The Age

Sparing children a splitting headache

January 26 2003
By Liz Porter
The Age

Every year in Australia, the Family Court makes more than 13,000 orders relating to "residence and contact" arrangements for the children of parents who have separated.

"Residence" and "contact" are now used instead of "custody" and "access", because the latter tend to make the child sound like a chattel. The word "custody", in particular, places the parent rather than the child at the centre of the action, as if the child were a prize. The new language, on the other hand, does its best to make the court-arranged adjudication of parenting arrangements sound like a cooperative, caring, sharing affair.

But it's not, of course. It's no fault of the courts, but too many couples are unable to put their children's welfare ahead of their personal resentments. When they're actually in the court, they can't even bear to look at each other, let alone talk about sharing.

Yet there are so many positive ways of managing parenting after divorce. And none involves the children living with one parent and having sad "access" weekends with the other after tragic handovers at McDonald's, or worse, at police stations.

It's now common for parents to have equal time with their children, in an arrangement that means the children have two addresses, spending one week at their mother's, followed by the next week at their father's.

A more radical solution - but one which works only if both parents are single and get on well - is for the children to stay at the family home, and have the parents move in and out, week by week.

Of course, any scheme in which children move between parents has its disadvantages. In split households, it can be hard to get children to observe limits that don't apply at the "other" house. They can also avoid having to resolve conflicts. By the time an issue gets really hot at one house, it's time to scoot off to the other. Again, if the separated parents get on well, they help each other with these problems.

But rocks and shoals lie everywhere - even for couples who start off their separation as "great mates".

Two people may spend years cooperating happily as separated parents, sharing the odd family dinner, and even ringing each other to gossip about their horror dates. They can then find themselves going through another break-up when one of them finds a new "significant other". Worse, they may find their erstwhile chumminess has been misconstrued by their children, who had never really accepted that their parents were separated at all. So the new partner, despite appearing years after the original split, is then reviled as a home wrecker.

The divorce rate has remained constant at 30 per cent for years. Yet we don't seem to have made much effort, as a society, to really explore constructive and imaginative ways for separated couples to manage the business of bringing up children. So people trying to find alternative ways of keeping families together continue to sail in uncharted waters.

Nevertheless, I hope a lot of people saw or heard about a program last Monday night on the ABC. Titled Upstairs Downstairs, and part of the excellent Family Foibles series, it presented a couple, identified only as Harald and Louise, who had solved the problem of post-separation parenting by converting their family home into two residences - a "bachelor" flat upstairs for Harald, and a downstairs apartment for Louise. Their three-year-old daughter, meanwhile, went back and forth between them, but not without the the pair making endless arrangements for "fair" sharing of parental responsibilities.

At the time of filming, neither had found a new partner, but both expressed the hope they could deal with it. But by the time the program aired, Harald had invited his new girlfriend to live with him, and she had reportedly been "incorporated" into the household.

Doubtless some "smug marrieds" would have smirked at the earnestness with which Louise talked of "terminating a relationship without it impacting, significantly, in a negative way, upon a child".

But I salute her. Even if the "upstairs-downstairs" arrangement lasts only a couple more years, I would still call Harald and Louise's experiment a success. For one thing, they will have spared their daughter the trauma of trying to come to grips with a separation she is far too young to understand. Equally importantly, they have succeeded in treating each other with kindness and respect. Perhaps the program should be shown in all the foyers of the Family Court.

Copyright 2002 The Age Company Ltd.