Research - fathers want more
A new study confirms that separated or divorced
fathers want more time with their children, reports Muriel
The statistics have been telling the story for
years. More than 1 million children in Australia under the
age of 18 are living with one parent and almost one-third
rarely, or never, see their other parent.
Now a new investigation by the Institute of
Family Studies goes behind the figures to reveal for the first
time the different patterns of parenting among separated and
divorced couples. The report puts a human face to the statistics.
Central to the stories told by a group of separated
or divorced parents is an enduring sense of loss. Fathers
talk about the loss of an emotionally close relationship with
their children because of the reduced time they spend with
them, while for some parents separation has resulted in a
diminution of their parenting role. Others speak of the difficulty
in parting with their children. Even parents with 50-50 care
arrangements experience feelings of loss, loneliness and grief
when they are without their children. Advertisement Advertisement
Importantly, the report highlights gaps in the
system such as a need for easier access to resources to assist
parents in the restructuring of families after divorce. It
also pinpoints the need for guidance at the time of separation,
when making arrangements regarding children, and in dealing
with later transitions such as the introduction of new partners
and the establishment of blended families.
Timely information about the emotional and practical
resources available to help parents and children adjust to
the separation is considered essential. The report also points
out that information on different models of parenting after
separation is lacking.
"What is really new in this report is how
various factors combine to switch parents into different types
of contact," says Bruce Smyth who, with Catherine Caruana
and Anne Ferro, wrote the report.
The institute, as part of its Caring for Children
after Separation project, interviewed 54 separated parents
- 27 mothers and 27 fathers - who ranged in age from 26 to
58 years. They had been separated for about six years; just
over half were single and nearly all were Australian-born
of English-speaking background.
Groups were structured around five patterns
of father-child contact:
* 50-50 shared care.
* Little or no contact.
* Holiday-only contact.
* Daytime-only contact.
* Standard contact - every weekend or every
Although it has been the subject of a federal
parliamentary committee inquiry, 50-50 care is relatively
rare in Australia. The institute found that the success of
this model depended on a number of factors including proximity,
work flexibility, a degree of financial independence and,
most especially, a co-operative parenting style. This type
of care appears to promote better child-parent
relationships. As one parent observes: "Reasonable relations
make so much possible."
Mounting concern about fatherlessness, or high
rates of post-separation paternal disengagement, provided
the impetus for the Federal Government's inquiry into joint
custody last year. The institute found that high levels of
conflict between parents and geographical distance were features
among the group with "little or no contact". A common
perception among fathers in this group was the gender bias,
injustice and invincibility of the family law system.
These perceptions fuelled the fathers' sense of being disenfranchised,
becoming "defeated dads" rather than "dead-beat
As was reported last week, research suggests
that about 26 per cent of
separated or divorced parents live more than 500 kilometres
from their former spouse, while another 15 per cent live between
100 kilometres and 500 kilometres apart. The often superficial
nature of contact and parental conflict leads some non-resident
parents to feel disenfranchised. Life can be harder for the
resident parents, who may crave more regular respite from
caring for children.
The institute found that daytime-only contact
was pervasive for a substantial number of children. It is
generally accepted that overnight stays help foster the development
of close emotional bonds between children and non-resident
parents. For most of the parents in this group, father-child
contact usually involves activities outside the home - shopping,
sporting activities, playing in the park, eating out, or going
to the cinema. Many of the fathers expressed
dissatisfaction with the amount of time they had with their
The stories from the parents interviewed by
the institute support the view that father-child contact that
does not include sleepovers creates a risk of disengagement.
Many fathers feel that they are losing their place in their
Standard parent-child contact typically means
alternate weekends and half of school holidays. In its study
the institute found that this often came about by default.
Mothers generally saw it as the norm and fathers found it
inadequate and would prefer to see their children more often.