My boy with two homes
Splitting up when you have children is never easy, says BRIAN FINNEGAN, but you can stop it being a nightmare
For 16 years, between the time I split up with my son's mother and the time he left school and moved in with me full-time, I was what might be termed a quarter-time dad.
Although I was a parent to my son in the fullest sense, the real time I spent with him was divided into weekends, along with school holidays and half-terms. It wasn't 50/50 shared parenting in exact timetabling, but Colum's mother and I shared the parenting of him in every other sense. We shared the costs, we shared the decisions, we shared the worries, we shared the important days in his life together with him, birthdays, Holy Communion and the whole gamut and, most crucially, we let him share us equally, never pressurising him to favour one over the other.
We had Colum when I was young and although the split was painful, from the outset we were committed to being adults in our relationship with our son, rather than children fighting over him. We both fundamentally understood his need for each of us, to love us as his equal parents, along with his need to be equally loved by us without condition.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. In 2009 there were 3,341 divorces in Ireland and 1,627 judicial separation applications. In many cases of divorce and separation for couples with offspring, custody and care of the children becomes an issue amid acrimony and bitterness. A recent survey found that more than a third of children lose touch with one parent after separation.
"When a couple separate, they're separating from each other, not from the children," says Sheila Healy of the Family Support Agency's Family Mediation Centre. "They need to separate out their own relationship from their commitment as parents. All the research shows that children fare best when they are able to have a positive relationship with both parents and they don't feel any conflicts of loyalty. They need to feel a certain permission from both parents to have a relationship with the other parent, that there is no betrayal involved."
Most of the couples who access the Family Mediation Centre come with the idea of the best possible outcome for their children in mind, however there is no such thing as a tailor-made shared parenting arrangement.
"We sometimes have people who come with a very set view that it has to be absolutely 50pc of the time," says Healy. "But we try to shift from the focus of time to what works best from the child's point of view."
"I think that I went through was as good as it can get," says Colum. "It wasn't 50/50, which was better in a way because there was less upheaval. If it is 50/50 then as a child you might not be fully planted in either life," he says.
"The transition between the two homes was difficult sometimes, because when you're a child you forget your other life when you're with one parent. So you keep having to readjust."
Despite separated parents' best intentions, there will always be adjustment difficulties for the child. Also, when both parents have a good relationship and the child witnesses no conflict, a fantasy of being a full-time family can assert itself.
"When I was very small I wanted us all to be together," says Colum. "It was a time when I couldn't understand the reality of it for the adults, so it was a fantasy I had, something that might come true. I don't think it caused me pain on any great level.
"When I was older, it was a little more difficult because I began questioning and getting very upset when I was left back to Mum's after weekends. I was becoming more aware of the situation and realising that I had to let go and return to my day-to-day life, which was less fun. Maybe 50/50 shared parenting, where it is not about one parent having you during school time and the other having you for the fun, holiday time, could be better for the child. If there was an even keel, the experiences with both parents would be interchangeable."
In creating a shared parenting arrangement, it's best to take all aspects of the parenting plan into account, says Healy.
"Who has the children for the holidays, for birthdays and special occasions like Christmas? While in mediation, we would work through that on a practical level with couples, we would also remind them that the children's needs will change over time and a certain degree of flexibility is necessary."
Flexibility is certainly needed if another parent enters the arrangement. "When Colum was six, his mother married and she and her husband [have] had four more children. From that point on it was about negotiating another kind of family set-up, with me often becoming part of my son's new family. Luckily, Colum's step-father was respectful of my relationship with him, and we got on well, so there were no difficulties. Their children treat me as a kind of uncle.
However, many of the return visitors to the Family Mediation Centre come because they need to negotiate the shifting dynamics of family arrangements. "There may be issues that need to be resolved, but the parents can't seem to do it in the everyday sense," says Healy. "There may be a new partner or sometimes one of the parents wants to move away, creating situations that are often difficult for the other parent. If couples know on some level that whatever the difficulties they have to try and work things through for the children, then they are at a very good starting point."