I’d like to have a conversation about something that has been on my mind for a while writes our founder, Louisa Whitney. Before I start I want to heavily caveat this post. I’m going to be talking about family roles that are quite traditional in this post. Some may see them as gender stereotypes and justifiably so. This is not the norm for all families – far from it. In mediation we see families with the roles I’m going to describe, families who operate on a more equal role basis and families with stay at home dads, or dads who work part time to care for children. Each family is unique and arrangements are made based on needs, opportunities and what each parent wants. What I’m going to talk about is something we are seeing in mediation but I want to stress that this is not the norm for all families – nor should it be.
Before the pandemic many families worked on the basis that dad had a demanding job that usually paid reasonably well and as a result of that dad worked long hours and, in some families, was away travelling with work some of the time. This meant that mum often didn’t work, or worked lesser hours, to enable her to be available for the children outside of school/nursery/childcare. This meant that the majority of school admin, doctor’s appointments, other medical appointments and running around in the week fell to mum. Dad would often be involved at weekends but was logistically not able to get involved in the week because of the hours he worked and/or because he had a long commute.
For some families this arrangement worked well because it played to where each parent ideally wanted to be and enabled them to have the life they wanted to. Other families have fallen into this role as a result of decisions made by one person, or jointly, but without necessarily being completely on board with the set up. Some people have worked with these arrangements without ever really giving them too much thought. It’s just what happens in our house they might say.
Then the pandemic came along and, for many people, these roles changed considerably. Suddenly mum and dad were both at home and if they were both working they had to manage home schooling and childcare as best they could. For many families this was a stressful experience of juggling too many balls and starting work early and/or finishing late to accommodate looking after, supervising and schooling children during the day. For some families there was joy and fun in this amongst the chaos. For some families it was extreme stress and they are still recovering now.
One impact was that where people had worked in an office the vast majority of time they were now working exclusively from home, and even once the immediate risks of the pandemic waned, they were able to continue working from home some or all of the time. Dads who had never been able to do school drops or pick ups were suddenly able to pick their children up and have a kickabout or an ice cream on the way home, or to do the school drop and talk with their children en route.
For many dads I have spoken to this was something of a defining moment. They gained a window into their children’s lives that was special and touching and they did not want to let that go. There was a moment of realising that perhaps they had missed out and that they wanted to enjoy that connection going forwards. There were even regrets about the moments that had been missed and a deep desire to arrange life differently going forwards.
I want to say at this point that I fully agree that things changed for many mums too and that it is perfectly possible that dad was the one at home and that things changed for mum in this way too. From my perspective as a mediator this doesn’t as often lead to the kind of issues I am going to describe when a couple separate. It can but it tends not to and that may well be because of the views we hold about gender roles and parenting in society. I’m very open to talking about this and to writing a further blog on this (or collaborating with someone about it) but this is not the purpose of this blog post.
For some mums the greater involvement of dad was a very welcome change. It took the load off and they could see that their children enjoyed being able to show dad more of the stuff that happens in the week. For some parents it was a changing of the roles they had had and it was not an easy adjustment, or to put it another way, for some people there was no adjustment, merely a non committal few words about how there might be an adjustment without any serious intent.
Interestingly at a recent conference I went to a workshop run by The Mediation Space that talked about a psychotherapeutically informed approach to working with clients. In that workshop they introduced us to the idea that couples have a couples contract which may be unconscious in the roles they will each have and how they will behave. Where they each take on a particular role, to then change those roles can be very difficult and can lead to large amounts of conflict. The pandemic, for some, took a big stick and poked at those traditional roles.
If we then throw into the mix that couple separating with unresolved issues around their roles as parents you can probably see how they might end up in a significant disagreement about arrangements for their children, following the separation.
Mum argues that Dad may have done a bit more since the pandemic but this is a very short amount of time compared to the time that she has spent doing school runs and managing other appointments and commitments. How can she know that things will remain the way they are? What if dad returns to the office full time and they then have to change things again – that would be really disruptive for children. That would mean even more change in a short space of time and they need routine. It is better that they are with her in the week and that she and dad then share the weekends. Plus although dad says he did school pick ups, he would pick the children up from school and then go back to work at home. She is the one that has prepared and served dinner, and supervised homework and got them to clubs. Dad simply doesn’t do all the things that she does.
