Last week, my stepdaughter’s real dad moved 200 miles away because of work. He has seen his little girl pretty much every weekend since he and her mum separated when she was a toddler.
And if I, or her mum – and especially her dad – have anything to do with it (which, of course, we have) he will continue to see her pretty much every weekend from now and forever.
The three of us make this effort because we believe – we know – it is what’s best for our girl.
She needs her dad. Her real dad. End of.
Sadly, though, one in five children from so-called ”broken homes” are not so lucky.
According to a report, 20 per cent of kids lose one parent from their lives for good.
And now the Government is preparing to step in to “tackle the problem”.
Families minister Maria Miller said parents should take responsibility for their offspring for life and reach civilised agreements.
“We want to make sure parents are aware of the effect and the importance of working together to support their children,” she said.
“Really that should be the case irrespective of whether their relationship is intact or not.
They are parents for life and that responsibility is for life.
Mrs Miller is calling for new reforms to prevent the collapse of parental relationships. I don’t believe any Government iniative can force people to stay in contact.
In fact, some children are better off without having contact with an estranged parents, for example, in cases of violence, aggression or abuse.
But Mrs Miller’s intentions are noble enough: parents should have contact with both their parents for all their lives. Their parents should be civilised towards each other, in the best interests of the child. The parents should put aside their differences to create a stable relationship – even if they’re apart.
Should, should, should. It sometimes feels like the longest word in the dictionary.
There have been times in our own situation where things have become fraught and challenging.
Sometimes holiday plans have clashed because of a lack of communication about whose “turn” it has been to have my stepdaughter.
With her dad’s relocation, the logistics of making sure she gets to see him as often as possible is going to be a mammoth challenge for all parties. And it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask whether it actually is in her best interests to be travelling up and down motorways most weekends when she could be playing with her younger brothers or friends.
But I’ve seen the downside of children being deprived of their father – and everyone loses. A friend of mine split up with his wife four years ago – and hasn’t seen his three children since. They are now 16, 13 and 11. But despite his greatest efforts to maintain contact, their mother wanted him out of hers – and their – lives.
His crime was that he left his wife for another woman, who he has since married. In the end, he decided to cease his efforts to stay in contact because he could see how traumatic it was for his children.
Situations like this are a tragedy, for everyone involved. So what can you do, if one parent wants to stay connected to their child, but the other parent wants them out of their lives forever?
The most glib advice in the world to warring parents when emotions are at boiling point is: “Think of your child.”
That is ALL they think about, but because of the tensions, neither can think straight about what really is in the child’s best interests.
But there are practical steps you can take, especially for the parent who no longer lives with the child.
Bob Greig and Rebecca Giraud, founders of the single parent support websitesOnlyDads and OnlyMums offer 6 tips:
1. Keep dialogue going wherever possible. Skype/emails/telephone calls. A mobile phone makes a near perfect birthday present for children these days.
2. If dialogue has broken down between parents try and set up some mediation with a qualified and experienced Family Mediator. OnlyDads and OnlyMums keep an up-to-date directory and service to help you find one near you or your ex partner. Such facilitated support brings many mums and dads together on issues like contact with their children.
3. Talk to friends who have been in a similar position. What did they do? How did they cope? Dads, especially, can be slow in coming forward with such emotional issues, but do try.
4. Absence from children can bring up feelings of loss and near bereavement for many parents. Trained Counsellors can help. The British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapy keep a list of fully qualified counsellors. This is accessible via their website.
5. There are solutions for you to get back in contact with your children. These can involve going to Court, but that does not always mean employing an expensive solicitor. You can always talk with organisations like OnlyDads and OnlyMums to explore what options are open to you and the various routes you can take.
6. Keep trying and don’t give up hope.
Nishma Shah, from advice and support organisation Family Lives said: “When families separate, the key issues can be maintaining contact between the non-resident parent and the child or children and the other issue is agreeing a financial arrangement for child maintenance.
“For many families, agreements are reached as part of the separation process and need to be amicable for all concerned. However, there are families that have broken down that unfortunately have not reached any agreement with contact or finances.
“The impact of this on the children can be enormous especially if they are used to being around a parent who suddenly is not there anymore. It can be hard for parents to make an agreement if there is resentment and anger.”
Family Lives offers this advice:
• Try and separate the issue between you, the parents, and think about the child’s relationship with the non-resident parent.
• If you cannot face the other parent, think about using a friend for the picking and dropping children off.
• Consider mediation services to come to a suitable arrangement.
• If there are issues of trust or has been abusive behaviour, think about supervised contact centres.
• Try to make it a priority to be amicable to the other parent.
• Develop a parenting plan together and try to use this as a guide. There is further advice under the Access Rights section for information on Contact, Child Maintenance and other relevant issues.