It was bold, and possibly suicidal, for the Shared Parenting Council of Australia to make 50:50 residency its defining target for family law reform.
Organizations around the world call for equal parenting, but there is scant agreement on its definition. What, exactly, is equal parenting? How do you measure, much less legislate, it; how do you know when you have it? Some use 50:50 residence for their definition and will settle for nothing less.
There is clearly a need for some operational definition, the question is, what?
For three decades, the laws of jurisdictions such as Pennsylvania, Australia, California, and the UK have strongly supported, if not equality, active involvement by both parents in the raising of their children. That is the stated target of their laws. But to this day, all these jurisdictions experience as high a rate of father elimination as jurisdictions with less family-friendly legislation such as Canada. Since judges can cite best interests of the child to do anything they please, fathers are still ordered such insignificant visitation without any protection of even that, that only half of chid-father relationships survive the first two years after divorce.
So those struggling to ensure that children have two parents irrespective of marriage seek legislated, operational equal parenting, not soft words and good intentions.
That is the political story behind insisting upon 50:50 time. Its the only thing believable. The question remains: what is equal parenting and how well does 50:50 residence assuring it? Are there other options that would create it just as readily, or better?
The most obvious deficiency of 50:50 time is that it omits parental decisions. It hardly matters that your child spends half her time with you if you have no say in whether she goes to school or know how shes doing, or whether his medical care comes from folk lore or science. Parenting is neither time nor money. It is active care, and that care does not always require the presence of the child. So another definition of equal parenting is functional equality.
Early attempts to implement functional equality appeared as joint legal custody. But these laws, too, used soft words such as consult and joint and significant matters without operational definition nor means of enforcement. It has proved another cover for sole custody.
I wouldnt give up on functional equality, just be better at its definition. For as long as we think equality is sameness and both parents doing all the same things, it will not work. Once we realize that equality is derived from our differences and in providing different things (differentiated parenting roles that the parents themselves define), we may finally get somewhere.
The second problem with unqualified 50:50 time is Joan Kellys concern. Kelly has had an illustrious career as divorce counselor and researcher and, though Ive never heard her use the word equal, is an advocate of children having both parents.
Yet she called presumed 50:50 residency, irrational.
Scratching below the surface, it seems that Kelly may not object to it as a principle but worries about its implementation. Infants should have 4 to 24 hours with each parent at a time and not be separated from either for much longer. So if 50:50 is implemented weekly, it may work for a seven-year-old but be disastrous for a six-month-old.
The opposite problem appears at adolescence. Even at age 12 theyre not children any more. What matters to them is their peers, and that there is one place where their friends can find them. While 50:50 time is a good measure for all ages pre-teen (so long as it is tailored to the childs age and temperament) it can be a disaster for many teenagers.
The answer may lie in a presumption of 50:50 time whose implementation is left to the parents so they can tailor it to their childrens changing needs, when and as they need to. That is, leave what is in a childs best interests up to the childs parents, the same as we do for married parents. (At least, so far we do.)
Assertions for equal parenting may only need some refinement or clarification to gain broader acceptance.
©2007 KC Wilson
To nourish children and raise them against odds is in any time, any place, more valuable than to fix bolts in cars or design nuclear weapons. - Marilyn French