Sharing the care of children after separation: Thinking beyond “custody and access” or “residence and contact”

Sharing the care of children after separation: Thinking beyond “custody and access” or “residence and contact”

11 September 2014
Sharing the care of children after separation: Thinking beyond “custody and access” or “residence and contact”

Professor Lawrie Moloney writes about what works in shared parenting arrangements after separation or divorce.

It was not long ago that the father’s role in families was chiefly seen as being the provider of financial support. It was commonly thought that children needed to be mainly in the care of their mothers, and that the father’s nurturing role was that of secondary helper to the mother. By routinely ordering “access” or “contact” (primarily to fathers) after parental separation, courts also reflected this way of thinking. Though perhaps not consciously intended, these court orders reduced the status of thousands of separated fathers to that of visitors to their children.

Acceptance that fathers could be competent nurturing carers of their children in their own right began to take root in the 1970s. Increasingly, fathers (supported by many mothers) began to see themselves as parents who could genuinely share all aspects of the care of their children. Research also began to demonstrate that fathers were equally capable of fully caring for children.

Rather than using earlier legal terms like “custody and access” or “residence and contact”, we now commonly speak of making parenting arrangements for the children or sharing their care. Whatever language we use however, we now understand that caring for children after separation is much more than simply adding up the hours or days that they spend in each parent’s care.

An increasing number of separated parents now consider arrangements for their children that permit both of them to play a more “hands-on” role – to more genuinely share the parenting rather than have their children visit one of them. These changed ways of thinking may lead to arrangements that involve children spending substantial time with each parent – but not necessarily.

Just as important from the point of view of maintaining and developing meaningful relationships are the ways in which the time with each parent is spent. For example, rather than ordering a “take-away” or going to a restaurant, fathers whose children spend most of their time with their mothers might arrange to cook with them. They might also structure the time they have in such a way that includes more evenings and overnights. They might arrange more of whatever time they have with their children to “be with” them rather than to “do things” with them.

That said, a minority of separated parents are also committed to the idea of sharing the amount of time they spend with their children. Though the figure is somewhat arbitrary, researchers and professionals usually define shared-time parenting as situations in which children spend about a third of their time or more with both parents. Importantly, researchers have also examined the circumstances in which these sort of time arrangements appear to have the best chance of working.

When does shared parenting time appear to work well?2

The research suggests that such substantial sharing of parenting time after separation (roughly a third of time or more with each parent) works best when parents:

  • Live reasonably close to the children’s other parent
  • Can contain any negative feelings associated with their separation – both in the presence of the children and in the presence of the children’s other parent
  • Can resolve the inevitable disagreements and misunderstandings that crop up – for example, issues arising out of unexpected illnesses or other unplanned developments (such things occur in both “intact” and separated families but are more easily misinterpreted after separation)
  • Can accept (even if it is not easy) that the other parent has a right to live his or her new life and that the children have a right to a meaningful relationship with that parent
  • Are neither menacing towards nor fearful of the other parent
  • Know that the children are basically “on board” with this form of shared parenting and can manage moving between two “home bases”

The special case of infants and young children

Young children and infants have less capacity to clearly communicate their thoughts and feelings about new and changing parenting arrangements. For them, it is especially important to introduce new situations in the comforting presence of a person or persons to whom they are attached. Even then, the experience of changed surroundings, combined with the “loss” (in the child’s mind) of the reassuring presence of a parent, can be distressing.

The ideal world of the infant is one that starts “small and predictable” and grows gradually in size, scope and complexity. This is because infants have limited capacity to comfort themselves when anxious or distressed. As adults, we can easily forget that we acquired this ability only gradually. For each of us, it grew from experiences largely unavailable to our conscious memory – experiences of being comforted, contained and reassured time after time by a caring adult or caring adults who were “tuned in” to our needs as infants.

Long before they can speak to us, infants also display their own unique temperaments. “Tuning in” to their needs and to the signals they are largely programmed to send us becomes more and more refined through repeated intense and intimate interactions. Watch any parent and infant and you will see these interactions happening over and over again.

Following a separation, both parents may feel confident that they have already developed a capacity to be closely “tuned in” to their infant’s needs. In this situation, shared-time arrangements, including overnight arrangements3, may work – though the principle of “start with small and predictable” might also require parents to monitor this vary carefully.

On the other hand, one parent – for example a parent who has spent lengthy hours working outside the home on behalf of the family – may need more time to develop this degree of sensitivity. This parent may need to spend frequent but relatively small amounts of time with his or her child at the start. Parent and child may need to get to know each other at a level of intimacy that allows the child to continue to feel safe and secure – to become increasingly confident that the signals sent are (at least most of the time) the signals received.

Whether parents opt for “shared-time” or the more common arrangement of major time with one parent, insights from developmental psychology suggest that the gaps in which the infant or young child does not see both parents should be relatively short. Whether or not the child stays overnight with each parent, the same principle of “short gaps” should be considered.


To read an earlier article on this topic, also written by Professor Moloney, see Caring for children after separation or divorce.

2. A more detailed but succinct summary of the research on when shared care time is more and less likely to work well can be found in Fehlberg, B., Smyth, B., Maclean, M., & Roberts, C. (2011). Legislating for shared time parenting after separation. A research review. International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family 25, 318-337.

3. A brief summary of what research can tell us (and what it can’t tell us at this stage) can be found in this article by Dr Jenn McIntosh.

The feature image is by Thomaslife, CC BY-ND 2.0.

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Lawrie Moloney

Professor Lawrie Moloney is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Public Health at La Trobe University. He is a registered psychologist, family mediator and family therapist. Having served as a Director of family court counselling in the early years of the Family Court of Australia, Lawrie then spent 24 years in the university sector, mainly teaching counselling and counselling psychology. He is Editor in Chief of the Journal of Family Studies and has authored more than 200 publications, many related to children, parenting and divorce.

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