There is a huge gulf between the daily reality faced by most Australian separated parents and their children and the idealised, idyllic vision of post-separation parenting presented to us by the recent inquiry into child custody arrangements. It may be time to pull our heads out of the sand, accept that equal-time arrangements are not going to suit most families and to have a look at the potential of pre-parenting agreements.
A conundrum faces separated families: how to continue being parents together when the marriage or de-facto relationship ends. Because once a couple have a child they remain parents (together, whether they like it or not) until at least the child becomes an adult, and probably longer. We do not quite seem to have grasped this core reality.
The recent House of Representatives Standing Committee inquiry into child custody arrangements after separation recommended that the parents continue to share parental responsibility, while stopping short of saying the child should spend equal time with each parent.
Their decision was correct. Any leap from encouraging equitable, child focussed, parenting arrangements to introducing an untested ideal that presumes equal-time parenting would be breathtakingly ill-considered. There’s no evidence that equal time would work. Fewer than three per cent of separated Australian families use this model and, although there’s scant research on the topic, what there is shows these families have some specific and rare qualities. Most of the parents are employed, live near each other, have chosen equal time of their own free will, are child-focussed and able to maintain a working relationship.
The House of Representatives Standing Committee inquiry was asked, in part, under question (a)(i) if:
(a) given that the best interests of the child are the paramount consideration: what other factors should be taken into account in deciding the respective time each parent should spend with their children post separation, in particular whether there should be a presumption that children will spend equal time with each parent and, if so, in what circumstances such a presumption could be rebutted...
Before this or similar proposals are prescribed for all, a multitude of questions must be answered. For example, is equal-time parenting automatically a good thing for children? Are these arrangements likely to break down? What is the impact on children of short-term or unsuccessful equal-time parenting arrangements? Is equal-time parenting equally appropriate for each stage of childhood? The list goes on…and this is quite apart from situations involving violence or high levels of conflict between the parents. Equal-time parenting may have value - but there’s no data to support it. This critique of recent equal-time parenting proposals in no way suggests that current arrangements are in the best interests of children or their parents.
Let there be no mistake, fathers are critically important to their children. The evidence of our eyes and ears will convince us of this. There is also a substantial base of research evidence (even if most research is done overseas) that confirms the value of ongoing parenting from both parents to children after separation. What is far less clear is the best way for this parenting to happen.
The rapid rise of separation and divorce over the last 30 years has left us unprepared, and perhaps unwilling, to deal with this new, unfamiliar terrain of family. On current indications, around 40 per cent of marriages, and even higher rates of de facto relationships, will ultimately break down. While some conservatives blame the era of no-fault divorce, a return to making divorce difficult will not lead to better, happier relationships. It is important to do what we can to give people the best chance of a good, lasting relationship, but however much we may wish otherwise, many relationships will continue to break down.
What we need is a new set of social rules. Our current pattern is head in the sand. Even though the risk of separation is a real one for all life partnerships, even to suggest this possibility is politically and socially taboo. Any discussion about the high number of family breakdowns is seen as a threat to the family unit itself - unless it is couched in pejorative terms. The same parents and society who view the insuring of a partner’s life a wise pre-emptive action will not countenance taking any pre-emptive measures to ensure the welfare of their children against the very much greater likelihood of family breakdown. It seems irrational.
A Parenting Contract or Agreement
Here I am going to make a heretical suggestion. Perhaps, as a society, it is time to take a clear-sighted view and accept that, in 21st century Australia, a significant level of relationship dissolution is inevitable. As individuals and parents, perhaps it is time we seriously considered that our own relationship might be one of those that ends. Perhaps it is time to encourage the discussion and negotiation, within the relationship, of what arrangements a couple, as parents rather than as partners, might make so that the end of their relationship would not devastate the parenting needs of their children.