Shared Residency Plans

Residency and children’s contact with their respective parents have until now have been governed by a number of legal constructs. In this regard, concepts such as reasonable access, age-appropriate access, maternal preference rule and tender years doctrine comes to mind. These concepts are applied to standardise access of children mostly to fathers. Children were more frequently resident with their mothers and saw their fathers more or less on alternate weekends and holidays. Children of different ages needed different types of contact. Tables indicated what age appropriate contact was, when sleepover access could take place and how many days of holiday a child could spend with his or her father.

The above fails to take account of the fact that families have changed; gender roles have changed and the life design of parents are different from what it has been previously. For example, the world of work has changed which has impacted on parents’ availability to their children. Men and women now have the option of the home office, temporary work or the virtual office. Gender roles have changed and it is acknowledged that mothering is not a gender specific task. Children’s position has changed and internationally there is a focus on the Rights of the Child and hearing children’s voices on issues concerning them. These aspects lead to a situation where parents involve themselves in different ways and take up parental responsibility in a different manner.

The field of Psychology acknowledges challenges to the idea of "normal" development that proposed that all people enter distinct developmental stages and address developmental tasks during distinct periods. Current thinking supports the notion that the idea of a normal life span trajectory is deficient in explaining the infinite number of developmental forms that are possible. Each family’s position should be assessed in terms of their own family history and context, as well as, the particular and specific parent-child relationships that exist in that family. It is therefore possible to have a three and four year old spending half of every week with their father and the rest of the week with their mother as this arrangement reflects the specific parent-child relationships in this family.

Wallerstein et al. (2002) identifies the following as factors to consider in determining whether a shared residency will suit a family. The elements are:

  • each parent’s job requirements,
  • distance between residences,
  • children’s school hours,
  • extramural activities,
  • availability of day care and after school care,
  • money issues and
  • case specific and individual issues.

Flexibility in working schedules gives both parties the opportunity to fetch and carry children to and from school and extra-mural activities. Parents should be each other’s first support structure in issues concerning their children. The closer in proximity residences are, the better. This means that children although living in two houses have the same social network of friends around them. This aspect is important for all school going children. The parents’ financial position will determine whether they could duplicate the facilities and comforts available at both houses. This possibility creates further continuity in children’s lives. It is important to consult children as to their needs in this regard.

In assessing the question of whether shared residency will work, Wallerstein et al. state that the adjustment and well-being of children will be determined by:

  • the mental health of parents,
  • the quality of the parent-child relationships,
  • the degree of open anger versus cooperation between the parties,
  • the age of the child,
  • temperament of the child and
  • flexibility of the child.

In other words, the extent to which parents will accept parental responsibility in the widest sense, will determine children’s adjustment after divorce. The viability of this type of arrangement relies on factors that are uniquely associated with a specific family.

Examples of shared residency plans