Parenting apart is hard enough. However most Mums and Dads have a shared history as parents. Scrape away the hurt and anger and, in most cases, they manage to remember at least some good elements about the other parent. That is what we mediators work with as well as the shared aspirations for their children.
I don’t know about other mediators, but I think it’s far more of a struggle, sometimes an unwinnable battle, where a couple separated either before a child was born or soon afterwards. If that’s an only child, his or her parents have absolutely no common language as parents. They have never parented as a team so how on earth can they bond as a functional parental unit after separation? They have no history to support that. Worse than that they almost always have a very bad recent history of loss and betrayal. The sense of abandonment and let down is enormous when separation happened during a pregnancy or amongst the turmoil of new parenthood.
Add to that the usual problems that arise when the child at the centre of a dispute is a baby. It requires quite a high level of emotional sophistication to appreciate that the needs of a 3 month old baby are in a whole other league than those of a 5 year old. The baby not only has a raft of different physical needs but developmentally is at a point where primary attachments play a huge part. If a couple separate before that baby is even born or during its first few months, one parent is unlikely to be on the scene a great deal in the crucial early stages, not through choice but circumstance.
There is a whole different issue which comes up in mediation even when the child is a great deal older. There often is an issue in that the arrangements made for children after separation alter everybody’s role. If I was the primary carer, perhaps giving up work or working part time to focus on child care, there is a huge challenge in letting go so that my children can spend time without me with the other parent.
For the parent who feels abandoned from the start and who has in reality had to be a parent alone, that challenge is even greater. That parent usually feels she (and it usually is she) is the only parent. With that often goes a sense that only she has the skills necessary to care for the child and the knowledge of what is in that child’s best interests. There is a wholly understandable reluctance to let go at all.
Yet mediators, lawyers and courts all know that in an ideal world children benefit from a good relationship with both parents where each parent is able to contribute to that child’s development as much as possible. Given that children also benefit from a situation where there is as little conflict as possible between their parents, if we are to assist in the agreement of sustainable, constructive arrangements, we need to find a way to recognise the true difficulties for the primary carer and to acknowledge that the origins of those difficulties are understandable. They are difficult situations to mediate. Perhaps the best starting point is to be open with both participants about what the issues are. Almost certainly we also need to step away from the usual language of co-parenting. We can’t create a parental bond which has never existed. The best we can do I think is help people achieve a position which works for them both and which both accept as being good for their child. We can always hope that, if arrangements work, some level of trust in the other parent will grow over time or. at least, a true acceptance that having that other parent in his or her life makes that a richer life for the child involved.