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Why does no one talk about the benefits of shared custody?

If shared rights and responsibilities to children were to become the default outcome following a relationship breakdown, what would the social effects be?

Flickr/claudia_moruaShared parenting is the idea that a couple would have equal rights and responsibilities towards their children following a relationship breakdown. At the moment, typically, one parent, usually the woman, takes on the childcare responsibilities and the other parent contributes, financially, to that household. All of the institutions that have influence over family life tend to enforce this arrangement, and it can actually be fairly difficult for couples to voluntarily deviate from it.

When we're talking about making changes to custody arrangements, we are talking about making changes to the family itself, the fundamental unit of a society. This terrifies some people, and yet it needn't. Urbanisation, information technology, sexual revolution, the effects of 24/7 media: social change was the dominant theme of the 20th century. Single parent families were once a rarity, but currently, 1.8 million households would be classified as such. What the family is can't be frozen, any more than it can be reverted it to what it was 60 years ago. It has already changed, and it will continue to change.

One of the most common mistakes people make when considering gender politics issues is to ignores the reality of a zero-sum game. In other words, it's impossible to impact the lives of one gender without affecting the other gender as well. If shared parenting became the default judgement it would mean that childcare responsibilities, for many women, would drop to only three and a half days a week. Similarly, many men would experience an improvement in their ability to sustain meaningful relationships with their children and to achieve a more substantial family life. It would also bring about other less obvious benefits for men and women that we'll come to in a moment.

We're not going to talk about the nitty-gritty of how it could be accomplished nor whether it should or will happen. This is instead about the overall changes to society that shared parenting on a substantial scale would bring about in countries like the UK and US. If it started being rolled out as government policy in ten years time, what would happen?

What might the changes be?


Shared custody families displacing single parent families would have a number of positive effects on society. The welfare bill would be reduced for a start. That's because there would be an increase in the number of post-divorce/relationship breakdown families in which both parents are employed, if not both engaged in full time employment.

Government policy makers scratch their heads wondering how to best provide adequate childcare, let alone pay for it. Yet, they are throwing away what amounts to considerable childcare support for many families by not making equal parenting the default arrangement. Providing what amounts to extra childcare in this way is, for the most part, free. Don't forget, when the man has an equal share of parenting, often his family, including his parents, are brought into the equation. As it stands, this group, paternal grandparents, are typically excluded from that aspect of family life, and being practical about it, they have the potential to offer a lot of free childcare.

Some might argue that the new policy could potentially create extra benefit claimants, but even if that were true, to an extent, they would have a smaller claim because their childcare responsibilities would be half that of a single parent.

Continuing this theme, if equal parenting became the norm, average female salaries would increase. All other things being equal, a woman with sole custody of her children can't earn as much as a woman who has reduced childcare responsibilities. How could she? The negative effect on career progression of these women would also be greatly reduced. This would, again, increase female average salaries.

In western nations, women are typically ahead of men in terms of higher education results and participation, but shared parenting would give them an extra boost here too, on average. This is because some women, particularly those who became mothers at a young age, find their academic progression stifled by the requirements of being a full time carer for children.

A greater level of career opportunity would mean that women would be better represented in many work roles. Some jobs simply can't be redesigned to include the level of flexibility that is needed to accommodate a sole carer. This flexibility can take many forms. For example, a sole carer might require reasonably low hours during the working week. In contrast, when crunch time for a project arrives, 12 hour plus work days for weeks on end are not unheard of in the technology industry. Bear in mind, we're not talking about low-wage sweat-shop conditions when we say that; such expectations are built into the culture of many of the most prestigious technology companies.

Ever pulled an all-nighter or effectively taken on a double work load for a career advantage? Some single parents would be willing to do this but are unable for reasons that are unfair and unnecessary. Female sole carers are often, under the current system, locked out of both basic employment opportunities and prestigious work roles.

Men would suddenly find themselves more involved in parenting and family life in general. The men who had gained an equal share of custody would experience this change directly, but little by little, society in general would come to accept a change in traditional roles. In addition, men would require more employment flexibility, and hopefully, they would begin to demand it. They would start to chafe against the culture of long hours and inflexibility that characterises so many male dominated occupations. If women can demand equal pay for the same work, why can't men demand equal working conditions when doing the same work?

