When examining the issues surrounding the high rates of separation and divorce in the UK, much attention has been focused on the negative effects a split has on any children who are involved. In response, there has been increasing policy interest in facilitating regular and meaningful contact between the children and the parent who moves out as the result of a split (usually the father). In this blog written originally for the LSE Politics and Policy blog, Lucinda Platt and Tina Haux examine how a father’s involvement before a separation is linked to contact patterns after separation and secondly, whether a mother’s evaluation of her parenting is affected by separation.
Policymakers in the UK are keen to reduce the figure of one in five non-resident fathers who, two years after separation, are not in contact with their children. It is also recognised that a mother’s mental health as well as her income can be adversely affected by a separation.
We wanted to see if more involved, active dads who feel close to their child when they are very young are likely to see their son or daughter more if he goes on to separate from the child’s mother. We also wanted to see what other pre-separation factors might be at play in the amount of contact maintained after separation, such as the length of time since separation and the age of the child.
The second strand of our research focused on mothers and specifically whether separation knocks their confidence as a parent and if so, how quickly that evaluation of their competence as a parent recovers.
We used the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), a UK-wide cohort study of around 19,000 children born to families resident in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002. The children’s families were first surveyed when the children were aged around 9 months and then again at ages 3, 5, 7 and 11. Both resident parents are interviewed and they also complete a self-completion questionnaire. They also provide information about their relationship with the child as well as on their own circumstances. Where one of the parents is not living in the household, the resident parent (usually the mother) provides information about the child’s contact with his or her non-resident parent (usually the father).
Separated dads and contact
Focusing on families where there had been a separation and where the mother remained the main carer, we looked at data from around 2,800 families who had experienced separation across the survey period.
Eight out of ten dads who were separated when their child was aged between 3 and 5 years old had at least some contact over that period with their child. That number increased for fathers who separated when their child was older. By contrast, though, when we looked at the impact of passing time, among those children whose parents had separated by age 3, three in 10 had lost all contact with their dad by the time they were 11 years old.
Looking at how often separated dads saw their child, we found that a quarter of fathers of 3 year-olds saw them multiple times during the week, whereas around one in five saw their child occasionally, but less often than every week. Seventy-three per cent of newly separated fathers, who were still in touch with their child, had their child stay overnight at least occasionally. This figure rose to more than 80 per cent of fathers who were newly separated but still in touch when the child was 11 years old. And half of them have the child to stay overnight ‘often’.
Being a more involved dad didn’t make any difference to whether contact was maintained or not. However, looking at how often the non-resident parent saw their child, told a different story, with the involvement of fathers prior to separation increasing the frequency with which he saw the child, particularly where the father had looked after the child by himself. Similarly, how involved a dad was and whether he had undertaken parenting by himself before the split were linked to greater frequency of overnight stays afterwards.
The younger the child and the greater the amount of time that had passed since separation, the greater likelihood there was of no contact taking place. This was regardless of how involved a parent the father was prior to separation.
Fathers were just as likely to lose contact with a boy as a girl, but boys tended to have more frequent contact with their dads and stay overnight more regularly. Again, this was regardless of how involved a parent the father was. This may be linked to differences in opportunities and resources for non-resident parents to entertain boys and girls outside the family home.
Better off fathers were more likely to stay in contact with their child and have them to stay over more regularly, highlighting the importance of having the financial means to provide a bedroom for the child, for example.
Does separation knock mum’s confidence?
The second part of our project drew on the first four surveys of the MCS (9 months, 3, 5 and 7 years old). We started with around 12,000 mothers who were living with the child’s father when the child was around 9 months old, of whom around 2,000 separated by the age 7 survey.
There were no significant differences in initial evaluations of parenting competence among those who went on to separate compared to those who did not, showing it is not less confident parents who go on to separate. Once mothers did separate, no matter what age their child and taking a range of other characteristics into consideration, they evaluated their own parenting competence lower than those mothers who were still in a relationship. So there was a clear link between separation and a knock to a mother’s confidence in her abilities as a parent.
However, looking more closely we found that the impact of separation seemed to occur through mothers having higher risks of maternal depression following a split and their children experiencing slightly more behavioural problems. So it seems that either of these results in a reduced evaluation of parenting competence.
In contrast with other research on the effects of separation on mental health and on life satisfaction, we saw no improvement in perceived parenting competence among separated mothers over time. Mothers who had been separated for longer did not tend to have higher parenting competence compared to mothers who had been separated more recently.
This may be partly a consequence of the relatively short time span since separation within our sample, with an average of only 2.7 years since separation across the mothers. However, when we looked in the same way at depression, this tended to decrease over time since separation, other things being equal. So, the pattern for depression is consistent with other research, while parenting competence does not appear to ‘recover’.
Pre-separation parenting matters
There are a number of conclusions that we draw from the research. First, for fathers and contact:
- The more closely involved a dad is in the upbringing of his young child, the more likely he is to have regular contact in the event of a separation
- The sorts of activities a dad is involved with in the early years matters more than what he thinks about his own parenting
- Dads who are supported in being active parents can be expected to maintain greater contact in the event of a split
- The role of time since separation in reducing contact remains a serious concern
- Paternity leave policies may have payoffs in terms of subsequent contact
- Policies and financial support that make it possible for a father to meet more regularly with his child and provide a bedroom for them could be important
For mothers, we see that:
- Separation affects mother’s evaluation of their parenting competence
- It appears to do so through increased risks of problems her mental health and the child’s behavior
- Parenting competence is not influenced by the passage of time nor by levels of contact the child has with his or her father
- Being a single mum is inherently tough
- A focus solely on recovery in mental health is not enough, instead psychological and practical support around parenting are key
This blog article is based on a Nuffield Foundation funded research project: Parenting and contact before and after separation.
There are two Working Papers based on the research that are published in the LSE Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) series and which you can download below:
- Parenting and post-separation contact: what are the links?
- Mothers, parenting and the impact of separation
Photo credit: Take my hand, Stephen Hochhaus