When Parents Part: How Mothers and Fathers Can Help Their Children Deal with Separation and Divorce

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9781101874042: When Parents Part: How Mothers and Fathers Can Help Their Children Deal with Separation and Divorce
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From the acclaimed, best-selling author of Your Baby & Child and one of the world’s leading experts on child development and parenting, a practical, comprehensively researched guide to doing the best for your child during and after separation or divorce. 

Recent research clarifies why parents—fathers as much as mothers—are so crucial to children of all ages and how their separation can turn children’s lives upside down.  Drawing on the latest scientific findings, as well as on her many years of professional and personal work with children, Penelope Leach describes how parents can minimize the impact of separation and divorce on children through the six stages of a child’s life, from infancy to adulthood. She helps parents find ways to continue being fathers and mothers when they are no longer husbands and wives. She explains recent studies that overturn numerous common assumptions, revealing, for example, that many standard custody arrangements can undermine young children’s attachment to parents and in the case of infants even negatively affect their brain development; that unless infants and toddlers are already closely attached to both parents, regular overnights with the noncustodial parent may be damaging; and that dividing a child’s time equally between the parents may be “fair” to them but seldom is best for the child. And, throughout, Leach grounds her approach with anecdotal evidence presented in the voices of children and parents themselves.

Leach’s child-centered advice, profoundly thoughtful and thorough, tackles the issues from every angle—emotional, scientific, psychological, practical, legal—covering everything from access, custody, and financial considerations to managing separate sets of technology in two houses. Above all she is insistent that for the sake of their future development, the needs of children must be put first. She is persuasively clear that mutual parenting, while seldom easy, is the best way forward for both the parents and the children.

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About the Author:

PENELOPE LEACH is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the British Psychological Society, a visiting professor at Winchester University, and a Senior Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London, and at the Tavistock & Portman NHS Foundation Trust. She has been president of the Child Minding Association, vice president of the Health Visitors’ Association, and president and chair of the Child Development Society. She has also been a consulting editor at Child magazine; a member of the Professional Advisory Council of the American Institute for Child, Adolescent, and Family Studies; and a member of the Curricula Board of Sesame Street.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

chapter 1

Seeing Children’s Points of View

The breakup of a family isn’t an event; it’s a process and often a very long, slow one. Even if one partner has physically left, swearing that that’s it, he’ll have to come back. He’ll return for his belongings, for more agonizing conversations, arguments, and accusations, and maybe for some unexpected moments of nostalgic regret when the toddler holds up her arms to greet him and the dog licks his hand. The two of them nearly get back together again and he mows the lawn.

This is adult business at its most intense, and with this kind of stuff taking up most of your attention, you won’t have much to spare for anybody or anything else, including your children.

But this adult business is very much children’s business as well. It may be your marriage that’s breaking up, but it’s their family. You are losing your husband, wife, or partner, but they are losing not only the parent who is physically absent but both Daddy and Mommy, because even when you are present, neither of you is the parent they had in the past. Deciding to separate has committed both of you to confusion in the present and, eventually, to finding new ways of life; your children had no part in the making of that decision and have no choice about what happens next. Your separation will turn your children’s lives upside down and inside out. There’s nothing you can do to prevent that, but if you recognize what’s likely to make things better or worse for each child, then there is a lot you can do to moderate the storm.

Nearly half of U.S. marriages end in divorce. Divorce statistics like this make good shock headlines, but focused as they are on divorce as adult business rather than on family breakdown, they tell us astonishingly little about children. That focus is wrong, both factually and morally. In the last two decades it has become clear that parental separation is very much children’s business, and that instead of being involved principally as weapons in marital war, they should be recognized as its victims. Family breakdowns are commonplace, but that does not mean they are trivial—­far from it. For children of all ages, from birth into adulthood, having the family split up is always deeply disruptive, usually sad and saddening, and sometimes tragic.

The message that parental separation always makes children unhappy is not one that parents want to hear, so if it is mentioned at all, it is usually only offered to them well diluted with reassurances about children being “resilient” and quickly “getting over it.” For children’s sakes, though, it is a message that needs to be widely broadcast and swallowed neat. Separating or getting divorced is a bad break for all of you, and you need to face the fact that children are no more likely than you are yourselves to “get over it” in the sense of forgetting about it or it ceasing to be important.

