THE BLOG

Should Single Mothers Automatically Be Made Main Carer of Their Children?

25/03/2015 15:21 GMT | Updated 19/05/2015 10:59 BST

According to the UK Office of National Statistics:

There were nearly two million lone parents with dependent children in the UK in 2014, a figure which has grown from 1.9million in 2004...In 2014, women accounted for 91% of lone parents with dependent children and men the remaining nine percent. These percentages have changed little over the previous decade. Women are more likely to take the main caring responsibilities for any children when relationships break down, and therefore become lone parents.

That means that residency of the child following the dissolution of a marriage was granted by the Family Court to the mother in 91% of cases. Taking the estimated two million as a round starting figure, it breaks down like this:

Women: 1,820,000

Men: 80,000

That's quite a staggering difference. In the UK, the decisions on what happens to children after divorce are made via a 'child arrangement order' (which outlines contact, residency, access etc) by the Family Court with input from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass). The decision is based on a number of criteria (supposedly) but according to law website www.alternativefamilylaw.co.uk:

[...] there is probably an assumption (rightly or wrongly) that the mother has been the main carer, and if this has not been the case, the father has the burden to prove this.

In other words in 91% of cases, the family court is happy with the assumption that the mother has been the main carer of the child during the marriage and so they are awarded residency afterwards. As discussed in my last blog, they trust in the mother's ability to act in the 'best interests' of the child (and by extension, the father).

In comparison, only nine percent of fathers were judged by the Family Court in the same way. But how do we define what a main carer is? The court doesn't help us here as there isn't a definition. Is it the parent who is assumed to be the better parent? Therefore we must ask, is a mother ACTUALLY a better parent? Maybe for a different blog. Is it the parent who spends most time with the child? Presumed to be the mother because that's what mothers did historically as they were socially and legally (in some areas) not allowed to work. Certainly the decision seems based on a gender role. And in a post-modern society, it's extremely sexist and offensive to both mothers and fathers.

On the face of it, it seems like a victory for the mother. Following divorce proceedings, they gain residency of the 'object' that both parents probably care most about. She has one up on the father who is forced to resign his fatherly duties to alternate weekends. But what strain does this then put on the mother? She is now faced with having to be financially independent and be a main carer for her child.

I once dealt with a case of a woman who had three children by two ex husbands. She was granted residency of all three and worked full time. Although the fathers were hands-on, she suffered from depression, had difficulty coping and had several breakdowns resulting in therapy and a hospital admission during which time the children were cared for by the father. Despite Cafcass investigation, it was never considered that more time with the children could be shared out with the fathers. It wasn't her fault. She struggled as many mothers do to be and do everything. Managing children and a full or part time job is difficult for either gender. But what are the choices? Become a stay-at-home mum, (which many can't for financial reasons) and be regarded by some women as giving in to societal pressures and being anti-feminist; manage work and child successfully or completely burn out trying. Doesn't leave much option does it.

Another example was that of a woman who had residency of one child and struggled to work and be there when the child needed her. Living five minutes away was the child's father who worked from home much of the time and was more than happy to increase contact in order to a) spend more time with his child and b) support the mother. Despite him asking time and again, she never allowed more contact than the court had granted. Possibly because she didn't want to admit that she needed help or possibly because no matter how hard things were for her, she didn't want the father to have increased contact with the child (it was the latter). Neither Cafcass or the Family Court knew of this as after arrangements had been made legally, the case was out of their hands.

If mothers find that they have to work for financial and psychological reasons following divorce - then we need to redress the possibility of the father as main carer or better still, consider the possibility of joint main carers. I'm not suggesting that men can juggle work and children any better or worse than women. But the Family Court has taken a stance and determined that they can't. At least in 91% of cases.

Clearly, men and women are equally able to take on the main carer role. They can work, they can be a parent and they can do what is right for their children. But why are the decision makers the only people who don't realise this and stubbornly continue to put pressure on women in 91% of cases?

To automatically assume that one parent is better equipped to look after the child full time than the other simply because they are women is wrong. Very wrong. And the sooner Cafcass and the Family Court realise that each case is individual and deserves attention, the better for all involved. Especially the children.