Custody will never determine whether a man is a father or not. Rachel Goodchild offers some tips and advice whether you’re a custodial or non-custodial dad.
“I’m not just some “weekend dad”, I’m a father all the time even when my son isn’t with me, and I’m always thinking about him. Is a custodial parent less of a parent when they’re away at work during the day? Or when their child is away at school? Of course they aren’t, and it’s no different for a non-custodial father.”
—Matthew, father of Josh, aged ten.
When Matthew was nineteen he briefly dated (and slept) with a girl (18) who got pregnant while on birth control. While he never expected to become a parent at this age, becoming a father was a role he took very seriously even though the mother of his child said she would prefer he had little interaction. “She has told me on numerous occasions that I’m not needed. I have had to spend a lot of money on legal bills to stay involved in his life.” Matthew has gone to court every few years since his son’s birth ten years ago to ensure he can stay involved in his son’s life.
The cost of winning time with your son can prove very expensive. Matthew has found that to be true.“Every time I’ve tried to increase the time I spend with him it’s been met with extreme resistance which is both stressful and very expensive. Now we have an agreement that shares it pretty much down the middle. But that’s taken a lot of fighting. And a lot of energy.”
It’s difficult to find exact statistics on how many fathers are a single parent. This is partly because some will be in new partnerships, some have other children under their care and others will not be on any official register. The estimation is it is somewhere between one in three to one in four fathers have a child who is not being raised in the same dwelling they live in.
Non custodial parents, particularly fathers, often get a rough deal in terms of public sentiment, and again when custodial parents gather together to share stories. It’s easy to feel that a parent who does not have the child living with them day in and day out has a much easier life. Many non custodial parents would say there is some truth in that. “I do think that non custodial parents have to really appreciate and respect the day to day care custodial parents do on their behalf” says Dan, father of three (aged 14,10 and 5) . “It helps,” he says “if then the custodial parent can then also consider how hard it can be for the non custodial parent to not get to experience the pleasure of that (along with all the challenges.).”
Child support is one way that non custodial fathers show their commitment to their children. “It is a necessary thing to do, says Dan. “Whether the money actually goes directly to their needs is something I am unsure of” Dan opted for a private arrangement that is under the amount IRD (New Zealand’s version of the IRS) would have deducted. Matthew pays via the IRD, and also pays for school clothes, school trips and haircuts “He wouldn’t have had a warm jacket in the last five years if it wasn’t for me paying for them. I have also a full wardrobe of clothes for when he is here. I think I help more than enough though his mother would dispute this.”
Chris, who has a ten year old daughter, separated from her mother before his daughter turned one. He needed to go to court to arrange a parenting order, and also uses the IRD system to pay child support. “I feel it’s a bit of a joke really. I worry she doesn’t get all the money I pay into the system, and I’d prefer to give it to her direct.” He will often top it up either if he’s noticed a need or if his ex partner asks. “We talk it through. It’s a tangible way to demonstrate I am there for my daughter.”
Chris feels many dads find the first few years after separation difficult to work through, and this may be why so many of them lose contact. “I felt I was not considered a real parent at the beginning. I felt all I was contributing was money, and that was so unsatisfying. Now I see myself as the sole parent two days a fortnight and I take that very seriously. It’s got easier over time, but really it took around eight to nine years for us to get to a place where everyone feels settled in it.” Jonathan also takes a long term view on his parenting. “It’s my hope that my children, starting with my daughter, will choose to come to university in my city, and I can spend more time with her as she emerges into adulthood.”
Brett, father of three teens, says being a non custodial father of three teens has led to him building a close relationship with them. “If kids are willing to let you into their lives via facebook it’s amazing. I have a lot more to do with my seventeen year old son than I ever did with my dad at that age.” Brett finds it’s important to measure your time with your children by the results gained. “I am the father of three incredibly happy, funny, quirky and interesting kids. Just like how people can go to work everyday and not be engaged, so can parents. When I’m with my children I am there completely.” Dan finds this is more difficult with younger children. “I tried to establish regular phoning times But I found they were often distracted with television or the computer, and as they get older it’s harder to fit it in around after school activities and sports.
While some experts suggest that it’s best to do low key activities with children while in your care, some fathers find that difficult. “I have so little time with them that I feel day to day things are a waste of our time together. I feel it is my responsibility to give them a lot of time, energy and spend a bit of money on them. We tend to do special things that I would not necessarily do with them if we lived together.” says Dan.
Maintaining similar boundaries for their children and providing guidance was considered important for the fathers interviewed. “When my daughter is with me, I’m her dad, and my rules go. But they reflect what is going on in her home. If she’s grounded at home- then she is grounded at my place too. It’s important for me to respect what is going on in her home,” explains Chris.
All the dad’s interviewed recognised their role was not the same as the custodial parent’s but was still a valuable one. “If I didn’t see her it would be a huge loss for her. As the years have gone by I’ve also seen my ex ask more and more for us to talk through problems together, and I feel I’m contributing beneficially to her life,” say Chris. Matthew agrees. “I look after him physically, mentally and emotionally. And my son tells me he thinks I’m a great dad.
Tips for the non custodial parent
This article is about fathers who do no live with their children as this is a more common arrangement. However the following tips will help for any non custodial parent.
- Be aware from the outset that the relationship is a life long one. If it is difficult now that is likely to improve over time. Stick it out. Conversely, life can bring unexpected hurdles (such as the mother wanting to relocate). Change needs to be expected.
- Use technology as much as you can. Take photos of your times together and send them home. Use phones, and later facebook, skype and texting to keep in contact
- Keep live as normal as you can when you are with them. Avoid expensive treats and maintain routines when they are with you.
- Be consistent and expect a good level of behaviour when they spend time with you.
- Don’t use your children as a messenger service between you and your ex partner if things are complicated. If you are angry towards your ex, it’s not your children’s job to carry it.
- Try to set up regular ways to connect with the ex partner to talk over issues relating to care, schooling. Establish rules of engagement, including when it will be and where. Phone calls and emails are often better than face to face in the early days.
- Focus on opening up your children’s world, inspiring them, engaging them and sharing what is important to you. That’s one of the best ways to spend your time with them.
Tips for the custodial parent
Coming out of a relationship is hard enough without having the needs of children to consider. If it was a relatively mutual decision, or a slow and calm separation it’s easier to work together to come up with a parenting arrangement. However if there is large amounts of hurt on either size, or the courts become involved, the process can be far more difficult.
Here are some suggestions to help you if you are the custodial parent.
- Set firm boundaries and talk only about the children during meetings regarding their care
- Avoid talking negatively about your ex partner to, or in the hearing of, your children
- As difficult as it is separate any financial support from emotional support of your children in your mind. Juggling both successfully can be difficult. Both are important.
- Keep communication lines honest. Life brings change, and there may be issues including relocating for work, new partners, and other circumstances. These are hard to work through as a separated family. Patience can often be required.
—Photo absolut xman/Flickr