However willing you may be to face up to the impact your separation is likely to have on your children, you may not find it easy to get reliable and relevant information, because official statistics are mostly about divorce only rather than about all separations and are very inadequate sources of information about children. Not every divorce affects a child directly; in the United States about one-­third of divorcing or separating couples are childless, and in those in which children are involved, marital problems will have been affecting them long before their parents actually get a decree and a place in the statistics. A great many children are affected by parental separations that never reach the divorce court, either because the marriages broke up without the spouses seeking divorce or because the parental partnerships had no official rubber stamp at the beginning and therefore have none when they end. None of these situations appear in those statistics. Even when statistics are given for divorces in which children are known to be involved, they tell us very little about those children—­how many were involved per family or in total; their sexes; their actual ages when divorce was granted or even approximate ages when their parents’ marriage began to ­disintegrate.

Statistics concerned with the proportion of families that are headed by a single parent are a little more child-­focused, of course, but their information is not straightforward because they seldom differentiate between families in which the parents have separated and those that have been single-parent from the beginning or in which one parent has died. They do serve to remind us, though, that many separations and divorces mean many ­single parents. According to the latest U.S. Census, there were 11.7 million single parents in the United States in 2010, of whom 85 percent (9.9 million) were custodial mothers and 15 percent (1.8 million) were custodial fathers. Figures for the United Kingdom are slightly different: of 2 million single parents, 92 percent are mothers and 8 percent are fathers; 1.9 million single parents each have one child under sixteen, 621,000 have two children, and 238,000 have three or more.

In a large majority of single-­parent families, the mother is the custodial parent, and it is the father who is absent. It may be the other way around in your case, of course, but if so, you are in a minority and a very small one at that. It is often assumed that it is mothers who end up as single parents primarily because men are more likely than women to walk out on their families or because it is still widely assumed—­by separating couples themselves as well as by society and the family courts that represent it—­that when parents separate, it is more appropriate for mothers rather than fathers to take daily charge of the children. However, there are even more basic reasons for the relative scarcity of single-­parent men. First, there is a far greater likelihood of early death among males, so if a child has only one living parent, it will probably be his mother. Second, there is as yet no male equivalent to the “unmarried mother,” although with the use of donor eggs and surrogacy this may change.

statistics that tell us how many families were without one parent tell us little about the reasons and rarely anything about what is happening now, or will happen in the future, to the children within those families. Indeed, we cannot even be sure what “family” means or whether the way the term is used in one study is the same as the way it is used in another. Most people assume that “family” is about men and women having children together, but not every family is based on heterosexual relationships. A tiny but growing minority of children may be born to or brought up by a homosexual couple, who may be male or female and married, in a civil partnership, or cohabiting. A large majority of children are born to heterosexual couples of course, but with no guarantee that the nuclear family will be stable. For all children, there is almost a fifty-­fifty chance that their parents will separate, and if they do, children’s subsequent experiences of “family” are likely to be far more complicated than simplistic statistical summaries suggest, because one or both parents are likely to form new partnerships that will have an even higher likelihood of breaking down. The breakdown rate for second marriages in the United States as a whole is 60–­67 percent, and for third marriages it is around 74 percent. A parental divorce followed by even one lover per parent and one new spouse each makes four combinations of parent and parent figure, and each new combination may bring the child new grandparent, aunt or uncle, and cousin figures, as well as stepsiblings or half-­siblings, some of whom may be peers while others may be quasi adults.
when you are thinking about what your separation will mean to your children, it is important to bear in mind that children whose parents separate are liable to experience a complexity of relationships with adults in the remaining years of their childhood, and that these relationships will change over time. Their parents may get back together again, temporarily or permanently; many couples go through several attempted reconciliations before the marriage is ended or, more rarely, reinstated. Children may live with their mother but have more or less close contact with their father. They may live sequentially only with their mother, with their mother and a lover or series of lovers, with their mother and a permanent partner, or with their mother and a stepfather. Any of those men may, or may not, function as father figures for them, and any of the men may, or may not, bring children of their own to form a melded family with yours. At the same time, the absent father may become the one they live with, and whether this happens or not, they may move through a similar set of relationships that may or may not bring them an extra mother figure and/or children who are formally or informally their stepbrothers and -­sisters. Eventually, there may be half-­siblings, too.

