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Interchangeable vs Traditional Roles in Shared Parenting

Updated: Jun 24, 2023

The biggest issue separated parents have in family dispute resolution mediation is agreeing on parenting time with the children. The children have been used to seeing both parents daily, so after separation there is a need to work out a parenting schedule to enable the children to continue to have a meaningful relationship with each parent. Sounds pretty straight forward doesn’t it, but it isn’t!

Many parents struggle to reach agreement on how often the children will be with each parent based on many factors such as their own reluctance to be without the children, age of the children, close proximity of each parent’s house, proximity to school, and the level of parenting each parent provided pre-separation.

The most important predictor of how much time and overnight stays each parent should have is based on each parents’ role pre-separation, in regard to looking after the children. The parents may have been interchangeable in their parenting roles or they may have had traditional parenting roles.

Interchangeable parenting roles is where both parents have taken care of the children by feeding, bathing, dressing, helping with homework, providing medical care, putting children to bed, provided comfort and ensured they were safe. They may have provided this care working as a team sharing the load or when the other parent may be out for the day, out with friends for the evening, working shift work, away for a few days on a vacation or business trip. A parent may have also taken the children on a weekend away or a week-long holiday by themselves independently. This interchangeable care from either parent enables the child to feel their needs can be met by either parent.

On the other hand, the parenting roles may have been more traditional whereby the one parent is the homemaker and the other parent is the financial provider. This is not to say that the financial provider when home doesn’t step into an interchangeable parenting role sharing the load but If when both parents are home, one parent fulfils all of the needs to care for the children then this is more of the traditional parenting roles whereby the children have a strong dependence on the one parent as their primary caregiver. If the primary caregiver needs to arrange another suitable carer role such as their mother, mother-in-law, sister, friend etc, because they are going out or away for a night as the other parent cannot look after the children, then the parent roles are not interchangeable.

Many parents come to mediation to agree on a parenting schedule and this is when reflection of what pre-separation parenting takes place in order to ascertain what post separation parenting may be in the best interests of the children. If the parenting roles were traditional and a parent was not hands on with the care, then their parenting schedule may start with time with the children during the day only, increasing over time to an overnight when children are more independent approximately 4 years old. Conversely, if the parents were interchangeable in their roles, then overnights between both parents’ homes would be negotiated whereby based on age of the children, distance between both homes and school.

Often parents wonder at what age the children should commence overnight stays. According to research, infants from 6weeks to 7months form attachments to primary and secondary caregivers with responding more positively to the primary caregiver. Children can form strong emotional bonds beyond their attachment to a primary caregiver, with their other parent, siblings, and grandparents from approximately 9 - 10months of age.[1] This may be delayed if the quality of caregiving is not responsive and consistent enabling the child to feel they can depend on the caregiver to meet their needs. Many experts have differing advice from overnights starting at 18months old if both parents have been interchangeable in their care of the children where the child has a strong attachment to both parents to meet their needs. Some experts recommend regular day time visits with overnights increasing over time from the age of 4 when the child is more independent and vocal to express their needs.

This is why it is key to assess the attachment the child has to each parent and how the caregiving was provided pre-separation to enable the child to feel safe and secure enabling them to thrive. If there were overnights spent with each parent separately pre-separation and the duration of nights such as a weekend away or weeklong holiday, would highlight that the children have already experienced sole parenting with that parent.

Children of high conflict parents are often recommended to live with a primary carer to reduce the impact of conflict on their sense of safety and wellbeing. In some cases, shared parenting can occur through parallel parenting with contactless changeovers such as picking the children up directly from school to avoid parents seeing each other at changeover to minimise conflict.

Generally, if parents have been interchangeable, live close to each other and nearby to schools, example schedules can look like[2]

2,2,3 alternating nights with parents for pre-school & primary school age children

3,4,4,3 alternating nights with parents for primary school age children

7,7 one week on, one week off for teenagers

Most importantly, agreeing on a schedule should be about what is best for the children. The emotional, psychological and developmental needs of the children should be the paramount consideration ensuring the children’s wellbeing and safety enable them to thrive, whilst maintaining a meaningful relationship with both parents.

It isn’t always about what you want, it’s about what the children are used to and what they need.

Author – Cheryl Duffy, Divorce Coach, Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner & Parenting Coordinator

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