Sunday, 19 May 2013


Family law often makes the headlines – sometimes for tragic reasons (such as when harm has befallen a child) and other times as a means of a mirror on society (such as when the latest divorce statistics come out). Recently two articles on caught my attention as they reflected on family law at a more personal level – both on the topics of dads.

The first article (by Sarah MacDonald) asked the question “Do men become better fathers after divorce?” The author of the article reviewed the changes that the Family Law Act has gone through in the past 5 or so years – including the Shared Parental Responsibility Act in 2006 which brought about the presumption of ‘equal shared parental responsibility’ and encouraged at least the consideration of shared care* wherever practicable and when in the best interests of the child.

In what is a very balanced article, the author discusses the problems that have been revealed since the 2006 changes including the stress it can put on some children (particularly young children), that parties with significant personal conflict struggle to manage these complex arrangements, and that such arrangements can be proposed in order to avoid or increase child support obligations.

However, the author also points out that there are many parents who are able to share the care of their kids after separation. And that such an arrangement can offer great benefits to both the children and the parents – such as the child can see both parents undertaking tasks in and around the home and see both parents in paid external employment and the child receives love and attention from two people readily engaged in their day-to-day lives.

The author went on to highlight the change that this can bring about in terms of the role that the Dad has played in the family structure prior to divorce or separation: 

“Couples break up and understandably many fathers can’t cope with the thought of only seeing their children every second weekend.  They argue for and often achieve shared care with weeknights included.  Not surprisingly, they then find to achieve this they have to cut back on work hours, or work more flexibly.  Suddenly they are at the school gate, at sports training, helping with homework.  It’s in some ways fantastic but in others frustrating.  I’ve had many women tell me that after divorce their ex ‘finally became the father I always wanted him to be’.”

In short the article spoke to the best that can come out of marriage or relationship breakdown – that the family stays intact ... a different configuration for sure but intact – indeed, blossoming – nonetheless. The separation was undoubtedly a challenge but also an opportunity.

The second article was by Sam de Brito (who has a young daughter whom he shares care for with her mother). In the article entitled “Defeated Dads” the author speaks about a movie (‘For Ellen’) that tells the story of a Dad who essentially blackmails his ex into letting him see his six year old daughter. The interaction between the child and her father during this visit cuts straight through to one of the most essential parts of post-separation parenting ... just showing up: “At one point Ellen asks Joby why he didn't come to see her before now and he waffles on about his heavy metal band and a record deal and his desire to succeed as a musician."I wanted to make it so bad," says Joby. "Have you made it?" asks Ellen.”

Sam goes on to reference some research that has been done by the Australian Institute of Family Studies into why fathers lose contact with their children after divorce – which quoted an older British and Canadian study that found “many men disengaged from their children for 'structural reasons (distance, repartnering) but also ‘psychological factors’ including 'grief, loss, role ambiguity, a sense of unfairness, concern about the potentially negative impact of divorce on children, the perception of becoming a 'visitor', and the 'pain of visits – their brevity, artificiality, and superficiality'." … A better, more accurate label for them might be 'Driven Away Dads'.”.

To the author’s mind the reason why some men can’t parent after separation is that it just hurts too much: “I get why some men would chose not to go there. It's just easier. If you don't see them, there's nothing to miss, the memories will dull, they become an abstraction.”

For me, these two articles highlight the “rock and the hard place” that the family law system tries to traverse – between respecting that children have a right to have a relationship with both of their parents, no matter (save as to safety) the different lifestyle or parenting methods of the respective parents, and the emotional and practical reality of post-separation parenting.

*shared care can loosely be defined as a child spending somewhere between 40-60% of the time with each parent.

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