My Blog

My blog is meant to inform but its primary purpose is not to be informative. It is about the law but it is not solely about the law but also about those places the law does not go. The law is the platform from which I dive. My blog is about my opinions but is not primarily about my opinions since I often temper these to the subject matter on hand, not to mention the imagined audience. Quite often when I open a subject which is related to the law for discussion, I find myself in a place I never meant to be, or to go, as if the subject takes on a life of its own. I write articles based on what I do for a living, and I am a family lawyer, but of course that is not all I am. I find that when I engage with a subject, and use writing to express my thoughts, that quite often the journey is more interesting than the end and that what I thought I was writing about is not what I wrote about at all. This seems to me to be a metaphor for life. I write, therefore, to throw some light into the dark, to increase my understanding and by extension hopefully, other people’s understanding of what often seems incomprehensible, to enliven the dull so my spirit does not sag and to throw some humour at what is often deeply sad so that I can, or maybe, dare I say hopefully, “we”, can gain perspective. I doubt I succeed but the effort is honest.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

All I want for Christmas ..

More than any other time of the year, Christmas tends to pose the greatest challenge for separated and divorced parents. The biggest issue is generally – where will the children spend Christmas, followed by – who has them on Christmas eve, followed by – how will we divide up present buying and santa given that we are hardly speaking or not speaking at all, followed by – who has them for New Years. All of these issues can be minefields in the hands of warring parents. Over the years I have presided over many a Christmas access battle, the odd festive kidnapping and one memorable Christmas, my brother was on one phone to a Father for several hours on Christmas day and I was on another line to the Mother as they commenced their domestic journey toward separation– that must have been a fun Christmas for the children! I remember my own Mother being absolutely furious at the interruptions as the calls went on and on throughout the day.
For many of us, Christmas brings us back into our own childhoods, to a more innocent time perhaps and a time of anticipation mixed with comfort and security. We tell ourselves that we want to recreate that for our children and, of course, that may be true but buried underneath all that may be our own need to feel those feelings again. Apart from our own feelings, there is the potent commercial sell of Christmas. Those of us who do not have children may feel inadequate and incomplete during this season as well as those of us who are unmarried, homeless, old, widowed etc. So it is as well to understand that we are not alone. When we combine those potent feelings with a power struggle and the loss of focus that the emotional flooding of divorce or separation brings on, it is not too surprising that Christmas can become a major battleground each year. So what can we do to prevent this happening?
The first thing is to have a plan for Christmas. Don’t leave things to chance and don’t assume anything. Make sure that you have discussed things and you have a clear strategy for the Christmas period. The first thing to remember when you make your plan is that Christmas is about the children and not the adults. Therefore, the focus is not about my rights or your rights but about how we make this Christmas a good one for the children and not just this Christmas but every Christmas. For the children of separated parents, this is a difficult time as well. Since we are the adults, it is our job to make it easier on them and not the other way around. The every second Christmas routine may work well for parents but it is unlikely to find favour with the children. Children are creatures of habit and they like things to be exactly as they would expect them to be each Christmas with a little room for originality but not much. Therefore, as parents, we may have to accept that divvying up Christmas day on a turn and turn about basis may feel “fair” to us adults but may not be at all fair to the children. We need to look at these things with a fresh mind.
So maybe you won’t get to spend Christmas with your children. Realise in good time that this will be very hard and rise to the challenge. Unless you absolutely cherish being alone, plan not to be alone. One suggestion I came across was getting a few people together in the same situation as yourself and organising a dinner party. Sad as that is, it is not the end of the world, provided you do not sit at home moping all day. If you sit at home all day getting upset and morose, your children are just going to feel really bad and so are you. However, if they think you are ok, then they will be ok. Remember that your children will find Christmas without a parent challenging as well. Try and ensure that each parent allows them the time to reflect on this by talking openly about it. If you are the designated house for Christmas then include the absent parent by plotting with the children on a suitable present and taking care and time to wrap that and ensuring phone calls are made on the day. For the absent parent, why not make Christmas Eve the important day in your house if you can’t have Christmas Day? After all there are many countries where it is far more important than Christmas Day in any event. The children will be delighted to have a celebration wherever and whenever that celebration occurs and to build traditions around that. And if you don’t want to turn up like a lost soul at your family of origin, though I would say they would be delighted, then volunteer to do something on Christmas Day or make a plan for it – for example, take part in the Christmas swim and the conviviality around that and spend the rest of the day basking in your accomplishment and recovering. Whatever it is , the key is to have a plan.
