The Only Person I Am Constantly With Is Me - Shared Care Orders
Posted on 10th March 2023
The Only Person I Am Constantly With Is Me
“It is still the case that 50/50 shared care arrangements between parents are comparatively rare in private law children cases. Research shows that a number of factors have to be in place, practical matters such as the close geographical proximity, but, above all, the couple have to be on reasonable or good terms so that the to and fro of everyday life for a child is accommodated without undue emotional fall out…50/50 will remain, in my view, a rare order and only to be contemplated where there is some confidence that it will not work to the disadvantage of the child, albeit that the aim is to give good quality and substantial time with each parent.”
Sir Andrew MacFarlane, M(A Child) EWCA Civ 1755
Having made these comments in 2014, Sir Andrew MacFarlane went on to be appointed as the current President of the Family Court in 2018. The shared care arrangement he is describing and urging caution over is more popular as an outcome in family court than perhaps he anticipated in 2014.
The shared care order, a ‘live with, live with’ order is designed to put Mum and Dad on an equal footing so neither is subservient to the other. There are no bragging rights as one parent enjoys the title of the resident parent and the other, the absent parent.
As parents, the order is allegedly fair and equitable but as the children subjected to this order, it is fraught with emotional and psychological issues and the very real prospect of permanent damage.
“So, let’s start with the positive...”
Shared care or joint residency honours the wishes of parents to offer their children equality in parenting. In the long term, the effects of shared care should be positive where neutrality, or at best goodwill, is maintained between parents. Fathers can become more comfortable with the emotional and practical aspects of childcare. Mothers can find themselves less burdened by childcare responsibilities and more able to pursue other
interests or professional pursuits.
Unfortunately, from the child’s point of view research shows a less positive position for joint residency over a childcaring primary residence with one or other of the parents. Sorry readers, the positive did not last very long…
The often complex and hassled weekly framework of joint parenting can create tension in children, detachment anxieties and a sense of not belonging. This is further exacerbated if the parents, to avoid conflict, use the child as the message bearer between them.
Other variations of joint care considered in research include alternations of childcare between parents or a weekly or split weekly basis, or between school weeks and weekends. There are a myriad of variations around the objective of shared care. Indeed, there are examples of children remaining in the family home and the parents moving in and out each week. The paramount advantage of any of these equal arrangements is that neither parent feels relegated to the role of visitor. Each parent has time off from childcare responsibilities and indeed several mothers have subsequently confessed to enjoying their child free weekends as an opportunity to reclaim their own lives. Again, positive stuff but what about the children?
“Join us on the rollercoaster of shared care…”
Children can be a little chaotic, have you noticed that? So, in keeping with that theme of chaos, join us aboard a rollercoaster as we rush through the few highs and many lows of shared care arrangements from the children’s perspective.
Many of the specific observations held within this article are drawn from two family scenarios that the author has direct experience of. In order to provide context, it is worth knowing the basis of those shared care arrangements directed by the family court.
Scenario 1: two children who spend Monday to Friday with their mother and from after school on Friday to return to school Monday with their father. The parents live in two different towns approximately 30 miles apart. Both parents have new live in partners but no other children involved.
Scenario 2: three children who comply with a convoluted framework built around blocks of 2 to 3 days with each parent. The children follow their own individual timetable so the children are split up and have contact with the parents at different times of the week. The framework means the children are only all together as siblings under the same roof for 3 nights each week. The parents live in two different towns approximately 15 miles apart. Dad has remarried with the new spouse bringing a child from a previous marriage. The father of that child is an almost daily feature in the child’s life. Father and his new wife have had a child of their own, so there are 5 children with 2 fathers and 2 mothers involved. Mum continues to live alone.
Anyway, find your seat as the rollercoaster is leaving and remember, scream if you want to go faster.
“In Mum’s house, I am the child but in Dad’s house, I am the step-child because I am not there all the time. I have been told I need to remember I am a guest in the home of my Dad and his new wife…I thought I was his daughter.”
“Where is the child’s REAL home?...”
