A specialist family lawyer looks at some of the issues co-parenting divorced working dads might face as people reduce homeworking and go back to the office.
Now that some employers are starting to ask people to return to the office, flexible working practices are tightening up in some industries. But what does this mean for the dads that have become used to increased freedom and the ability to spend more quality time with their children? Alistair Myles (pictured below), a founding partner of London-headquartered family law firm Ribet Myles, explains what dads need to do if they find themselves in a position of no longer being available to care for their children due to changing working practices post-COVID, and how to navigate new agreements or return to pre-COVID court orders.
Just to be clear, this piece will focus upon the family law elements only, not employment law.
If the past year and a half has taught us anything, it is that change can be sudden, brutal and unforgiving. However, on the flip side, changes that are forced upon us can encourage or even require us to review whether we’ve become too stuck in our ways, and can in certain circumstances make us question our very modus operandi.
Certainly working parents have had their worlds turned upside down, initially with the first lockdown in March 2020 when the schools closed, but then again when formal home-schooling became a necessity in January 2021 when they closed for a second time.
Of course, key workers and many others were able to continue to send their children to school – but often without the wrap-around care previously available. Lots of parents were already working from home at this point, having done so for many months – stuffing themselves into quiet corners, working from bedrooms and sometimes even hiding in the garden shed.
The result? Quite often dads found themselves more able to support and engage with parenting. Whereas previously it wasn’t uncommon for some dads to be out of the house by seven am to return approximately twelve hours later, lockdown changed this for many families. Even dads who continued to work ten hour days found themselves at home for two additional hours simply due to the lack of commute.
It goes without saying that every family is different. But for some dads, the ongoing lockdown situations provided ample opportunities to spend more quality time with their children. As a result, arrangements relating to where children spent their time, where they spent their nights and their school holidays were often subject to change during the lockdowns. For international children there were additional challenges caused by immigration bans and onerous access regulations both in- and outbound between countries.
All of this created not only challenges for co-parents, but also for the lawyers who are often involved in helping to enforce or create arrangements both immediately following family breakdown, but also often on an ongoing basis.
So what are the trends we’ve seen in practice over the past 18 months?
Those dads who could work from home and found themselves with more time, tended to pick up more of the childcare, even if it was just during the time that they would have normally been commuting. Dads who were furloughed often then managed home-schooling, or where their kids were in school, could support drop-off and pick up. Further, where parents were separated, we often saw dads increasing the time they spent with their children.
In some cases these changes have worked for significant periods of time, marking a real change in both working patterns but also increased engagement between dads and their children.
The restrictions on international travel put a real strain on international co-parenting relationships. Where ordinarily parents or children might regularly travel between their respective countries of residence in order to spend time with each other, this has became more difficult, if not impossible, over the last 18 months or so.
When travel has been possible, this may have resulted in dads spending longer amounts of time with their children, including during school term time, as remote learning meant that children could “attend” school virtually from anywhere in the world.
Children have also become far more used to video calls, meaning that indirect contact in the form of such video calls has become far more effective that was previously the case.
Since the relaxation of the lockdown rules in July, there’s been a definite trend in parents and accordingly dads, returning to old ways of working. Whilst many employers are allowing and often recommending or requiring home-working, this isn’t the case across the board. For dads who have become used to working from home and spending increased time with their children, these moves back towards traditional working patterns can cause friction and distress for all parties.
Sadly enough, this is causing conflict as co-parents are sometimes having to renegotiate, almost from scratch, what their co-parenting arrangements ‘look like’.
In these circumstances, any existing Court Order relating to where children live and with whom they spend their time, should always be the first port of call. Ideally co-parents will work closely to agree either new, or updated, arrangements that work for their children but that also take into account their own requirements and indeed limitations that relate to their work.
Co-parenting dads struggling with changes to their employment that are affecting their ability to parent as they want to or have been able to over recent months should first of all seek to address these problems directly with their employer – taking legal advice if they need to.
If their employer is unwilling or indeed unable to help to make changes that support their role as a dad, then the next step should be to see whether any arrangements set out in a Family Court Order are still viable and appropriate.
If no longer fit for purpose, it is important to try to negotiate new arrangements with the co-parent. The wishes of any child old enough to have a view on where they stay, how often they see each parent etc should be listened to and taken into account where possible. At this point the parties may want to take legal advice.
If it’s simply not possible for the parties to reach an agreement, and any existing Court Order is no longer appropriate, it will be necessary for one of the parties to apply to Court in order for a judge to decide the best course of action. Taking this step unfortunately means asking a third party to intervene into your child/ren’s care, however it does then at least mean that both parents understand what is required of them going forwards. An experienced family law solicitor will be able to guide you through this process and ensure that you are well represented and that your wishes are heard in Court.