Dad says I have made this work and I have spoken to my boss and I have clearance that I can still continue to work at home or leave early on some days and I really want to do this. I have loved spending more time with my children and I know they’ve loved it too and I really want this to continue. It’s good for me, it’s good for my children and it’s good for you too because you can have a break and/or work more which helps with financing two homes. I know I don’t do all the things you do but I do more than I did and you need to trust that I will step up and I will manage all the things that I need to.
This then usually puts us squarely at the foot of the mountain that is trust. Trust is usually in pretty good supply in a lovely and healthy relationship. In a toxic or unhappy relationship it can get a bit thin on the ground. Add in a separation and lots of feelings of hurt and anger and it’s usually pretty hard to find any trust. Dad asks mum to trust that he will step up and manage all that needs to be managed when the children are with him. Mum says I can’t trust that. You need to prove it first by seeing them less and managing that. Dad says how can I prove it when you won’t let me do it. Mum says how can I let you do it before I can trust you will do it.
It’s a difficult thing to address in mediation. To build trust both parties need to be prepared to work together and to buy into the idea that they are building a co-parenting relationship together brick by brick. They each need to understand (and to want to understand) what they need to do to reassure the other person that they are willing to build that.
Some parents do not have that immediately after a separation and some people don’t have it in them. There is too much hurt and there is not enough trust. Plus they know they’re right and that what they’re suggesting is best for their children.
I have seen amazing parents go on a very scary journey and commit to family therapy, or individual therapy, or both, to try to understand how they came to this place and to unpick how they came to be in this place and what their resistance is to moving forward. This can, with time and patience, create a mutually agreeable way forward. Other brave parents are prepared to let their children talk to the mediator to share their ideas and concerns and to then let those shape their arrangements (even if that puts them in a place of wanting to do things they are not convinced will work and they are far from happy about).
It is undoubtedly a complex and difficult situation. Such circumstances have always been the case but I have been struck by how much the pandemic has changed the traditional roles parents may have had and the impact that this has had on making arrangements following a decision to separate. In turn there is an impact on the professionals dealing with these cases. It’s something I have spoken to other practitioners about but I haven’t particularly seen anybody write about. So I am. I think we need to talk more about this and how such issues can be usefully addressed to assist parents in this situation. There are of course wider conversations about parenting roles in a relationship which I’m also happy to discuss but I’m not sure we’ve really seen the full impact of the pandemic yet on children whose parents are separating and I think this is an important aspect that needs to be looked at.
If you’re in this situation now then I would offer these three tips:
- Mediation may well be helpful in assisting you both in understanding and hearing each other’s viewpoints. It may also be possible for your children to feed into this process so that their voices can be heard without giving them any responsibility for decision making. This alone may not be enough and I want to be clear that mediation is a useful process with many benefits but it is not a magic wand. The good news is that you may be able to claim up to £500 towards your mediation costs. If you’re eligible for legal aid all your mediation costs may be funded.
- In order to find a solution (and it is about finding A solution and not THE solution) that will then free your children from their parents being in conflict (let’s not beat around the bush it is parents being caught up in conflict with each other that causes issues for children and not the separation itself) you both need to take a look at your own “stuff”. This is not easy. There are reasons why you feel the way you feel and these are informed by your life experiences. There may have been some really difficult moments with your children’s other parent and you may need time, space and professional support to heal from this. It’s important to separate your “stuff” from your children’s “stuff”. They are likely to feel differently about their other parent because they are their other parent, not their ex-partner.
- If you really can’t resolve things then you need to ask someone else to decide things for you. This will be a lengthy process through the court and with little certainty on the end date. There are huge delays in the court system and shortages of judges which are compounding the situation. You may like to think about child arbitration which will give you the legally binding final decision you need more quickly but with care and consideration for the judgement that is made. For more information on your options you may find the (Almost) Anything but the Family Court book helpful.
Other useful resources