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When Separated Parents Fight Over Their Toddler

April 12, 2014

She argues he never provided as much of the care as she did, so why all the sudden interest in caring for their child now. He argues she is trying to keep the child away from him and interfere with his relationship to the child with a minimal access schedule.

It is important to understand that both parents will naturally want to have a relationship with their offspring, but there are gender differences with regard to the development of parent-child relationships and parental separation interrupts those gender based developmental differences.

To state the obvious, men do not carry the child during the child’s period of gestation. Women do. This affords mothers a head start on the relationship and creates in them the need to protect and care for their yet to be born child. That is not to minimize the sense of expectation men have and a sense of needing to protect one’s partner and even prepare the nest, so to speak, but men still do not carry babies and rarely appreciate the impact of this on the closer relationship between mother and newborn and infant child.

To add, men’s equipment does not provide for the direct sustenance of the child. Again, not to say fathers cannot feed babies, but men’s bodies do not biologically compel them to do so. This builds in a biological imperative for the mother to take a primary care position with respect to the child. It is important to note, biology is still at play even if argued that the mother didn’t breastfeed. How well the equipment works or mother’s attitude towards using the equipment doesn’t take away from basic biological differences.

Absent biological differences, there are also social and social policy differences between mothers and fathers. Women are more expected to care for infant children than are men. Mothers are more likely to subordinate careers and earning potential to care for infants than are fathers. (Please note, there are biological underpinnings to social expectations and social policy.) Mothers being the primary care provider doesn’t mean that father’s aren’t there providing care as well, but on balance, this still typically falls more to the mother and the mother has a different biologically determined disposition towards doing so. Although social policy is changing and the competencies of fathers to provide care is gaining recognition, this still doesn’t mitigate basic biological differences.

In view of differences, mothers will have more time with the child and typically will be more practiced in reading the child’s cues, responding more on target to those cues and given practice, more comfortable and efficient in providing care such as feeding, bathing, soothing, etc.

Fathers, absent the equipment, biological imperative, 9-month prenatal biological bonding, and degree of direct practice, may be more reticent to jump in. Fathers usually require a longer period of time to catch up, feel comfortable in a care capacity and develop care proficiency skills commensurate with the mother. All this is within the range of normal.

Mother’s too must appreciate the above difference and come to understand, that given the above, men come more into their own as fathers and begin to feel more comfortable with their care of children when the children are themselves less physically fragile, better able to signal their needs and wants through language and more inclined to interactive play.

With intact parental relationships, parents get to naturally transition through not only the child’s normal developmental changes, but parental developmental changes too.

With time, fathers gains confidence and competency in their own parenting skills with a child that itself is better able to express needs and wants through language or gestures and again, is less physically fragile and more interactive at play. As fathers’ competency builds they often take on more care responsibilities. Through this development, mother is exposed to father’s development and hence mother herself develops trust and confidence in the father’s abilities such that she can, in a sense, release or let go of their child more and more to his care. By the time the child is three or four years of age and given an intact parental relationship, the mother comes to demand more care and attention of the child by the father. If she feels he is too absent at work or play, she will be more vocal about this and more demanding for his time at home with her and certainly with their child.

Further and from the father’s perspective, even if immersed with work, he doesn’t feel like his relationship to his child is threatened by the mother. On the contrary, the mother is keeping and holding the image of him alive and of value. The child is told, “Daddy will be home shortly… Go see if daddies home…. Go give daddy a kiss hello… etc.” Further reminders of father’s role in the family will be evident. There will be his clothing, belongings, pictures and event scents. Father’s presence and place in the child’s life will be supported environmentally by the shared residence as well as emotionally and psychologically through the actions of the mother keeping the image and role of father alive when not in view. The father doesn’t feel his place in the child’s life is threatened.

In view of the above, it is normal for mother to be both more active and competent in the care of the infant to toddler child, for fathers to develop these competencies by or during the child’s toddler to preschool age and for care expectations to shift more towards father through the child’s second, third and fourth year of life. In an intact 2-parent family, this is normal and while there may be some bumps along the way, the family manages these developmental changes.

Parental separation during a child’s infancy or toddler years interrupts normal family development. Mothers will have been more active in the care of the child and fathers will not be afforded the opportunity to develop their competencies in the eyes of the mother. While the father typically does develop those competencies, without being witness, mother’s trust in those competencies may be undeveloped and she may seek to be protective by limiting father’s role. Father will feel his relationship to the child thwarted just as he is ready for responsibility, time and care of the child.

The set up for conflict for parents separating during this stage of life is now understandable.

The challenge will be for separated parents to arrive at a parenting plan that facilitates the otherwise normal development and changes in parental roles when their separated family structure interrupts this normal development.

If parents cannot accommodate normal developmental change themselves, then they are well advised to work with a social worker, psychologist, mental health professional or other child and family developmental specialist to devise a plan care that respects normal biological imperatives, normal child development and normal family and parental development.

In the end, the parenting plan will likely not be as restrictive as the mother had wished for but neither will it likely be as generous as the father had hoped for at this stage of everyone’s development.

However, it should also be understood and appreciated that parenting plans should be considered on a developmental basis too. What may be reasonable at one stage of life may not fit for another. To the degree to which the underlying issues of the separation are laid to rest, by either addressing or moving on from, the parents may develop a capacity for flexibility. That flexibility will be to the benefit of the child as the parenting plan is altered to meet different needs at different times, be it for the child or parents.

There are ways to settle parenting disputes at this stage of life. It will require the parents to appreciate normal child, family and parent development. Solutions will be tailored to each family’s unique situation and should include strategies to address mutual concerns.

While a court may impose a parenting plan, rarely can an imposed solution address the nuances of needs and wants, let alone developmental changes of any child, parent or family. Please also remember, your lawyer will be an expert at law, however, your social worker, psychologist, mental health professional or child and family developmental specialists should be your expert for human developmental transitions.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.


Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

(905) 628-4847

Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships.

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One Comment
  1. Ken permalink

    Disappointing viewpoint. Not a single element of this article is cited or referenced in basic concepts of “evidence based medicine”. Do appreciate your personal opinion but, as it sites no research or studies it should be viewed by readers as simple as a personal opinion.

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