Making the Best of a Bad Job

Nothing you can do will prevent parental separation from hurting your children, but thanks to research studies carried out in the past fifteen years, parents who separate today (and their advisers) can do better by children than those of even one generation ago; better, probably, than your own parents did by you if they are separated. You can do better, and if you can, you surely should. There is new and ongoing research into children’s development, especially their emotional and social development, that can help you to understand what your separation means to each one of your children and offers easily understood scientific information about ways of handling it that are likely to modify or curtail ill effects.

We know how lastingly important family breakdown and parental separation is for children, and we know some ways in which its impact can be minimized, right from the start. We know a great deal about what children and young people of different ages can be expected to understand about the separation and something about how to make it clear, day after week after month, that the separation is in no way the child’s fault or a reflection of lack of love. Above all, we have real evidence to guide those difficult decisions about where and with whom children should live and how an absent parent can still be a mother or father. This kind of information, collected and delivered with children’s perspective always in the foreground, is badly needed because without it children may—­and often do—­suffer unnecessarily. When people say that it’s “only fair” for a father and mother to have the children living with each of them for the same number of days in the year, they mean that it is fair to two parents, not that it is necessarily fair—­or likely to be appropriate—­for their children. And a lawyer who encourages a client to try to insist on having his baby or toddler spend every weekend with him may not even be aware that such overnight separations from the mother are very likely to be distressing to such a young child and may even be damaging to his attachment and the brain development that partly depends on it.

Information about children in separating families in general cannot be a prescription for your family in particular, of course, because every member of every family is unique, and what works for one won’t work, or be possible, for another. But there are now at least a few research-­based dos and don’ts that seem to apply to all children of a particular age and in a particular circumstance. It will always be worth your while to think about such guidelines because they will usually be a much better bet for your children than having the two of you thrashing aimlessly about in all-­night arguments or taking contradictory chunks of advice from relatives and friends who have axes to grind and sides to take. However, this kind of research will only really help you to help your children if you make a point of thinking about each child individually and keeping them securely tucked away in a corner of your mind all the time, now and in the several years it will probably take before you all settle into new family structures. That is much easier said than done, especially while your own feelings and arrangements leave so little space for anything else, but it’s the foundation of all the kinds of help that you can give them.

An eleven-­year-­old girl, the middle child of three girls, was sent to boarding school because her furious father couldn’t—­and didn’t pretend he wanted to—­look after her, and he would not allow her to live with her mother and mother’s lover (future stepfather). Her older sister escaped to drama school; her much younger sister was allowed to stay with Mom. This child felt herself to be out of sight and out of mind.

The easiest way to preserve that vital space in your head for everyone is to make a clear separation in your mind between woman–­man and child–­parent relationships (see chapter 4). That means you don’t express (and try not even to show) the hurt, miserable, angry feelings that belong to your sexual relationship rather than your parenting. Your ex-­husband may be a complete letdown as a husband; a hopeless provider; a faithless, insensitive man; a complete bastard. But what is he as father to your child? Not “ex,” to begin with (the two of you may be getting divorced, but he’s not divorcing the child), and given the chance, he’s very likely not to be a letdown or faithless or insensitive either. One of the things that women who are separating often find most painful to accept is that their children still love and should love the man they call Daddy.

Working out how to share parenthood when you no longer share a household is often a personal and practical minefield—­as we shall discover (see chapter 5). But whatever the issues between you, and however you resolve them now and in the future, do remember that you are both the parents of this child or these children and that you are mother and father, not mother and (male) junior mother. You are different people in different roles, and however well or badly you each fulfill your role, both of you are crucially important to your child.

Recent American, Australian, and British research has made a big contribution to our understanding of what parental separation means to children by studying families over a period of years, not only when they are in crisis. Thanks to this large and growing body of work, we are beginning to accumulate what most of the research community would accept as “facts.” Not every point may be accurate or relevant for your children or the children with whom you are concerned, but taken overall these are the nearest we have to hard information.

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