Last weekend, I was perusing Mother’s Day cards (reminder folks – Sunday! This is not a drill…) when I came across this one
I was about to tweet a picture of it, with a pithy message about how pleasing it is that card companies are now recognising that families come in all shapes and sizes and there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to parenthood. However something – the family lawyer in me – caused me to pause and think about the nuance; the parental choices/wider circumstances which may lead to a parent being a single parent, and what that may mean for a child.
Single parents may be mums OR dads and what I say is intended to be gender neutral; they may be same sex or opposite sex parents; they may have been married or not. They may not have chosen to be a single parent (the other parent may have decided that, or circumstance may have dictated it, or they may have made a conscious decision, at the point of conception or adoption, that they would be the only parent in the child’s life).
The other type of single parent is one where the other parent has been involved (or has had the chance to be involved) in a child’s life, but for a multitude of reasons associated with the present parent or the child (and often one drives the other) no longer is. I have seen both mums and dads as estranged parents, and both mums and dads occasionally playing a role in the estrangement. The common theme is the impact on the child concerned; and the plea is to consider how we may do things differently for children.
So, in what circumstances may a parent be a single parent? And how can lawyers, therapists, parenting organisations and the like work together to ensure that children have the parenting arrangement they deserve and need?
- Single parenthood through circumstance
Some parents – mums or dads – may be single parents through circumstance (e.g. where the absent parent has chosen not to play a role in the child’s upbringing, or where it is deemed not safe to the child for them to do so, or where sadly the other parent has died during the child’s minority). In those cases, the dial cannot be moved if a parent is no longer around or is a safeguarding risk (though of course it may be possible to mitigate that risk); and can be difficult to move the dial if the other parent doesn’t want a parenting relationship (quite a few parents have found it surprising when I have said that the Family Court cannot force an absent parent to spend time with a child if they do not wish to do so). It may also be that the parent has chosen to be a single parent, through adoption or surrogacy.
The role of the single parent in these situations is to give the child oodles of love, ensure that they have a clear sense of their identity (with a relationship with the wider family of the absent parent where relevant/appropriate) and, where possible, encourage some form of relationship with the absent parent if appropriate.
2. Single parenthood due to the child highlighting problems/choosing that
In other cases, a parent may be (or become) a single parent because the child may have chosen not to have (or have chosen to stop having) a relationship with the absent parent, for a multitude of reasons. That may be rooted in the behaviours of the absent parent during the marriage/relationship; or (increasingly in my experience) it may have to do with a flashpoint months or even years after the end of the adult relationship. Sometimes that is about a difficult co-parenting relationship post-separation, perhaps with very different parenting styles, leading to an eventual implosion when the child decides that it is too difficult to keep trying to please both parents (especially where one, or perhaps even both, is giving negative signals about the other parent and the child’s time with them) and stops wanting to see one parent. Sometimes the estranged parent may have a blip – perhaps a form of PTSD and a belated response to the difficult breakdown of the relationship with the other parent, or for other reasons which are nothing to do with the breakdown of the relationship – which the child confides in the other parent (or someone else) about and may mean that they aren’t able to carry on having the child in their care.
These are difficult situations to contend with, because there are multiple fractured relationships – the estranged parent and the child; the two parents; and pressure on the relationship of the child and the non-estranged parent, by the latter having to deal with the invariable suggestion by the estranged parent that they have manipulated the child into saying they don’t want to see the absent parent, and the child sometimes questioning the protective steps the parent with care takes. For the estranged parent, often the best advice is to accept their own shortcomings, agree to whatever treatment (individually, with the co-parent and/or with the child) is deemed necessary and resume the child/parent relationship at the child’s pace. For the non-estranged parent, it is a balancing act of (a) promoting the child/parent relationship whilst (b) protecting the child’s interests and not letting contact move forward unless it is safe, whilst often fighting a rear-guard action against allegations of manipulation (of the child)/abuse (of the other parent). The best advice in this scenario is for both parents to accept that they are not perfect, listen to their child and move forward in a therapeutic setting. The co-parents need to work together with therapeutic support to show the child that they can co-parent effectively and won’t let their disagreements impact the child; the child may need psychological support to work through the blip in the parenting relationship; the estranged parent and the child may need therapy to support getting their relationship back on track (which will need careful navigation e.g. where a child has made allegations which the estranged parent denies).