A child under joint residency must shuffle back and forth from the mother's house to the father's house. They can often spend all week, every week, living out of a suitcase. Children who have these kinds of setups have trouble identifying their real home. They do not have that sense of feeling at home because they keep on transferring from one home to another. Many times, children have difficulty adjusting since they lose the feeling of having a stable home. They refer to their parents' addresses as Mum's house or Dad's house but never my home. They always travel, and they do not have the chance to fully settle in a place of their own.
Along with this nomadic lifestyle comes a detachment from belongings and possessions. As the child is constantly moving, possessions and belongings are slowly discarded over time as the child learns to travel ever and ever lighter to make the transitions easy. A clear indicator of a transient child is the bedrooms they stay in are often decorated by the parents with little or no input from the child. The child does not put their stamp on the room as they do not see it as theirs.
Blank picture frames which have been hung on the wall for the child to populate with pictures remain blank months later because the child has insufficient ownership of the space to want to be bothered.
The furniture is marked and knocked because the child does not feel a sense of ownership for it and subconsciously has the same regard as we all do for hotel furnishings. A child’s bedroom is full of life lessons on expressing their personality, owning and looking after possessions, being alone in a space they regard as their own, a safe space. The provision of two bedrooms in two separate houses where the child is forced to divide their
time denies a large amount of those life lessons. The detachment from ‘home’ is made significantly worse where the child has to share a bedroom in one of the parent’s houses with a step brother or sister. In this instance, it is their bedroom and the child coming in so
many nights per week is the visitor, the guest.
“She is nice to me but she makes it very clear that it is her bedroom not mine. She makes it clear to me it is her Mum and Dad, not mine…but he is my Dad, some of the time…”
“Different homes, different boundaries…”
Shared care removes the consistency in a child's life. What can be allowed in one house may not be allowed in the other. Bedtimes may be different, as well as general house rules. There is no consistency, and the child has to adjust over and over again as they switch between the regimes. This is especially difficult for parents, as well, because the child starts to compare and contrast his or her parents. Instead of having a peaceful and relaxed relationship together, there might be a lot of inconsistencies in the way the parents bring up their children, which could encourage children to manipulate the parents.
For example, in one of our scenario homes, the children have a set time when they must be ready for bed. In the other home, the children are left to their own devices and allowed to govern themselves. What happens? Firstly, the children rebel. They want to be left to their own devices in both homes and so start to misbehave in the home when a bed time is regulated. This leads to disquiet and tension in the relationship.
The parent and child are at loggerheads and the two parents are at loggerheads. What happened then after a few months was fascinating. The children switched their allegiance from the regime where they governed themselves and stopped up until late to the regime where they went to bed at 9pm. The children found themselves tired and irritable and schoolwork was being impacted. They were getting detentions for not paying attention
because they were tired.
In one of our sample homes, the child is allowed to drink alcohol in moderation, be out until late, go to events alone where large crowds of drunken adults will be present. The parent believes this is appropriate and good for the child’s development. In the other home, the child is not allowed to drink alcohol, has to be home at a reasonable time with regular contact while they are out and it is inappropriate for the child to be out alone in
large crowds. Who is right? With such extreme boundary differences, how can the child develop evenly?
“Two homes, two toothbrushes…”
Joint residency brings about double expenses for the whole family or items constantly going missing as they travel backwards and forwards between the properties. Two houses often means that everything has to be doubled. Children under shared care brings the need for Mum and Dad to fund two beds and bedding, duplicated clothing, toiletries and many other items. It results in more expenses and a need to duplicate everything. The alternative is to make the child travel between the houses with a suitcase containing all the clothes, toiletries, shoes and so on that they
need for that leg of their contact journey.
If we are moving items backwards and forwards, where does that lead? Items lost. Items left in the other house when the child needs them in this house. Items forgotten for school and so a high speed visit has to be made to the other house to recover them and then run the risk of being late for school.
