June 22, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Not long ago I wrote a piece about a woman named Jennifer Fink. She recounted how she’d fought her ex for sole custody of their son, but the Wisconsin family court, seeing nothing wrong with the boy’s father, ordered equally shared parenting. Fink’s whole point was that she’d been wrong to want her ex out of their son’s life and the court had been right to force her into accepting a shared parenting arrangement. Fink pronounced herself “so, so glad” at the outcome because she could see how valuable both parents are to children.
This article is similar, and yet it’s not (Daily Mail, 12/26/13). The writer, Sally Windsor, wants to let her readers know that she gets it. She understands that a child needs both parents equally. She wants us to understand that her ex, whom she calls James, gets it too. But does she? Do they?
She relates her conscious, dogged efforts to oust James from their daughter Ruby’s life.
In a fit of selfish pique, I attempted to come between them and deny them the right to love each other.
It was the most spiteful thing I’ve ever done…
I remember all too well that wretched day in the Family Court in March 2009 as we sat in front of the judge, with a solicitor between us. James, whom I’d once loved so dearly, looked grey and hollow.
I listened with a growing sense of shame as my legal team reeled off the acidic statement I’d made, littered with stupid accusations I’d dramatised to hurt him.
Ruby was ten months old when I announced I was leaving. James was utterly taken aback.
I think he thought we’d somehow muddle through, but my mind was made up.
I convinced myself I could just sweep the matter of my baby’s father under the carpet. The scars of my parents’ acrimonious break-up ran deep.
I moved into a flat in Hove, East Sussex, in October 2008 and set about making it as difficult as possible for James to see his daughter.
I ignored his calls, refused to answer the door and slandered him to anyone who would listen.
I told everyone he was a dreadful father: he didn’t give her enough to drink; didn’t change her nappy often enough; and his flat was a tip.
I thought that if I just ignored him for long enough then he’d disappear. He’d give up and find someone else to pester. Ruby and I would be happy on our own.
But James refused to roll over.
But, thank God, James never gave up. When all negotiation failed, he sought legal advice and decided to fight me to gain access to his child…
We spent thousands of pounds and the best part of a year in court and at each other’s throats.
James could have given up at any stage and, looking at his broken figure at the other end of the bench in court, I realised just how far I’d pushed him.
Unlike Fink in Wisconsin, who was ordered into a shared parenting arrangement with her ex, Windsor and James reached an agreement. And it’s at this point that I begin to wonder if she grasps what she’s saying. Her clear point is that Ruby needs real relationships with both of them. Good for her.
As Ruby and James set about rebuilding their relationship, I began to see just what a precious bond they shared.
They looked so much alike and, as Ruby’s personality developed, I realised how alike they were in so many other ways.
They had the same quirky sense of humour and deep concentration at something that caught their interest.
I saw all of the qualities I’d loved and admired in James develop in our little girl. I even felt joy when she came home and chirped happily about their time together.
Having gone from barely mentioning or seeing her father, I saw their relationship blossom and it brought about a thaw in our relationship, too.
James and I began to trust each other again and to exchange pleasantries when we met until, finally, we became good friends.
He says he has forgiven me. I thank him for that and admire his maturity.
So, after a contentious year or so, all is now well, right? Not exactly. After all,
He didn’t even go for shared custody, just the right to form some sort of relationship with her.
That’s understandable. British courts almost never give fathers equal custody, particularly if Mom isn’t addicted to drugs or has a serious mental disorder. And Windsor had tried to convince the court that James was the second coming of Jack the Ripper, so there wasn’t much chance of him getting more than mere contact. And that’s what he got… barely.
The judge ruled that Ruby would stay overnight with James every other Saturday. Begrudgingly, I capitulated.
That’s Windsor’s idea of what an ideal parenting arrangement post-divorce looks like — half a day every other week. That’s under 4% of the time, i.e. nowhere near enough for father and daughter to establish and maintain a real relationship. Fortunately, she and James have voluntarily moved on from that almost non-existent face-time for him and Ruby, but it’s still not much.
Today, Ruby and James see each other most weekends, but the arrangement is informal.
He sees her whenever he likes. If he’s ten minutes away, he’ll pop in for a cup of tea and help Ruby with her spellings. Often she has a painting she just has to show her Daddy right now and, of course, that isn’t a problem.
They chat on the phone most days. And the three of us spent Christmas Day together.
That’s nice. It sounds like they’ve established an easy, casual relationship that’s free of acrimony. But what Ruby doesn’t have is a father who’s her real caregiver half the time, or even close to it. The social science that shows children to benefit most from post-divorce parenting arrangements that give them at least 35% of the time with each parent of course isn’t an invariable rule. Maybe Ruby will do just fine with what she has. Maybe not. According to Windsor, she’s a happy little camper. Just how the two adults will sort things out when their daughter is older and possibly needs more time with Dad remains to be seen. Will Windsor’s equanimity fail her if she’s suddenly relegated to second-class parent?
Who knows? Maybe that time will never come. But Windsor’s statement that “I know in an ideal world that Ruby would have a mummy and daddy who live together, but this is the next best thing,” just isn’t true. It may be the best thing for Windsor, but it’s almost certainly not the best thing for her daughter. The simple fact is that, if the two grown-ups want to give Ruby the best possible start in life, they’ll set aside their own agendas and divide her time equally between them, or as close as possible to it.
Does Windsor understand that? I don’t think so. Does James? It’s hard to tell. My guess is he’s too grateful for the easy arrangement they’ve developed to want more.
As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that what James experienced would be described by Maebh Harding and Annika Newnham as a “success.” (They’re the authors of a recent study that purports to show — but doesn’t — that mothers and fathers are treated equally in custody and access orders.) That is, he was alienated from his daughter and almost shoved out of her life by a vindictive ex and a court that seems to have bought her lies about him. He spent a year of anguish and heartbreak and thousands of pounds trying to wrest the absolute minimum of parenting time from a court. That he eventually agreed to accept 3.6% of the time with his daughter amounts to “success” according to the two researchers.
What fairly screams out from this case is that he knew the deck was stacked against him, but put himself through terrible suffering only to accept the few crumbs the court tossed his way. James is lucky that Windsor’s come to her senses and allows him greater access than the court did, but it could have been different, could have been worse.
What’s crystal clear is that, contrary to Harding and Newnham’s claims, when a mother and father both meet minimum standards of parental fitness, there is an all-too-obvious bias against fathers and for mothers. That’s why James seems satisfied with what he’s gotten. To Harding and Newnham, he’s a success story; millions of dads know differently.
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