Parenting styles, values and changes
It was clear from practitioners’ discussions that different parenting values and styles were inherent in disputes about children. Professionals argued that differences in parenting styles may result in a reluctance, or a complete opposition, from one parent to allow contact with the other parent for fear of exposing the child(ren) to a parenting style that they find unacceptable. There was much discussion about the origins of divergence of parenting styles and ideas were raised about the nature of the relationship between children and parents.
Some practitioners noted that divergence in ideas about parenting and children’s needs is characteristic to all parenting partnerships. As one participant noted:
people have different relationships with their children and … [the children] do different things with each parent … [so] the mother will have one perception of [the] children, their personalities and how they’re doing, and the father will have quite a different perception. (Female case manager, Roundtable Dispute Management [RDM])
It was agreed, however, that divergence of parenting style and values is “exacerbated” in separated families. It was recognised by a number of practitioners that these different parenting styles and values, and an inability to subsequently parent together, may have been why parents separated. However, conversely, such differences can also occur because experiences of parenting after separation are generally very different.
The impact of gender and parental status on parenting concerns was commonly raised. It was noted, for example, that some resident mothers believe that time with non-resident fathers in some way interferes with the child’s typical routine. Several practitioners felt that these concerns can arise from the experiences of mothers in spending more time with the child, which can lead them to pay greater attention to issues such as stability, nutrition, sleep and safety. As one mediator put it:
resident parents see the child a lot more, [and] know their routines and their limits … [and] all the nuances that the non-resident parent doesn’t know. Hence, their arguments tend to centre on these issues. (Mediator, RDM)
Another practitioner suggested that at times this knowledge may be used to exclude the non-resident parent:
One parent, usually the mother, has the belief that she has the full exclusive knowledge about what is good in parenting and [she] has not really let go. (Mediator, Relationships Australia [RA])
In contrast, non-resident fathers were more likely to have concerns about the quantity of time with the child. There was a considerable amount of focus on the origins of non-resident fathers’ concerns about parenting arrangements. Some practitioners pointed out that separation as a life event often acts as a catalyst for parents, particularly men, in reassessing their lives. Several professionals explained that, for some men, separation and divorce could lead to a reappraisal of their role as parents. A common perception was that separation and divorce provides the impetus for some men to:
take stock of their lives and sometimes make changes … [For example], they may have worked a lot when they were in the relationship and they have decided not to work so much to perhaps co-parent the child. (Mediator, Family Mediation Centre [FMC]).
It often takes the impact, or the impetus, of divorce and separation for blokes to get a kick in the arse and say, “Well, you know, 70 hours a week is probably the reason she left me, therefore I need to take stock, and I can take stock by changing my whole philosophy and realising that what’s important [is] my children now and I have to do something about that”. (Mediator, FMC)
However, professionals noted that at times these types of life changes are viewed with scepticism resulting in conflict, particularly when a reduction in work hours, or changes in the type of work performed, have financial consequences in terms of the amount of child support payable. This point was elaborated on in several of the focus groups, with the consensus being that actions such as these may be:
regarded with great suspicion because people are putting negative interpretations on each other on the decisions that they’re making. (Mediator, FMC)
Another mediator from the FMC argued that disputes may arise when a parent wants to make some life changes and be present as a parental figure for the first time following separation, and this renewed interest can be hard for the primary carer to find credible.
Other professionals suggested that societal changes that have led to an increase in men’s involvement in family life and child rearing have also led to an interpretation by some men that their parenting responsibilities are “rights” and “entitlements”. This paternal “stance” was described as a potential trigger for conflict, particularly between parents whose previous relationship was quite traditional in terms of the division of labour within the home. Other professionals interpreted parental contact disputes following separation and divorce as a way in which parents, particularly fathers, seek to prove their love for their children. At the more extreme end of this perception, professionals described hearing parents, usually fathers, saying that although they might lose in court, their children will at least know that they fought for them.
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