This week, a new parenting book has been at the centre of a controversial debate on how children should be cared for in the event of separation or divorce.
In short, psychologist Penelope Leach has claimed that, “as a general rule, children aged four and under should not be separated from their mother by having a sleepover with the father when couples have separated.”
After all, in the case of an amicable separation where both parents want to be responsible for their children, doesn’t it make logical sense that sleepovers become a norm?
As you can imagine, this statement has initiated some heated discussion – in particular because it questions and devalues the role of the father in a child’s development. Personally, I find it hard to see how sleepovers and spending time with both parents in different homes can affect brain development. In fact, I would have thought that NOT spending quality time with dad (including overnight stays) would be more detrimental (but I’m not a parenting expert).
As a mum, I can’t imagine my children not being at home with me and I hope I never have to have those difficult conversations that face couples in the middle of a separation.
But in situations when relationships break down, how would you know what to do for your child?
Mums v dads
From my personal experience as a mum, I would argue children form the strongest bond with their mother – especially when they are very young. But is this really so surprising when you consider how our society is set up to care for children?
In addition, it seems nature planned it this way too. Carrying a baby and then giving birth to a new life creates a unique and special bond. It’s a completely different connection to that of a dad – and if you choose to breastfeed, the bond becomes even deeper because the child is also dependent on you for food.
There’s also the different way that parents interact with their children. OK I’m generalising here, but mums are built to be more maternal. We’re naturally more cautious and we’re programmed to see much more fear and danger than dads do (I cringe when I see dads throwing small children in the air – but the kids love it!) And this fear is expressed in the different way that parents play with their kids – as well as the different things they worry about. In conclusion, you could argue that it’s this maternal instinct that makes women better placed to carry out the day to day caring needs children have.
But it’s not all genetic.
In addition, mums often feel it’s their responsibility to look after their children as much as they can. Fortunately, maternity leave does help here – especially during the first six months to year of a child’s life. I know I’ve benefitted from this is the past and the time away from work was invaluable to help me adjust to motherhood! BUT, longer term if women are going to be the main child carer, they often have to make sacrifices or changes to their career so they can be there for their kids.
Lots of women make significant changes to their life when they become a parent. In my case, I gave up a full time teaching career and went freelance when my second daughter arrived. And whilst this was one of the best decisions I ever made, it was tough at the time. I loved my job, but I knew that I’d never have the freedom and flexibility that I needed – and I know lots of other mums feel the same and make similar decisions too.
But just because society has made it easier – even expected – that women will take the lead with childcare, does this mean staying with mum is the best outcome for a child in the event of a separation?
Change is happening
Interestingly, traditional roles are being challenged. I believe that recent changes to paternity laws will result in some interesting discussions happening between couples when a baby is on the way. After all, women can be (and often are) the main breadwinner and with the new flexibility for men, there no longer has to be the assumption that mum gives up her work – if she doesn’t want to. Especially where it makes financial and practical sense for dad to stay at home whilst mum continues to work. That said, it does look as though society is going to take a little while longer to catch up. Latest figures suggest uptake of additional paternity leave has been low. In fact, the BBC reported “fewer than one in 50 new fathers are using their right to have extra time off if their partner goes back to work after having a baby.”
Individual cases – not generalisations
Raising children is a really tough job. No matter how good you are as a parent there will always be things you can do better. I’m all for listening to experts and seeking advice to help me raise my children, but I also believe every child and family is different and unique.
So whilst advice from experts is useful, when it comes to making a decision about what’s best for your child – you have to do what you think is right.
What do you think?
How do you organise the care of your children? What role does your children’s dad play? Do you think shared custody could be detrimental to your child’s wellbeing? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below.