I am a separated father and my daughter is 10 months old. My relationship with my ex-girlfriend ended, and then she discovered she was pregnant. Since my daughter was born, things have been difficult with my ex and she allows me to see my daughter for only one or two hours each week.
I am hoping to increase this and to be more involved in my daughter’s life, but my ex says she does not want this. Last week, she threatened to cut off all contact and I threatened to go to court. What legal rights do I have? I wasn’t married but had lived with my ex for two years.
As an unmarried father you have no automatic legal rights and, depending on where you live, you may have to apply to court to gain guardianship or parental responsibility. There is good information about this process and the challenges of being an unmarried father on treoir.ie and lawandparents.co.uk.
However, the best way to be more involved as a father in your daughter’s life is by agreement with her mother.
While of course you have a right to go to court – and you should get the best legal advice – there are many dangers associated with a legal process; it can increase the antagonism with your daughter’s mother and this does not serve you in having a better relationship with your daughter.
Therefore, the first port of call is to try to get agreement with your daughter’s mother about your role in your daughter’s life and to achieve some shared parenting.
The better you can communicate and work civilly with your daughter’s mother as coparents, the easier it will be to have a good ongoing relationship with your daughter.
Working with your daughter’s mother
Take time to understand your daughter’s mother’s point of view, and where she might be coming from. Is there a particular reason that she does not want to increase or share the care of her daughter for a longer period? Perhaps she finds the practicality of the contact difficult to accommodate. Perhaps she is still upset about the break-up and finds extensive contact with you difficult.
The more you can understand where she is coming from emotionally, the better you will be able to negotiate with her. Focus on your daughter’s needs and try to persuade your ex of the value of your ongoing involvement as a loving father.
Try to make any increased contact you have fit with her schedule, and what she needs as a mother. For example, offer to mind your daughter when she is working or busy or when she needs a break, or agree to allow a third party such as a grandparent manage the handover at contact, if that is easier.
Make sure also to share in all the parental responsibilities of caring for a baby – financial, practical and emotional – so your daughter’s mother sees you as a resource to her daughter as well as to her as a coparent. Show her in words and deeds of your commitment to parenting your daughter and to support her as your daughter’s mother.
Help your daughter manage her feelings
It is quite likely that your daughter is unaware of her feelings and will need help articulating them. The goal is to encourage her to put names on her feelings rather than acting them out in tantrums.
Pick a good time to check in with her when you are alone, and ask her how she feels about you being in a new relationship. Listen carefully to what she might say and encourage her to express things without being defensive.
It can be good idea to address directly some of the fears she might have: for example, “ Just because N is my girlfriend, it doesn’t change in any way how special you are to me”, or “It also doesn’t change in any way how we feel about Mum and how we remember her”.
You can also use the time to share your own feelings: “N is a special person in my life and I hope she will continue to be a good friend to you too.” Once their own feelings are acknowledged, many older children do accept their parent’s new partner, especially when they see that the relationship makes them happy.
Insist on respect from your daughter
Whatever your daughter might be feeling, it is important to acknowledge that you do have a right to start a new relationship and you can’t put your own life on hold because your daughter is upset about it. While you can be sensitive to her, you also have to do what is important to you. She might be upset at times, but it is right as a parent to insist your daughter shows respect to you and your partner.
Talk to her after one of her wobblies and say, “I appreciate that you might be upset, but it is not okay for you to throw a tantrum.”
Be prepared to use discipline and consequences if her behaviour continues. For example, you might warn her that if she is rude again like that, then she will lose some of her pocket money or screen time.
The key to managing tantrums and challenging behaviour is to have a step-by-step plan for how you will respond in a calm way. For example, you might start by asking her to be polite or calm down, and if she doesn’t you withdraw from the conversation and then follow up with her later to talk things through.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker, founder of the Parents Plus charity and the author of Positive Parenting. His new evening courses for parents of toddlers, three- to 10-year-olds and teenagers start on October 2nd in Dublin.