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Shared Parenting Bill – Rest In Peace

By Harald Breiding-Buss

My wife works 30 hours a week, I do twenty, and although I’m the one whose life is organised around the children, who has to organise the childcare for the school holidays and (mostly) stays home when they are sick, it would be fair to call our arrangement “shared parenting”.

And yet I have been accused of knowing “nothing about shared parenting”.

The reason being that the expression has undergone a strange evolution accelerated lately by a so-called “Shared Parenting Bill” brought in by ACT MP Muriel Newman and voted down by the coalition parties, the Greens and New Zealand First in May.

If a separating couple is feuding so much that a Family Court judge has to decide who looks after the children for how long, Newman wants this judge to tell them that each parent has to spend exactly the same amount of time with the children and call this “shared parenting”.

They may disagree on just about every parenting issue -which school to send the child to, which sports to encourage; they may have used dirty tricks in their battle against each other: she perhaps has abused the Domestic Violence Act to keep him from accessing his kids, he perhaps has withheld mortgage payments for their (still) joint home to make life just that little bit harder for her.

But under Newman’s bill the judge also would have to consider – as he or she has to now – the “best interest of the child”. With little support for these people to sort out their problems shared parenting, as I understand it, can only be a distant dream, and my bet is the judge would not fall for it.

And so, as it doesn’t take away any discretionary power of the judge, Newman’s Bill, if it had been passed into law, would have changed – nothing.

In Father & Child #10, Ron Thow writes about his own separation “Gradually and with many, many false starts and setbacks we found ways to make it work as a parenting team.

We slowly created communication and trust where there was none. We have weathered the arrival of new partners and the changes they bring. We have tested each other to new limits of tolerance and set records in forgiveness.

All so that we can raise our son together. Through him we are connected for life, so we might as well work together rather than against each other.”

Shared parenting is a culture that cannot simple be legislated into existence. It requires some openness to the other’s viewpoint, a certain determination and cooperativeness, be it within or without a relationship.

And, indeed, New Zealand families have quietly changed over the last 10, maybe 20 years, and have adopted shared parenting in their own homes, as men have started to understand what “suburban neurosis” really means for women, and women are starting to understand men’s longing for more involvement with their children.

Many, perhaps most, of those couples when they separate find a satisfactory solution for both.

And as our families have changed, so have our institutions. Plunket, Parents Centres, Playcentres, CYF and many other organisations have started to extend a hand to fathers – clumsily perhaps at first, sometimes outright incompetent, but how should they know any better after so many years in a virtually mono-gender parenting culture.

And as they start to include fathers more, they slowly become more aware of their issues and their needs. And as I started to work with these women I, too, learned about the reality of some of their concerns. But there we were, working together, knitting together a parenting partnership between men and women.

And this is where the Father&Child Trust comes in.

Who can take this extended hand and make things happen where it counts – where children are parented, where parents want support and help to do things together, not apart? It is not an unwillingness on women’s part that is holding change back, it is a lack of men with enough experience in community work to accept their invitation.

With men having been excluded from parenting support for so long, community work with children is simply not part of their everyday experiences.

But while all this is happening at grassroots level, the Shared Parenting Bill got caught up in the bitterness of feuding parents. Radical women’s organisations played the violence card (message: every man is an abuser that’s why they shouldn’t be around kids), while radical men’s organisations informed us that “Shared Parenting” in the US wasn’t really achieved before angry fathers started gunning down divorce court judges (message: If you don’t give us justice, we take the law in our own hands?).

All the while men were trying to hide under the cloak of children’s lights, hollowing out the phrase so much that I, for one, feel no longer comfortable using it.

Men fighting women, women fighting men, in the name of “Shared Parenting” – an ugly divorce battle on a larger scale, while the rest of us, the ones that actually do shared parenting, could only shake our heads in disbelief. Both factions were obviously believing they know the only right way to bring up children. How better can you undermine your own case?

Perhaps the next initiative for shared parenting legislation or policy – and I mean shared parenting, not court-ordered cohabitation – will come from mothers and fathers organisations together, in an approach that models how a parenting partnership between women and men can actually work.

For that, of course, we need fathers organisations that do more, a lot more, than putting angry words on paper, and that are willing to build that future together.

That was my vision for the Father&Child Trust, and still is.

But then again – what do I know about Shared Parenting…

Next: The Meaning Of Being A Dad

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