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Parenting crossroads: choices parents face after separation


When parents separate, the separation itself can be so difficult for the adults, it becomes hard to keep focused on what is best for any child(ren) they may have.

One reason for this is that couples seldom reach the conclusion that the relationship is over at the same time. Below is a simple illustration that shows how the one who leaves (A) generally has a different experience to the one who is left (B); or at least the two parents usually experiences the roller coaster of emotions at slightly different times.

This difference can make the process of discussing how they are going to be parents now they are no longer partners challenging, to say the least!

Because such separations are nothing new, there is a great deal of research and various ways of describing common roles separated parents often play. The simplest just has three categories:

Disengaged parents
These parents avoid contact to avoid conflict. They are likely to communicate by email or text about the children’s arrangements

Parallel parents
These parents run separate lives with their children and only communicate when something really important comes up. They do not criticise each other in front of the children, and do not use the children to send messages to each other.

Cooperative parents
These parents cooperate in a business like manner, sharing parenting. They are likely to have similar values and parenting styles, and are able to discuss issues and resolve differences by focusing on the needs of their children.

Another way of looking at how parents evolve after separation uses five distinct ways. The following is adapted from Michael Scott’s excellent article:

Dissolved Duos
These parents have reached such an extreme point of pain that one of the parents drops out of the child’s life entirely. The parent typically moves away and begins a new family, often never even telling the new spouse that there had ever been another family. This parent would not have even known that their child had graduated. Departing is one way to disengage from the emotional pain of divorce, but the price that the child pays in being abandoned can be huge.

Fiery Foes
These parents have such disdain for one another that, for example, one of the parents cannot even attend the child’s graduation if the other parent is present. Not only does each parent dislike the other, but the child and the eventual grandchild will have to carry the anger down through the generations as to how awful the other parent was as a parent, partner, and yes, human being. The therapist of this child can do nothing more than comfort the child during the therapy sessions. For, after these sessions, the child must return to the family war. The children of these parents suffer psychopathology of the worst order, distress that will assure them of the need for life-long psychotherapy. Often the risks (both physical and emotional) to the child of on-going efforts by their parents at co-parenting are too great. Decisive and sometimes dramatic Court intervention is a virtual necessity with Fiery Foes.

Angry Associates

Angry Associates do not know how to emotionally disengage from each other. They are “compatible combatants.” They fight well together and thus remain in a destructive relationship from which at least one of the parties was truly attempting to leave. At least one of the partners gets stuck in the emotional process of divorce and cannot move on with life. This can go on for years or, perhaps, a lifetime. These parents are in a persistent and continual power struggle with one another. They regularly require third party intervention (mediators, lawyers, arbitrators, and judges). They do not respect each other as parents, nor as people. Their child becomes a pawn in this unrelenting conflict and his or her childhood is sacrificed to the immaturity of the parents. These are the parents who do not encourage the child to share time with the other parent. Involvement with extended family members is not often a real possibility for the child.

Cooperative Colleagues
Cooperative Colleagues have a difficult time when they separate. They most likely have attorneys or require a third party to assist in finalizing plans of the marital settlement. Most often these people did not make a mutual decision to separate. They still do not necessarily like each other, but they respect one another as parents. They can separate their parenting from their partnering issues. They support the child’s involvement in each other’s lives and in the lives of the extended families. They are generally courteous to each other. A few times a year, they may have a disagreement that initially will require third party intervention, but they are able to resolve such disputes outside of Court.
Eventually, cooperative colleagues figure out how to avoid getting caught up in the drama of the former partner. At graduation, for example, they may or may not sit together. Either way, they are cordial and not overtly hostile. They will likely feel more comfortable purchasing separate gifts for their child and one might take the graduate to dinner while the other takes him or her to breakfast. These people have let go of each other. They permit and support the child having a relationship with the other parent. As years move on, each is less threatened by the other. The child has two houses and two families under one large conceptual family umbrella.

Perfect Pals
Perfect Pals are best friends who were married and have made a mutual decision to go their separate ways. These parents like one another. They usually do all their own legal work and establish a parenting plan that is in the “best interests of the child.” They are flexible and have respect for each other, both as co-parents and as friends. These are the individuals who will be able to celebrate holidays together. Even after remarriage to others, they may, for example, all celebrate Thanksgiving dinner together. When graduation comes, they might purchase one present together for their child and sit together at the ceremony.

If you are a parent who would like to do the best you can for your children following a separation, a family mediator may be able to help you and your co parent sort out some practical arrangements. Give William a call on (09) 413 9940.