If Mum and Dad don’t get on then…hang on, you say, Andrew MacFarlane is quoted at the outset of this article saying shared care is only directed where parents are on reasonable or good terms. Well, sadly no-one has reminded the family court that this is a pre-requisite because shared care is being directed for parents who despise each other.
Why? Because the court wants a resolution and wants this case out of the way so it can make some in-roads into the backlog. And… because the court can’t find reason to not give these warring parents shared care as neither has done anything wrong other than to be repulsed by the other. So, share the kids and close the door on your way out.
Now, where were we? If Mum and Dad don’t get on, items have to be duplicated as “you are not taking that to your mother’s house”. It is little wonder that statistics show that only 50% of children who experience shared care go on to further education because their parents cannot or will not afford it.
“I don’t see my school mates at the weekend as they are too far away and I don’t see my weekend mates during the week as they are too far away. It means they do stuff without me and I am left out…”
“Here’s a surprise, shared care isolates children…”
It is not a surprise that some children form stronger attachments to one parent than the other. Shared care. The child tends to have a favourite parent and would do anything to be with that parent. He or she then begins to resent going to the other, therefore making a clear gap between the parent and the child.
Moreover, there are many times that parents do not keep up with their own children’s logistics and may end up blaming each other because something wasn't done since somebody thought that the other one already did it. The middle of the conflict is always the child, who may have the full impact of the whole disjointed setup.
The family court directed resolution of shared care is rarely that, rarely shared. The children travel to the other parent’s house with a suitcase of clothing and they return with a suitcase of laundry because the parent with the children does not recognise laundry as being in their remit.
A child returns from his allocated contact days with his Dad and is moody, withdrawn and clearly upset. A conversation with his Mum reveals that he feels like a guest, an unwanted guest at his Dad’s house. He can’t express himself, he can’t be himself, he says it is awkward and makes him unhappy. Through unbridled tears, he says he feels isolated and lonely.
Children in shared care arrangements often become loners because of an inability to maintain healthy friendships. They are not consistently in one place so the friends they may have gained are doing things in their absence. Group chats become awkward because the friends are talking about something they did together that our child was at the other parent’s for. The result? Friends fall by the wayside and it is easier to be a
They spend hours on end online in gaming chatrooms and social media chatrooms engaging with strangers but at least they can access them from wherever they are.
Research shows that in complying with a framework, children can detach from both parents, become very independent and begin to seek role models that are available to them constantly. Online grooming is prolific in children from broken homes and children in shared care scenarios.
“Parents resent joint residency because it complicates their lives and it means they did not win the battle to be the resident parent, they did not come out on top…”
“Sounds terrible, so what else?...”
Well, don’t get me started but seeing as you have asked, bite down on these nuggets.
Enuresis and Encopresis – one of the most common indicators of the anxiety being brought on in the children by a shared care arrangement. Children up to and including their early teens have episodes of wetting themselves or soiling themselves. The impact of these conditions is a negative one on children’s social, educational and personal development. These children experience anxiety, low self-esteem and lowered mood associated with the response from their peers, exclusion from school and generally feeling different and ostracised.
Temper tantrums and aggressive behaviour – Tantrums and aggressive behaviour are a response from children to their frustrating situation.
Irrational fears – All children have a degree of irrational fear as they grow up, a fear of dogs perhaps without cause, but children in shared are arrangements can show fears which are borne of the situation. A fear of the death of a parent while they are with the other parent. A fear of being excluded by their peers. A fear they will be regarded as not normal by their peers due to their living arrangements. A fear that each parent will reject
them in favour of one of the other children or step children.
Separation anxiety – an excessive anxiety caused by separation from the child’s primary attachment figure (parent). When separating from the attachment figure, the child becomes preoccupied with fears that the attachment figure will not return to their life and this induces increased feelings of insecurity and distress in the child. Children with separation anxiety express a fear of being lost, of never being reunited with their attachment parent and thus tend to refuse to attend school or are reluctant to be in situations away from the attachment figure.
And don’t even get us started on generalised anxiety disorders, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder, school phobia, post traumatic stress disorder, depression, self harming, suicidal ideations, the list goes on and on.
