Coparenting as a Women’s Rights Issue

The hidden problem of maternal alienation from children’s lives.

Posted Feb 24, 2018

My sabbatical this year has afforded me the opportunity to make good on invitations to present on the topics of shared parenting and parental alienation around the globe. What has struck me in the recent presentations I’ve made in countries like Iceland, Turkey, Belgium, Spain, Korea and Iran, is the degree to which women and women’s organizations are advocating for a reform of the family law system in the direction of shared parenting as a legal presumption. From Iceland, where coparenting is increasingly recognized as an essential element of gender equality (Iceland is the first country to legislate equal pay for women), to Turkey, where I heard an impassioned presentation by a woman’s studies scholar on the benefits of shared parenting for mothers (in a country where traditional roles and responsibilities of mothers are barriers to women’s advancement in the public realm), to Iran, where fathers are typically granted legal custody of children and mothers are at risk of being replaced in their role by fathers’ new partners, the appeal of shared parenting as the foundation of family law is being voiced by women’s and children’s advocates.

This stands in stark contrast to the portrayal of shared parenting and parental alienation as “men’s rights” issues in North America. Opponents of a legal presumption of shared parenting in the United States and Canada go so far as to characterize the campaign as a “fathers’ rights conspiracy.” This viewpoint not only overlooks the fact that in many parts of the world, a paternal preference in legal child custody determination still exists, but also ignores the increasing rates of paternal custody decisions and maternal alienation from children’s lives in North America. The characterization of parental alienation and shared parenting as “fathers’ rights” issues has rendered invisible the plight of many mothers, and negatively affected the global campaign to establish shared parenting as the foundation of family law as a fundamental right of women and their children.

The emergence of shared parenting as a women’s rights issue is no great surprise, given the fact that in many countries, a paternal preference continues to dominate in judicial child custody decision-making and results in many mothers becoming alienated from their children’s lives, and the fact that in some countries, children are still considered to be the “property” of fathers. In North America, we see increasing rates of primary residence determinations being made in favor of fathers in states where a maternal preference previously existed. It is now well-established that women are as much at risk of parental alienation as fathers, both in North America and abroad (Warshak, 2015).

Shared parenting has been long-championed as a vital element of gender equality in two-parent families, and is now emerging as equally important for separated and divorced families. It is neither desirable nor viable that mothers work a “double shift” as full-time wage earners and parents; fathers’ assumption of responsibility to share the care of children in dual-earner households in particular is an important concern of women.

It is in the realm of parenting after divorce, however, that shared parenting is vital for the well-being of mothers, as well as for fathers and children. My own research on the lived experiences of mothers alienated from their children’s lives in Canada (Kruk, 2010; Kruk, 2015) revealed that far from voluntarily relinquishing their traditional maternal role, as some have suggested, mothers are being forcefully removed from their children’s lives in North America. When accusations are made that court systems are biased in favor of mothers in the US and Canada, they have responded by increasing rates of paternal custody (as opposed to shared parenting) legal determinations. This places mothers’ relationships with their children at serious risk.

The storied experience of each of the mothers I interviewed focused on the following themes: attachment and loss associated with involuntary child absence; legal abuse within the adversarial system, and judgment based on non-conformity to a motherhood ideal; physical violence and emotional abuse in the family system; access denial and parental alienation; stigma and lack of support services; and serious financial losses. I also examined mothers’ perceptions of their children's needs in the divorce process, mothers’ responsibilities in relation to those needs, and the responsibility of social institutions to support mothers as parents. In this context I examined mothers' views about needed changes to the legal framework of child custody determination and other priorities. Above all else, mothers identified the need for a rebuttable legal shared parenting presumption as facilitating the most salutary post-divorce outcomes for themselves and their children.

Overcoming the barriers to the re-engagement of mothers alienated from their children’s lives is a vital social justice issue. The key in this regard is shifting away from an adversarial stance, toward supporting both parents in the fulfillment of their parenting responsibilities after divorce. The lack of such support for non-resident mothers by representatives of social institutions is an issue too long neglected in social policy and clinical practice. Shared parenting is a preventative legal measure to ensure the continued involvement of mothers in the lives of their children, and this makes it just as much a women’s as a men’s rights issue.

References

Kruk, E.  (2010). Collateral Damage:  The Lived Experiences of Divorced Mothers Without Custody.  Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 51 (8), 526-543.

Kruk, E. (2015). The Lived Experiences of Non-custodial Parents in Canada: A Comparison of Mothers and Fathers. International Journal for Family Research and Policy, 1 (1), 80-95.

Warshak, R. A. (2015). Ten parental alienation fallacies that compromise decisions in court and in therapy. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 46, 235-249.