Fathers yearn for more time

July 11, 2004

A new study confirms that separated or divorced fathers want more time with their children, reports Muriel Reddy.

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.

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 other weekend.

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 dads".

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 children.

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 children's lives.

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.




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