, with the women staying at home to do the housework, the washing, the cooking and the childcare has now passed into history, but a lot of society’s attitude seems to lag behind the reality.

The father is a critical role model and guide, just as a mother.

In separated families the simple statistic is that most mothers continue to be the principal carers for the children, often for very good reasons such as continuity, or the employment schedules. Just because it is statistically the most common arrangement does not mean that it should be assumed to be the best arrangement. Furthermore, whatever arrangement is reached, research shows that the role of the father is vital to a child’s psychological wellbeing as she or he grows up. The father is a critical role model and guide, just as a mother.

The critical issues for children are a clear commitment to loving them, reliability in keeping promises.

The law used to be quite cut and dried in assigning one parent custody and the other parent access. The Children Act 1989 replaced those terms with “residence” and “contact”. Unfortunately by implying a simple division of time, the law does not do justice to the complex and important roles being played.

Hence more recently shared parenting has gained acceptance as a much better expression that recognises the responsibilities of being a parent. It is often wrongly assumed to mean equal time. In fact research shows that the time spent with children is not, in itself, the important factor. As a matter of practicality it is of course very difficult to evenly divide a child’s week in any case, and the awkwardness of such a division often inconveniences the child as much as the parents. Between 9% and 12% of separated parents share residence. In Australia the figures seems about double that.

There have been some very detailed studies carried out over a long period of time now in relation to separated families. This was extended to study the effect on children who are relocated to another country altogether, away from one parent. Relocation whether within the UK or abroad often leads to a total and catastrophic collapse in any meaningful contact. The research shows that children very much value even parents whom they see infrequently. The critical issues for children are a clear commitment to loving them, reliability in keeping promises – for example, as to when the next contact will be – and regularity – not necessarily frequent, sometimes only once a year, but predictable. In addition of course the absent parent has to sustain an interest in the children’s lives over the full range.

In parenting, actions speak louder than words.

To get the full range of a child’s life of course it is vital to spend sufficient lengths of time with them, through the full cycle of sleeping over, being involved in or at least aware of school issues, social lives etc. Naturally all this is easier if you are geographically reasonably close to your children and see them often, but it is not essential. But spending time with children is not just school, sport and meals out. As every father knows who has children sharing time with them, it involves cooking, washing, ironing and housework. Which pretty much brings us back to where we began; that these are part of the essential business of bringing up children. Hence mothers as well as fathers have to recognise that when they are sharing parenting, they are also sharing the ordinary day-to-day activities that go with sharing.

It is very difficult to share parenting if the other parent does not accept it. You find the situations (most distressing for children) where they are specially dressed in a set of clothes reserved for their times with their father, and any new clothes seem to vanish in the wash between visits. Ultimately what matters to your children, as the research has shown, is the steadfast commitment and love that you show them. Any belittling by the other parent ultimately diminishes that parent themselves in the eyes of the children. In parenting, actions speak louder than words.

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