It is important that while children enjoy and celebrate Christmas that parenting quality does not diminish to the extent that outrageous sums of money are spent and there is unnecessary doubling up on gifts. Where possible, as I have said before, parent on the “what if” basis ie what if we had not separated? If you and your ex had not separated , you would watch your spending and you would each contribute to the costs. Try, where possible, and do the same when separated. Sharing gift ideas and information about what each of you have planned for Christmas is both prudent and mature.
Some separated parents will manage to get together for a family meal on Christmas Day and that is truly wonderful if it can happen and happen with good grace. Obviously, it is not wonderful if it is an excuse for sniping and bickering or for other family members to have a go at the ex. Other people will divide up the day. Whether or not that is a good idea depends on how it impacts on the children. Whatever solution you and your fellow parent consider, has to be one that the children will benefit from and that is not primarily designed to make both of your feel that you have got your due. For many children, leaving their nice warm house and new toys to go off somewhere with the visiting parent on Christmas Day is not welcome. Rather than dragging them out, perhaps a fresh think might be required. Look at the holidays as they occur throughout the year and ask each other which parent tends to be more involved with the children on that particular holiday. For example, some Dads get very invested in Halloween and love the whole celebration whereas Mum may see it as an inconvenience or vice versa. Some Mums are totally devoted to Christmas and have been collecting Christmas decorations and memorabilia for years, whereas Dad can take it or leave it and even at the best of times was a 4 o’clock shopper on Christmas Eve. Some people adore New Years and others try and sleep it away. Looking at all these holidays in an honest way can quite often help us to divvy them up more realistically, ensuring maximum enjoyment for the children.
Sometimes you won’t be able to agree on how to divide the holidays and when that happens, you just have to designate. Decide which parent will have that holiday. Don’t just split them up or do a turn and turn about, because that seems like the best compromise. Be creative and look at the bigger picture. Designating specific holidays to each of you allows for you to build up happy traditions in each of your homes. Many parents will suffer from extra guilt because they will feel that their failure has brought this extra suffering on their children. Guilt is such a waste of time and serves no one. When you are happy, your child will be happy.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Difficult Conversations

Your body tells you when a conversation will be difficult. It is the tight feeling in your stomach, the slight headache that you have had all day and that jitteriness that you have been experiencing. These senses all put us on notice of a difficult conversation which has to be had but which we do not want to have. When we get those signals from our body we need to pay attention and think about what might be going on and how we are going to deal with it. The more we are in dread or feeling overwhelmed by what lies ahead the more we need to pay attention to ourselves. It could be that the imminent conversation is hitting a sore spot in our own psyche and that is causing us to be in dread rather than anything inherent in the conversation necessarily or, of course, it could be that the conversation itself will be difficult of its very nature.
The other day a friend approached me looking for help with a forthcoming “difficult conversation”. It is a conversation that many couples may need to have. My friend is divorced and in another relationship and she and her partner have different parenting styles. Recently Dad , who was absent from the scene, returned, causing my friend’s partner to become very angry and frustrated. The child who is in fear of her Dad disappearing again is now wondering if she should go and live with Dad so as to anchor him down. Partner got exceedingly angry at this suggestion and said some nasty things about the Dad in front of the child. My friend needs to have a “difficult conversation”.
How might she approach this conversation? On analysis it becomes clear that the partner has an authoritarian style of parenting. This would mirror his experience of parenting growing up and he has little experience of his own other than what he is now acquiring. My friend’s style is more authoritative or democratic. Many parents have different styles of parenting and it is not the end of the world but it does need to be recognized when it occurs. An authoritarian style sees discipline as exceedingly important and the parental word is law. An authoritative style takes account of the child’s wishes and tries to establish dialogue. It is important not to confuse an authoritative style with a permissive style. In the permissive style there is very little discipline and the demarcation lines between parent and child are blurred. That is not the case in authoritative. An authoritative parent is very clear that they are the parent but they are prepared to consult and look for consensus in a way that the authoritarian parent is not.
