I wish I could ban words like ‘sole custody’, ‘access’ and ‘visitation’ from conversations between separated parents. These outdated words can unnecessarily provoke fear and conflict between them. They are not conducive to an amicable co-parenting relationship as they evoke images of ownership and power imbalance. I hear parents say in response, ‘I have parental rights’. Actually they have parental responsibilities. A child has rights and as long as it’s safe, it’s their basic right to know both of their parents and to spend time with each of them. Parents have a duty to facilitate this.
Today I read a post from a mother on a divorce forum and it prompted me to write this blog. Her 8 year old son had returned home after spending a few days with his father. He told her that his father said that when a child turns 12, they decide who will have sole custody and at that point he could choose his father instead of his mother. The mother explained there was no court order in place and that his father had 3 days a week ‘access’ to him and she had 4. Communication wasn’t great, but they were civil. She said she was terrified that her son would choose his father and she would lose him. She was frantically researching the law to see if her son’s father was right and he could ‘take her son away from her’ in a few years. This was my response to the mother.
Hi, I’m a lawyer mediator. I appreciate that it must be very frightening to feel that you could lose your son. However, please try not to panic or be frightened, as I don’t believe that will happen. Old fashioned words like ‘sole custody,’ provoke fear in parents and this can very easily translate into parental conflict. If both parents are involved in a child’s life, (you say your son spends time with each of you and that you are both loving parents), then it’s best to try not to think in terms of custody and access. Your son has a right to spend plentiful time with each of you. Therefore, thinking about how you can both practically achieve this, is a much more positive way of looking at things. Your son has two homes and for children with separated parents, that’s their normality. So whilst I completely understand why you fear you will lose your son, as he has two loving parents who want to be involved in his life, there’s no reason for that to happen. He needs you both & you each have an important role to play in helping him to thrive. Maybe his father doesn’t feel he spends enough time with him and that’s why he has been thinking in these terms. Or maybe he feels the amount of time is fine, but the arrangements don’t work as well as they could. Perhaps you could talk to him about this and how the conversation with your son made you feel. Ask him what prompted the conversation. Does he feel he isn’t as involved as he would like to be in decisions about your son? What’s his fear? Positional statements usually come from a place of fear. How can you improve your parental communication? Would a weekly phone call help to keep you both in the loop and build trust and understanding? When communication is limited it’s easy to assume what the other is thinking. When it comes to discussing this situation with your son, it would be helpful to speak to his father first so you are both on the same page. Reassure your son. In your position I might say; “you have a mummy and daddy who both love you very much. You enjoy spending time with each of us and we love spending time with you. You never have to choose between us as you have two parents and two homes and will always spend time with each of us. We will always be your family. As you get older, we can regularly look at how you share your time with us and what works best for you and for us. We can all figure it out together as we go along. We will always be your parents and we will always love you…”
Simplify Co-Parenting after Separation
When parents live together they work out how they can meet their child’s needs in a very practical way. ‘I am working Monday and Tuesday and so can you pick up from school both days?’ When couples separate, they often want a more structured arrangement so they can plan ahead and are assured that they will spend time with their child. It’s helpful to agree that there can be some flexibility, so the arrangements aren’t too rigid and can meet a child’s changing needs. When we throw unhelpful words into the mix, it changes the conversation and dynamics. It’s important to focus on what works best for you all and not to get hung up on terminology. Mediation can create a safe space to have these discussions. The mediator ensures discussions are fair and balanced and that everyone has an opportunity to be heard. Sometimes it just takes one or two sessions with an impartial mediator to enable parents to get back on track. It’s not always easy to communicate with a co-parent and there will always be challenges and bumps in the road. However, in years to come, it is something your child will understand you worked hard at and they will be immensely grateful for your efforts.
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