“I need you to pack a suitcase and go to an address 40 minutes away but still go to your normal place of work each day which is near here. Stay in that other place for 2 days, then pack your suitcase and come back here. I want you to stay here for 3 days and then pack your suitcase and go back to the other place for 3 days. Then I want you to pack your suitcase and come back here for 2 days…I want you to do that relentlessly for the
next 10 years. Would you?...And if you wouldn’t, why are you making your child do it?”
School attendance – putting aside school phobia which is an irrational fear of attending school primarily resultant from separation anxiety and a fear of being ostracised by peers, shared care brings an unwelcome complication to school. Where the school being attended is close to one parent but some distance from the other, school brings trouble. The child is on their contact cycle with the parent who is distant from school and there is a significant increase in the child being late for school and forgetting equipment, PE kit, homework and so on. The parent is aware that the child is going to be late (again) but rather than managing the situation with an earlier start to the day, the parent simply keeps badgering the child and putting the responsibility on the child for the situation.
The journey to school is stressful, the traffic is in the way, the parent is non- communicative as they chunter at how bad everyone else’s driving is. Alternatively, the parent is occupying the journey by giving a lecture on how it is the child’s fault that they will be late again and this is not the attitude with which to approach life. The child walks into school and is penalised for being late usually with a detention of some form, so immediately the tone of the day is negative.
The child walks into their class which is already underway drawing attention to themselves from all of their peers and being met with a sarcastic comment from the teacher, “glad you could join us.” None of this was the child’s fault. The parent failed to parent.
Shared care comes with obligations for both parents and the school run can be a major one. When a parent is battling in family court to secure equal contact with their children, they rarely consider all the implications of what they are battling for and sadly, (hold on to the railing, this is going to rock you) they rarely consider the child. In the heat of battle, the child is a trophy, a chattel to be won and possessed.
Restricted contact – “you are on my time, you have no need to contact your Mum”. So many shared care arrangements build in the ability for children to freely contact either parent regardless of whose care the child is in. This freedom is then removed as soon as the court has left. Parents do not want the child contacting the other parent during ‘their time’ and this leads to distress and detachment.
In an extreme example we are aware of, the children have their mobile phones taken from them when they arrive at one parent’s house and they are issued with a different mobile phone. They can contact friends but not the other parent and the other parent cannot contact them. Their original mobiles are returned as they leave.
Step parents – here is a relative stranger that I want you to call ‘Dad’ while you are in this house and confide in them. I want you to replace your actual Dad who is in the other house with this Dad during your stay. It is beyond belief that adults engage in a new relationship with another adult which may be committed and long term and then simply expect their children to accept the new arrangement and immediately permit the new adult to have some parental responsibility over them.
Puberty, for example, is a difficult time for every child with the beginning of menstrual cycles in girls being very upsetting. The Dad who instructs a child that she cannot contact her Mum to deal with period problems because there is a perfectly good step Mum available is an example of terrible parenting. The child is uncomfortable, distressed, feeling awkward and needs the only person on this planet that she trusts. Don’t deny her
Step siblings – “here is another child that you have no history for. They are your step brother or step sister, so engage with them now and get on with your life.” This arrogance is evident in so many parents who are seeking to blend families and bring children from previous relationships.
Step sibling rivalry is a massive discontent in shared care, blended family arrangements. Look at it from the child’s perspective. The child lives in their home all the time with their Mum and their step Dad. So many days a week, another child turns up with their suitcase and is accommodated. They may have to share a bedroom and they will certainly have to share attention and affection from the parents. The resident child did not ask to be joined by ‘orphan Annie’ and frankly the visitor is disrupting the dynamic.
Now put yourself in the shoes of the visiting child. They are told this is their other home but it isn’t. The dynamic is already established with the resident children and they are guests, unwanted guests at time but guests all the same.
