Part One: How should we arrange shared-care parenting?

January 23, 2020

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As a separated or divorced parent, discussing and ultimately organising the best parenting arrangements for your children will be a priority. Director, James Pirrie of Family Law in Partnership provides an overview of how best to approach these arrangements with part two of the article providing structures that have worked well for other parents. 

Part 1: principles

Some parents who separate find child-care arrangements falling into place pretty easily.  For others it will become what feels close to a life and death struggle, with fears of being marginalised at one end and worries of bad habits and inadequate care at the other and a whole lot in between.

Dominic Raeside, regarded by many [as well as the legal guides] as the country’s leading mediator, shares the view that may be thought surprising:  “The shape of the agreement matters a whole lot less than the fact that parents are able to agree something.  Parents who adopt arrangements reluctantly will probably be the ones sabotaging them, leaving the children who have to live them playing out their lives crossing and re-crossing the battle-zone’s front lines.”

It is also easy for such parents to find themselves hunkering down over the maths of overnight stays … That the Child Maintenance Service focuses on the maths of overnights in fixing child support levels of course makes that situation worse.  But adding up the overnights is illogical where:

  • We are trying to create arrangements that work for children; but
  • Kids would seldom – without prompting – have any sense that six nights rather than five was fairer, let alone know whether they were living arrangements that were one side or the other of the magic 52/104/156/175 night per year thresholds.

There are some key initial mind-shifts that are likely to be needed:

  • The first is to move from “this is my proposal” to one which is more “doing my best for [child] Charlie, this is what I think works”… ie parents need to move from feeling proprietorial over the child’s time to being a well-informed witness as to the child’s needs (after all, no-one knows the child better) but each parent needs authentically to come at the problem through the eyes of the child.
  • Next should be a recognition where there are difficulties that what they are arguing about is going by as they speak. We need early solutions – there are many parents who scrap over their children’s childhood until it has entirely passed by.  If a court-case takes place, ironically, parents are taken away from the very thing that they are seeking: giving their children proper time and a real focus. They are with their lawyers and in court, whilst their children are living out their lives elsewhere.

Principles

What are the next stage principles that underpin good arrangements?  Dominic again:

“A lot of this is instinctive once a parent is really engaged with thinking things through from a ‘wise-child’ perspective [ie ‘what ought the child to want’] but a preliminary list of the criteria for good arrangements, putting to one side those situations of risk and so on, might include these:

  1. An arrangement that the parents can agree and authentically seek to make work, with the intention of helping themselves and the other parent to each be the best parent they can be;
  2. Freedom from a mathematical count of time but yet significant time with each A child is a product of two parents and needs to feel comfortable about their relationship with each of them.  Excluding one will usually cause hurt and damage, however much the parent that knows they could provide better day to day care.  The other parent is the one the child has and everyone in the family system needs to work around that reality (good or less than perfect);
  3. Clarity for kids: it is the child who is on the front line of living these arrangements.  They need to work for the child and should make sense to the child.  It would be sub-optimal for the arrangement to be a swirling diary of changing homes and bedrooms.  If the child is unclear where they are going to be, you probably haven’t perfected the arrangement yet;
  4. For the same reason, an arrangement in which the child has had a say will be helpful. Just because a child isn’t complaining, doesn’t mean that the arrangement is working well: children worry about parents at separation and will commonly hold back information that they fear will cause worry or hurt to their parents.  Ideally children will have a chance to provide input, even though the ultimate decision must remain the parents so that the child is not left with being burdened by the disappointment of one parent;
  5. Often – but not always – both/all children altogether: children will commonly turn to each other for mutual support at times of stress (even where your experience may be that they are constantly bickering).  Further, children’s separate times with each parent may just have them worry that they are missing out on life with the other parent;
  6. An underlying ethic of flexibility: the structure should flex for the accidents and incidents of family life – no scheme can anticipate all that will crop up in the kaleidoscope of interlocking diaries and opportunities: give and take will be needed for children to be able to have the best opportunities;
  7. Room and willingness for upgrading and change: whilst the family needs to be able to bank on an agreed arrangement, the arrangement this week will shift with changing activities, homework and opportunities – parents and children should be willing to work around to make arrangements the best they can be at any one time, whilst also respecting the advantages of continuity and consistency;
  8. Autonomy: beyond this, where the family has worked out the arrangements, then they have been building their capacity to take back charge of parenting decisions. In consequence they build their capacity to manage these changes increasingly well themselves. Particularly as the distance from the hurt of separation grows,  they will be better able to agree the other day to day issues that family life throws out;
  9. Where autonomy is being built, this is likely to have two components, in particular:
    1. The parents negotiating relationship & habits: parents will often do well to write down the ground rules about how they will communicate and seek to reach agreements; and
    2. A lasting set of principles: Almost always as parents examine any issue, they engage in identifying the basic principles that should pull the conclusion one way or the other. What is usually best is to identify those principles at the outset.  This will make decisions easier and create consistency between the decisions being made.”

Mediation v court

Says Dominic: “I appreciate and am grateful for the fact that that our ability to work with the parents and children directly gives us an advantage over the court-based arrangement that is hard to under-estimate in so many cases.

We can get involved sooner and if things change, can tap into the immediate ebb and flow of the family life rather than its having to emerge only months later – and at considerable cost depending on the skill of the person preparing the statements. 

Our arrangements can change more quickly because the point when decisions are made can arrive more quickly and whilst at court the parties are – by and large – having decisions made for them, in mediation, we are all-the-time attending to building the muscle of their independence.”

 Getting underway in mediation

We often start negotiations seeking to tear parents away from a sense that the negotiations will set in stone for all time the structures that they might adopt … when we bring the discussion down to getting through the next couple of weeks, we can often find the structures more or less write themselves and from there, the door starts to open on crafting good longer-term arrangements.”

In the second part of this article, we will look at the form such arrangements may take.

James Pirrie is a director at Family Law in Partnership. He specialises in complex financial issues and non-adversarial and cost effective approaches to divorce and separation including mediation, arbitration and collaborative law. If you need advice regarding arrangements for your child/children, contact James at E: hello@flip.co.uk or T: 020 7420 5000.

If you would like to know more about mediation and how it can help you to find a resolution to your family issues, then please contact Dominic Raeside, Head of Mediation at Family Law in Partnership : E: hello@flip.co.uk or T: 020 7420 5000.