Some other material relevant to recently separated parents:

Day-to-day care and contact (custody and access)
The Care of Children Act 2004 introduced changes to terms used around the custody and access of children. ‘Custody’ is now called ‘day-to-day care’, while ‘access’ is now called ‘contact’.
When considering the care of their children, parents sometimes think of their custody rights in respect of their children, of full custody or sole custody. This language is no longer used by the Family Court. Care arrangements for children are now called "parenting" and involved day-to-day care, contact, and shared care.

The Care of Children Act 2004 also sets out some responsibilities that BOTH parents have at section 5 (I have bolded two sections I find parents sometimes need to be reminded of):

Principles relating to child’s welfare and best interests
The principles relating to a child’s welfare and best interests are that¬
(a) a child’s safety must be protected and, in particular, a child must be protected from all forms of violence (as defined in section 3(2) to (5) of the Domestic Violence Act 1995) from all persons, including members of the child’s family, family group, whanau, hapu, and iwi:
(b) a child’s care, development, and upbringing should be primarily the responsibility of his or her parents and guardians:
(c) a child’s care, development, and upbringing should be facilitated by ongoing consultation and co-operation between his or her parents, guardians, and any other person having a role in his or her care under a parenting or guardianship order:
(d) a child should have continuity in his or her care, devel¬opment, and upbringing:
(e) a child should continue to have a relationship with both of his or her parents, and that a child’s relationship with his or her family group, whanau, hapu, or iwi should be preserved and strengthened:
(f) a child’s identity (including, without limitation, his or her culture, language, and religious denomination and practice) should be preserved and strengthened.

What is shared care in a Family Court parenting order?

"Shared care" is a term used in the Family Court to refer to a variety of care arrangements for children. It may, or may not involve 50/50 shared care of the children.
The Family Court is different from both the Inland Revenue Department and Work and Income who deem care of a child to be shared if a parent cares for a child for at least 40% of the nights (146 nights) of the child support year (usually from 1 April to 31 March). The word “night” has its usual meaning—it is simply the time between evening and morning, from one day to the next.
In some situations a person might not care for a child for 40% or more of the nights, but special circumstances exist that may mean the ongoing daily care of the child is shared substantially equally between the two carers. Consideration will be given to recognising shared care in these situations on a case-by-case basis. The following situations may be considered as special circumstances and treated as a shared care arrangement. One person can’t care for the child overnight but looks after them every day. One person looks after the child for slightly fewer than the minimum number of nights (146 nights or 40% of the time), but also provides extensive daytime care and extras, such as health care, school fees, uniforms, and sporting fees.

The Guardianship Act 1968.
Sets out The legal rules for guardianship, custody, and access in respect of children and young people
The overriding principle: Welfare of the child
Under the Act the welfare of the child must always be the first and the paramount consideration in guardianship, custody and access matters.
Guardianship begins when the child is born and ends on his or her 20th birthday, unless the child marries before that age. More here.

What is 'Custody'?
Under the Act, custody is defined as the right to possession and care of a child. In practical terms, this means the day-to-day care of the child.
Both parents usually have custody rights, but if they separate the Family Court can grant a custody order in favour of just one of them if necessary. The Court can also decide to make a joint custody order in favour of both parents.
A parent, step-parent or guardian may apply to be granted custody. Other people need the permission of the Court before they can apply for custody.
Once a young person reaches 16, custody orders no longer apply, unless there are special circumstances.

In the context of the Guardianship Act, the term access is only relevant where custody has been given to one parent.
Access in these situations refers to the arrangements for a child or young person to spend time with their non-custodial parent.
The parent who does not have custody may apply to the Court for an access order so that the arrangements have legal weight.
The rights of other relatives such as grandparents or aunts/ uncles to be granted access are limited to situations where one parent has died or has been refused access or is not exercising access to the child.

Some useful links for thinking about parenting plans:

This is the Parenting Plan booklet prepared by the NZ Government. I think it has some great questions to help parents figure out how they are going to look after the children after separation

Here is a link to the same plan, but in MS Word format, so you can put in your children's names and edit it to make it more appropriate for you.

This is a link to information about the "Parenting Through Separation" programme

This page suggests different plans according to the roles listed above

This is quite a detailed explanation of high conflcit families and what happens within them

An acocunt of research into post separation parenting

Infants and overnight care – post separation and divorce

Children and Divorce - Helping Kids Cope with Separation and Divorce

A practical book: The CoParenting Toolkit