January 31, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
I’ve often argued that shared parenting is not only in children’s best interests, a fact confirmed by the overwhelming weight of social science on the subject, but in everyone else’s as well. I’ve said that fathers, mothers and society generally benefit when children don’t lose one parent when the adults split up.
Almost invariably, fathers don’t want to lose contact with their kids and, when they do via a sole- or primary-parenting order, they suffer a trauma from which it’s hard to recover. Post-divorce, mothers typically get saddled with the lion’s share of the parenting duties. Generally speaking, that’s what they want, but it can’t be denied that landing in that position heightens stress and reduces their earning power which further exacerbates stress.
And of course, the detriment to children becomes a burden on the public treasury due to the poorer educational outcomes, higher incarceration rates, higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, higher rates of emotional problems, etc. that inevitably, governments at all levels end up trying to deal with.
That’s always seemed like the most obvious of common sense, given what we know about kids and shared parenting. But now we know that fathers and mothers benefit from sharing parental time post-divorce for another reason: parents with shared parenting arrangements report higher levels of satisfaction with their lives than do parents with sole or primary parenting orders.
That’s one of the main conclusions of this study conducted by researchers at the universities of Utrecht and Stockholm. The researchers used data on 4,175 parents in the New Families in the Netherlands survey that were gathered in 2012 and 2013. The researchers tried to answer three principal questions.
First, are parents with shared residence more satisfied with their lives than sole and nonresident parents? Second, can frequent visitation of the nonresident parent reduce the life satisfaction differences between shared residence parents on the one hand, and sole resident and nonresident parents on the other?… Third, we analyze whether the quality of the relationship with the child and the other parent, and opportunity costs in terms of leisure, employment, and repartnering explain associations between residence and visitation arrangements and parental life satisfaction.
As usual, the results argue strongly in favor of shared parenting. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that mothers with sole custody are less satisfied with their lives than are those with shared custody. Less surprising is the fact that non-custodial mothers report lower satisfaction with their lives than those with shared custody. In that, they’re just like dads.
Our primary interest is in comparing sole resident mothers to shared residence mothers, which are the dominant arrangements. Shared residence mothers’ higher engagement in leisure activities is the single most important factor, explaining approximately 30% of their higher life satisfaction compared to sole resident mothers (Model 5). In other words, sole resident mothers miss out on leisure activities, which decreases their life satisfaction. Differences in conflict with the ex-partner, i.e., the father of the child (Model 2), and in employment (Model 4) are less important explanations for life satisfaction differences between sole resident and shared residence mothers. The quality of the relationship with the child does not differentiate these groups (Model 3), and shared residence mothers’ higher likelihood of having a new partner explains approximately one-eighth of the life satisfaction gap (Model 6). Altogether, these variables explain around two thirds of the difference.
In short, mothers who share custody are happier with their lives than are those with sole custody mostly because they have more free time and can engage in the leisure-time activities they’d otherwise miss out on. Increased employment wasn’t that important to them and their relationships with their kids didn’t suffer due to sharing parenting time with Dad. Greater opportunities for romance also played a role.
Dads were different, but the benefits to them of shared custody were no less important.
First, we review the results for fathers (Table 2) and focus on the comparison between shared residence and nonresident fathers. The quality of the relationship with the child is the single most important variable for explaining why nonresident fathers are less satisfied with their lives than shared residence fathers, explaining around 40% of this difference (see Model 3). In other words, shared residence fathers have a better relationship with their child than nonresident fathers do, which boosts the formers’ life satisfaction.
To which some of us might be tempted to respond “duh.” Fathers fight for time with their kids because they want, well, time with their kids. When they get it, they’re happier than when they don’t. Again, duh. But it gets more interesting.
Shared residence fathers also engage in more leisure activities than nonresident fathers, which is the second most important factor explaining the formers’ higher life satisfaction and explains approximately one third of the difference (Model 5).
That’s counter-intuitive. One would think that fathers who have more parenting time would have less time in which to take part in those leisure activities. But the opposite proved true. My guess is that, because those dads are happier, they’re more inclined to take part in sports, cultural activities, etc. That is, their doing so is an expression of their greater happiness and contributes to that happiness in a continual feedback loop.
As expected, shared residence parents have less conflict with their ex-partner, which explains approximately one fourth of the life satisfaction advantage of shared residence fathers compared to nonresident ones (Model 2).
That’s a finding that’s by no means unique to this study. Other researchers have found the same thing, but we can add this one to that growing list. Those who oppose children having real relationships with their fathers post-divorce often make the claim that shared parenting can only lead to conflict, but, as with so many arguments against shared parenting, that one just isn’t true. In fact, shared parenting tends to reduce conflict between parents, something you’d think everyone would support. Alas, no.
Differences in employment play no role (Model 4), but the life satisfaction gap between shared residence and nonresident fathers increases when we control for new partnerships: were it not for the higher prevalence of new partnerships among nonresident fathers, their life satisfaction would be at even lower levels compared to shared residence fathers (Model 6).
Of course non-custodial fathers are significantly less happy with their lives than are those with sole or shared custody. That’s why we see the shocking increase in suicides among fathers following divorce. Interestingly, about the only thing that makes a difference to non-custodial dads is the opportunity for forming new romantic partnerships. Didn’t they learn?
Mothers and fathers respond somewhat differently to shared parenting after they divorce, but for both, life is better when parenting time is shared with the other. It’s better for both than sole parenting and being the non-custodial parent.
Given that shared parenting time is good for kids, what argument is left to oppose shared parenting?
Thanks to the estimable Peter Tromp for this heads-up.
National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization
National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved? Here’s how:
Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.
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