When parents separate and divorce, they often think that they are being fair if they agree to share the parenting of their children 50/50. Many courts support the decision, and give a nod of approval if the children spend equal amounts of time with each parent. It seems to be commonsense that the parents get to spend equal amounts of time with them, and the children with each parent. But in fact such arrangements frequently cause huge emotional difficulties for the children which in turn lead to long-term mental and psychological challenges.
Its sad to say, but the best living arrangement is for the children of divorces to live in one place, and for the parents to move in and out rather than the arrangement which usually prevails, where the children are shuttled between parents (often two, three or four days at a time in each parents house) before returning to the other. Unfortunately this requires the couple to have three homes (one for each of them, one for the children) and so is financial impossible.
How would you like it? Parents rarely stop to consider what it must feel like to have two homes. The prospect is frequently ‘talked up’: How exciting to have two sets of toys, two sets of clothes, two sets of friends (if the homes are a long way apart), two Christmases and birthdays, and other so-called benefits, as defined by the parents. But the reality is a lot different: never having all your clothes and favourite toys around, constantly losing things or leaving them at the other house, feeling guilty for the absent parent, struggling to deal with new relationships and step parents/ step-siblings, and feeling out of control most of the time. They grow up with a constant sense of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, of missing out. What children want more than anything is to have a happy, stable home-life and if that is not possible, a happy stable place to live. One place to live.
King Solomon had the right idea: Say your going to cut the baby in half, and the parent who cares the deepest would rather give it up than have it sacrificed. Parents who really care for the emotional well-being of their children would rather give up their ‘right’ to spend 50% of the time with them, for the knowledge that their children are getting a better emotional start in life by having the security of one stable home.
There may not be any ‘best’ solution, but it is rarely going to be asking young children to shuttle between homes. It creates a sense of anxiety that is likely to plague them for the rest of their lives, along with low-self-esteem (because their needs are not met and they deeply question their abilities), co-dependency, addiction, depression and the rest of the mental illness gamut.
Mothers often know this intuitively. They often feel unease that the children spend days and nights at a time with their father, because the mother knows that despite having the best of intentions, he is often unable to cope with the practicalities, or has different ideas about what will keep the children happy, secure, well-fed, clean, with enough of the right food and sleep. But social pressures are high on her to allow the father to have the children an equal amount of the time. Even an arrangement of alternative weekends can cause havoc on the children’s emotional health – they feel torn, divided, unsettled, angry.
What is the best solution? Difficult as it might be, true good co-parenting means no overnight stays until the child is 7 at the earliest, and then stopped if the child shows any signs of being unsettled. After 7 or 8, one night at a time, and weekends only after 10 or 11. There can be daytime arrangements, but overnights are just too disruptive.
Of course this means that a) fathers don’t get to spend as much time with the children as they want (or that some children want too), and b) Mums don’t get as much time off as they do when the kids spend 50% of their time with Dad. But, sorry to break the bad news, this is not about the adults, its about the children. For the damage of the divorce to the children to be minimised, they need one stable, secure place to sleep.
If the parents really have their childrens’ wellbeing at heart, they will agree to have less overnight stays and come to other arrangements. Children’s wishes will be listened to, parents will not try and poison or influence them, and any arguments and disputes will be kept well away from them.
Sadly, many divorcing parents forget that they are the adults and behave like children themselves. But if they stop to think about how they would like it, and who are the most important little people in the situation, they would gladly forgo any attempt at 50% residency sharing and allow the children to have a childhood of security and safety.