“This is my bedroom and my stuff. My pictures on the wall. My drawers and my wardrobe. I will afford you one drawer to put your stuff in and that pop up guest bed but the rest of the environment is mine…”
The other issue surrounding step siblings is that of parity. The siblings are all treated differently depending on where they sit in the hierarchy. In our scenario where step siblings are present, the children who are burdened with travelling between two homes are treated with less generosity than the permanently resident children. This is no more evident than at Christmas.
The resident children receive a large number of gifts and the visiting children receive a few token gifts on the premise that the other house presumably made up the shortfall. The protection of hard won rewards…
At the outset of this article, Sir Andrew MacFarlane said that shared care orders could only work with parents who are on good terms. The fundamental flaw in that statement is it was made in the family court. The lack of good terms is self-evident given that the parents are battling in family court.
Jennifer McIntosh, Australian clinical psychologist, “the attributes that increase the likelihood of shared arrangements working smoothly…are not typically characteristic of parents who litigate or who otherwise require significant support to determine an administer their post separation parenting plans.”
It is a simple fact that some parents fight for shared care in order to reduce their financial burden. If the children are in shared care, neither parent is liable to make maintenance payments to the other. The parent side-stepping maintenance payments by accepting shared care rarely takes an equal financial role in the child’s life. They avoid buying clothing, paying for school needs and keep treats to an absolute minimum so the burden falls on the other parent. Contact time is closely protected and children are denied access to the other parent.
Children are forced to comply with the contact framework regardless of an event that they might be missing or illness or anything else.
Fiercely protecting contact time comes at the expense of the children because the parent is not considering the children, they are simply focusing on having what they are entitled to.
So, what do we do that is different? How do we make this better?...
This is an extract from an American study into the effects of joint custody. It says “Children learn to ignore and subordinate their emotional and developmental needs and defer to parents’ and judicial wants and needs for this ’fairness.’ Each child realises they must endure the difficulties, and sometimes, downright chaos, of alternate living in two places and solo with two different adults.
Children eventually discover they will have their emotional and physical needs met best by only one parent. Commonly they will be more relaxed being a child with that parent. With the other parent, they discover they must function in psychologically inappropriate ways.
Children will be aware of one parent who is weaker in their ability or willingness to service their needs. Children will be called upon to tend emotionally to this parent in a role-reversal manner. With this parent, they often feel overwhelmed, tense, anxious, and fearful. They worry whether this parent will make ball practice on time, whether they’ll have a clean uniform and money for lunch or a packed lunch to take to school. They learn they are supposed to surrender to the parents’ and court’s desire for their lodging in alternate households, no matter how tumultuous the process or what they suffer emotionally.”
Parents who have taken each other to family court are not best placed to manage a shared care arrangement. They could not resolve their differences at the point of break up and needed a court to decide for them. How can it possibly be imagined that they will be able to orchestrate the myriad of issues around a share care arrangement?
We have to find a way to bring children into the family court and stop making decisions in their best interest without consulting them.
We have got to stop drawing up convoluted contact frameworks that bat a child backwards and forwards like a ping pong ball in a bid to appease parents and be equitable. The family court is supposed to protect children but in shared care, it does exactly the opposite. It sells children short and hands them a gruelling schedule in order to satisfy Mum and Dad that they won an equal slice of the pie.
Children are timetabled in school. Is it really right for a timetable to be imposed on them outside school too?
Mum and Dad, let us share this with you. Your children did not ask to be in the middle of your war. They did not ask to spattered by the blood from your battle. They did not ask to suffer the consequences of your actions. Stop regarding your children as possessions and accept that their childhood should be lived in one place that they regard as home. Their stuff is there. Their friends are there. Their foundation is there. Their mental health and their development needs an identified home, so one parent has to be the keeper of home and the other parent has to accept that.
Take a moment to look at what you are asking them to do through their eyes and ask yourself the question, would you be happy to do it? If the honest answer is no, then stop asking them to and give them a framework which works for them not you.
We hope you enjoyed the ride. Mind your heads on the safety bar as you leave. Turn to the left as you exit unless it is week 2 on the contact schedule, in which case, one child turns to the left and the other child turns to the right…
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