Both families and the professionals who work with them are going through changes and transitions in the family law reform environment.
Promise and challenge prevail with equal force and we have to find stability in the flux. To let go of the old order and embrace the new.
In the aftermath of change there is often a lot of movement and noise, and then – quite suddenly -the energy seems to hit a plateau. A bit like a winter garden – past the solstice we might be- but the birds seem rather quiet, the nights rather long and the garden a sea of mud.
How does one move from the position that has been embraced for so long- in a family or in an organisation – without feeling overwhelmed or that ones very way of being is under attack? And if movement feels impossible, how much worse is the sense of feeling stuck?
It is this task of finding the bridge across the swampy ground that we must focus on. The art of working with parents -who are feeling their rights are being unfairly challenged by each other- takes empathy, common sense and the ability to instill a solution focus into the process. To give it anything but the utmost attention, compassion and skill is to pass on a message to the family that their greatest fear is true – that they are stuck and the whole family is hurting.
I saw a particular family a few years ago where a nine year old had a strict equal week on, week off with both his parents. It was a knife-edge balance full of threats and court action each time one parent felt the other was having more contact with their son. This little boy was enrolled in two soccer clubs, one in mum’s neighbourhood and one in dad’s, and played for each team on alternate weeks. He told me that his greatest fear was that one week he would need to play in one team against the other team. The absurdity was not lost on him.
The key task in working alongside rearranged families is to recreate the pathways of trust between co parents about their most precious shared enterprise – their children. Parenting plans must find a way to straddle the new without threatening the all-important attachment between each parent and child. An exacting geometry, yes – but not an impossible task.
If respectful conversations can be facilitated about what children need, as opposed to what parents want, then a new order can be created – stability within change.
Recourse to court and contested legal positions has given way to the reform of Family Dispute Resolution (FDR). First of all we now consult with parents – who will know their children better than any professional can. The focus must be – and only be -agreements which seek to enhance the wellbeing of their children. If children can find resilience and stability and be parented by a mum and dad cheering for the one team their child is in– then their mum and dad will do much better too. This is the way of the family system.
I met with two parents recently – it felt like the dark garden outside in the storm. Rain was lashing; branches coming down and both parents were struggling to see any green shoots. Predictions of better weather felt hard to believe in.
The whiteboard was covered in segments of weeks, peppered with games of football and ballet rehearsals, teenage moods and shared Christmases.
Finally, and a little later in the process, a lost generosity was rediscovered where each parent was able to look again at the relationship between the other parent and that child. This allowed a parenting plan focussed on their children’s needs: stability in change.
In this environment, families and professionals both, we are forging a path through that garden.