As we said earlier, some jobs have an implicit requirement of long hours that can't easily be removed. Some men would drop out of those roles and begin to migrate to typically female dominated work roles. Importantly, these changes would probably lead to more men working in caring industries. A lot is made of shortages in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) roles, but there are equal, and equally important, shortages within caring industries. In fact, it's not overstating things to say we're heading for a disaster, as a society, as the average age of the population rises. The requirement of a decent work-life balance as part of a reliable career along with a shift in perceptions of gender roles would help here.

This raises one of the fears that many people have about shared custody and challenging traditional gender roles in general. Surely, you might think, if men began to make these demands on employers, wouldn't employers, and therefore the economy itself, miss out? In fact, this misgiving is reflected in what is called the “lump of labour fallacy”. This principle states that if you reduce the working hours of a worker from the ideal of the standard 40 hour week, you reduce the efficiency of that worker. That's because fixed costs of employment tend not to scale very well.

However, to apply that theory to this situation is a fallacy in itself as it ignores the zero sum economic reality that we spoke of at the beginning. In plain words, whatever you take away with one hand, you must give back with the other. If men had a level of flexibility that would enable more of them to maintain equal custody and family life responsibilities, female workers would become more efficient employees. If a man's career is stiflingly demanding, to the point where he has little time for his family commitments, the mother of his children misses out. In short, some of the men wouldn't be able to work quite as long as they used to, but many of the female employees would be able to do a lot more.

Let's go back to the subject of young single mothers for a moment. Often these women are undereducated, lacking in opportunity, unemployed and constitute a special group who need special assistance. A report entitled Parenting Alone: Work and welfare in single parent households published by the think tank Policy Exchange states in its synopsis:

“Of the 1.8 million single parent households in the UK, 650,000 – more than 1 in 3 – are not in any sort of work, with the average single parent household claiming twice as much in benefit support as the average two parent household.”

and that furthermore:

“The level of unemployed single parents can partly be attributed to when they had children. Over half (52%) of lone mothers who had their first child as a teenager (16-19) are not in work or looking for work, compared to 40% who had their first child aged 20-23 year olds, 29% of those who had their first child aged 24-29 and 19% who had their first child in their early thirties.”

This report also states the importance of educational opportunities for single mothers and the link between lack of education and chronic unemployment:

“Whilst 84% of lone parents who have left education and have degrees are in work, only 54% who left education without any qualifications above GCSE level and 26% who left with no qualifications are in work.”

This group of women, young single mothers, are often targets for criticism, partly as they are a dominant feature of many of the most problem-ridden areas of the UK. Being fair, by the time the children are school-aged, if the mothers have little or no experience of work and a poor level of education, what do their critics expect the outcome to be? If they are genuinely unsupported by their former partner, how can they get out of this situation?

Single parent families are, statistically and in average terms, far from an ideal, and they are partly the result of a historic mistake in government policy. By that I mean that when family breakdown began to become more prominent in the middle of the 20th century, government policy should have enforced greater equality in family life, post relationship breakdown. At this point, rethinking the opportunities that should be made available to parents after separation risks going against the grain of what people now consider to be “normal”.

It is still an emerging area of study for social scientists, but so far, the findings have been that fatherly involvement has a positive impact on the development of young children. For example, the Fatherhood section of the United States Department of Health and Human Services website says this:

“Involved fathers provide practical support in raising children and serve as models for their development. Children with involved, loving fathers are significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self-esteem, exhibit empathy and pro-social behaviour compared to children who have uninvolved fathers. Committed and responsible fathering during infancy and early childhood contributes emotional security, curiosity, and math and verbal skills.”

Specifically, on the issue of shared parenting, Dawn Primarolo, The Minister of State for Children, Young People and Families, told the father's rights organisation Families Need Fathers:

“I welcome the work and commitment by Families Need Fathers to raise awareness of shared parenting and the benefits it can bring to the lives and outcomes of children and young people. Children feel better and do better when they have good relationships with their mum and dad, whether their parents live together or are separated.”

And yet few actual government policy announcements in the UK or the US make mention of shared parenting. At the very least, the government should be doing what it can to help estranged couples who would like to make the change. Doing so would save money and improve the lives of all of the parties directly involved while also helping to ease wider social issues. Every time a new policy to offer “support” to single parents with kids is announced, it is a new plan to entrench a situation that should not have become commonplace in the first place. To do so is to fund a situation that is unsustainable and unproductive while at the same time being unfair and at the root of many social problems.

About the author

Michael is a freelance writer in the UK, covering topics including technology and gender.


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