But how often do we see this scenario played out in the family courts, with one parent steadfastly refusing to accept that they have had difficulties and are in need of support, and with the other parent (sometimes) seeking to capitalise on a difficulty and be as punitive as possible in standing in the way of contact knowing that delay in progression of contact and the slow court process will serve their ends? The estranged parent may bring into the mix allegations of domestic abuse/coercive controlling behaviour on the part of the parent with care; that may lead to a fact finding hearing being mooted and further damage to an already damaged co-parenting relationship. In those cases one often sees the spectre of the child being joined to the litigation and a children’s Guardian appointed, sometimes with the risk of a child having to give evidence against a parent; and a social services investigation often triggered by the perceived level of parental conflict. With some level of parental insight and cooperation, and skilled therapeutic interventions, it may be possible to avoid this sort of scenario.
3. Single parenthood through the parent with care excluding the other parent
And what of the situation where the parent is a single parent as a result of them excluding the other parent from the child’s life, where there is seemingly no objectively good reason to do so? As family lawyers we hesitate to use the phrase parental alienation. But sometimes consciously, sometimes not, one parent effectively excludes the other parent from the child’s life. We have all seen the cases where this is overt – e.g. one parent makes repeated allegations to social services which they know to be false but which they hope will either eventually stick, or cause the other parent eventually to give up and walk away. In one sense these are the easy cases, as the court can and should think very seriously about the detrimental impact on the child of this behaviour and the need to transfer “residence” to the other parent. The reality is more difficult, of course, as few judges will readily conclude that that course will outweigh the detrimental impact to the child of a sudden change of homes. The best advice to the parent with care is, reflect long and hard on your behaviour and the inevitable long term impact upon the child. And to the parent against whom the allegations are made – press hard for the parenting relationship to be preserved, but sometimes know that (extremely sadly) the right thing for the child is to bide your time, walk away, stay in touch in other ways and seek to re-establish the relationship down the line. That is the hardest call a parent in that situation can make, and difficult advice to give on occasion.
Arguably the more difficult cases are those where the alienating behaviour is more covert and nuanced. Contact with the other parent may be “allowed” to happen by the parent with care, but the negative signals underpinning it may be obvious to a child – lingering handovers, a quip of “don’t worry darling it’s only 2 nights”, frequent phone calls during the contact (even where the child isn’t signalling that they want it), sending trinkets with the child to contact to remind the child of the other parent, etc etc. The effect of these behaviours is subtle, but over time it may build up to a child deciding that they don’t want to spend time with the other parent (and the parent with care doing nothing to encourage the relationship).
In those cases, again the advice to the parent who is giving those signals to the child should be to think carefully about the harm being done to the child and how the parent’s own anxieties about being separated from the child can be quelled/managed (sometimes with family therapy/therapeutic support). To the parent on the receiving end of those behaviours, giving plenty of reassurance to the other parent and communicating with them effectively (without letting your own time with the child be marred or dictated to by the other parent) is essential.
Bringing it back to the child…
In all of this, the experience of the child is key. Where it is possible – and safe – a child should always have a good quality relationship and meaningful time with both parents. Where it is not, a child should be given a proper sense of their identity and both sides of their family.
So this Mother’s Day (and indeed Father’s Day – 18 June, folks!) make sure that your child’s needs are front and centre. Give them the parenting arrangement they need and deserve. And ensure that, if at all possible, they get to celebrate each parent on their special day, whatever the state of the adult relationship.