Degrees of separation: mothers give equal parenting the thumbs down

Divorced and separated fathers overwhelmingly favour children spending equal time with both parents, a new study shows, but most mothers oppose 50/50 residence arrangements.

More than two-thirds of the fathers, surveyed by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, supported the equal-time model, while only one-third of mothers did so. The survey showed mothers’ opposition to equal-time parenting lessened as children grew older. Resident mothers with children younger than six were most likely to reject the concept. It also showed the small minority of parents who had a 50/50 arrangement liked it.

The survey of 1027 parents who were either divorced or separated is published in the latest issue of the institute’s journal, Family Matters. Other research, published in the same issue, shows parents who opt for the 50/50 arrangement – about 6 per cent of all separated parents – were “child-focused”.

Parents in this group could put aside relationship tensions for the children’s sake, were employed, and had access to family friendly work practices.

In addition, 50/50 parents tended to live near each other, the women enjoyed a degree of financial independence, and both parents had a co-operative parenting style. An absence of conflict, or an ability to manage it, appeared to be “a necessary precondition to successful shared parenting”, the report said.

Even parents who liked their 50/50 arrangement faced challenges, particularly where children were swapped mid-week. “There was a need to keep track of clothes, schoolbooks, and equipment as children moved between households,” the study said.

A parliamentary report into child custody arrangements, which reported in December, recommended near-equal time with both parents as the preferred starting point in negotiations. But it did not incorporate a presumption of shared care into law.

Researchers Bruce Smyth and Ruth Weston caution against interpreting the gender split in attitudes towards shared care as another example of the “custody wars”.

Rather it was a product of the “changing nature of parenting and modern family life.” They said “while men and women tend to believe both parents and couples should share equally in the everyday care of children . . . mothers are still doing the lion’s share of nurturing children”.

It was perhaps from this vantage point women were especially sensitive to children’s needs: “They may perceive shared care to be too disruptive to children.” On the other hand, fathers’ strong desire for shared care may be a reaction to the “apparent shallowness” of traditional contact schedules, and reflected their desire to be more involved in their children’s lives.

Further research by the institute showed almost 80 per cent of children whose parents were separated lived with their mother, and 14 per cent lived with their father.

“Holiday dads” are not having much fun, the research shows. Between 20 and 25 per cent of non-resident parents lived 500 kilometres or more from their children. The men had trouble accruing enough leave for visits.