Once we have established where the tension lies and then looked at the particular problem that has arisen, we can look at how we might have this conversation. First of all, my friend need to remember that her partner was prepared to be a father to her daughter when her real father was not around and as such he played a vital role in helping to restore the child’s self esteem. She also needs to walk a mile in his shoes and understand why he might be feeling hurt and angry when he hears that the child now thinks she should live with her Dad. Then she needs to reflect on what happens to us when we are overwhelmed by emotions. We get flooded. The frontal lobe of our brains shuts down and we react in one of two ways, fight or flight. Literally we can attack or run away. A rational response is not possible for us when we are in that state. It is what a colleague of mine calls the primordial soup and when we are in it, we are not rational beings. A person in this position may use very intemperate language. Clearly, my friend’s partner was flooded and used intemperate language. It is helpful to understand that nature of that response so that my friend can then approach her partner from a compassionate and understanding perspective. This approach will improve the possibilities of having a successful conversation.
Should my friend try and change his style of parenting and move him to her way of thinking? She may have issues with his parenting style but it is a fact that many children grow up successfully in houses where the parents had very different approaches to parenting. What she needs to ensure is that he does not make negative comments about her Father to the child or in front of her. When my friend spoke to me about this she said that if he did not stop this behaviour then she would have to ask him to move out as she could not allow her daughter to be damaged. I was pretty sure if she communicated this to her partner the conversation would not go well. Men, in my experience, do not respond well to ultimata and women tend to be overly fond of them. Apart, however, from gender differences, people as a rule will understand requests as demands if they hear themselves being blamed by the language being used or if they suspect that if they do not comply, they will be punished. Sometimes you do all of the above and the other party still says that they think they were in the right and they are not sure they want to or can comply with what you are requesting. What do you do then? Well what you don’t want to do is challenge their failure to comply with your request because if you do, then they will quite rightly perceive that you were, in fact, making a demand and not a request. So a simple statement like, “Ok, I will leave it with you and perhaps we might talk about it again later in the week when we both have had time to digest this conversation” should suffice or if you are feeling energetic you might go right back to understanding and empathy again. Marshall Rosenberg in his book “Non Violent Communication” says that “Human beings, when hearing any kind of demand, tend to resist because it threatens our autonomy-our strong need for choice”. We all need to reflect very deeply on this statement. If you have conversations with your children which consist of demands and I know I do that myself particularly when I am stressed or in a hurry, their lack of cooperation and useful response may be explained by the fact that instinctively they feel their autonomy is being threatened. And, taking that a step further, if that is an instinctive reaction, then how much time and energy have we wasted and continue to waste on totally useless and frustrating communication? Rosenberg goes even further with this when he says that even when we talk to ourselves in the language of “should” such as “I should have known better” we are already inside ourselves reacting to the “internal tyranny” of the “should”.
In any event, I am not sure that we can ever change anyone else. The only person we can really change is ourselves but I do think if we make an honest attempt to understand another’s point of view then we can reach understandings and accommodations if not outright changes. Once she has truly listened to how he might feel and empathised with it then she might tell him that her daughter’s self esteem is tied up with her relationship with her Father and that when he attacks her Father, he attacks her. She might explain to him that even though her Dad might only spend a short time with his daughter every weekend, that time was worth as much to her daughter as a whole week spent with her Mum no matter how unfair that might seem. And finally she might look to build a fail safe device so that neither of them would fall into the trap of losing their temper around the child again and saying things that they would regret. Approached like this it is likely that her partner, while he might not initially agree, would start to hear her. A fail safe device might be something like “this is a little overwhelming” as a reminder that we are moving into the danger zone. If you can both agree something like that as an alert to each other it is a very useful safety valve for both of you both in parenting and even between each other when one of you may be pushing the other too hard without necessarily realizing or appreciating the effect you are having.
The most important thing to remember when you have to have a difficult conversation is that no matter how well you prepare sometimes things can take an awkward turn and you might find yourself locked into a row without even realising how you got there. So, give yourself a break and try again. It is not a race. These things take time and ,occasionally, you have to take the scenic route a few times before you arrive. When I was learning how to mediate it took me a while to realise that I did not necessarily have to progress nicely along a path ticking off each marker as I passed. It was very nice when a mediation went that way but the markers were essentially teaching and memory devices. You needed to know them and try and make sure you included them in the process as a way of marking progress but conversations are not generally conducted in a linear progression and sometimes the person telling their story needs to tell it more than once so that you sometimes find yourself going around in a circle. This is all perfectly normal. And so it is with difficult conversations, sometimes they won’t go exactly to plan but as long as you and your partner are listening to one another and appreciative of each other, you almost can’t go wrong.