We’ve separated, How can I make their second house homely?

Q. My wife and I separated recently. There was no one else involved. We have two children (girls) aged eight and six. Both girls are happy where they live with an extensive network of friends.

For practical reasons it was decided that I would move out of the family home. I have established myself in a new location about 10 minutes’ drive from the family home. My ex and I have decided that the children should stay with me on Wednesday and Saturday nights. While I have been reasonably successful in establishing a routine on Wednesdays, most of the time the girls end up back in the homestead on Saturdays playing with their friends.

I am receiving conflicting advice as to how I should proceed. On the one hand, I’m told that if you establish a firm and fixed routine, the girls will adapt. On the other, I’m told to take it slowly and allow the girls to find their own rhythm. If I don’t, then my children could end up resenting staying in the new location.

My ex is of one mind and I am of the other in this regard. I have always been heavily involved in the rearing of our children and am frustrated and anxious about the future. However, I would be willing to follow either path if it’s good for the children.

A. Generally, the parent who leaves the family home post-separation can be at a disadvantage when it comes to maintaining contact and being actively involved in their children’s lives. Moving out can mean that you have less time with your children, and you have the extra challenge of establishing a new home, both for you and your children. As you have discovered, children tend to have an attachment to the original family home and to their established networks of school, and local friends and amenities.

Feeling secure
This attachment can become important post-separation as they have been through many changes and they often feel secure by keeping some things the same in their lives. Establishing a new home for your children in a different locality can take time and patience. Initially, the new home can be uninviting and children can miss their familiar friends, toys and routines.

In these situations, it is easy to feel rejected as a parent and you may be tempted to back off. However, it is important to realise that your girls need a quality relationship with you more than ever post-separation and you have to work harder as the non-residential parent to stay involved.

Moving forward
Taking into account your girls’ welfare, what would help them the most? You are receiving conflicting advice that you should either go at their pace and respect their natural gravitation back to the family home or that you should “put your foot down” and insist they spend Saturday nights with you.

I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle and you have to take into account both principles. I think you need to understand that they need some stability in their lives and that doing some of the “same things” on a Saturday night is helpful for them, but equally you need to begin to establish a new routine with them post-separation that matches the long term.

New routines
It would help if you could think of their perspective and try to understand what would make the Saturday more appealing for them in your new home (eg making sure they have some of their belongings with them, considering inviting over familiar friends and family, etc).

Simple things like involving them in the choice of furniture in their bedrooms or doing a family decorating project can make a difference. You need to start new interesting routines with them in your new home, such as cooking together or going for a walk in a local park.

At six and eight years old, your girls are at a good age to talk through options. Sit down and talk to them and listen to their ideas and feelings. Things seem to be going well on the Wednesday night. Think about what works in the routine that night. Could you consider a second weekday night as an alternative?

Agreed solution
The key to moving forward is negotiating an agreed solution with your girls’ mother. Children generally toe the line with what their parents decide once there is an agreement between them.

If you are in dispute, try to seek meditation in order to reach resolution. The important thing is to focus on your children’s needs which includes a quality relationship with both their parents; for their parents to co-operate and co-parent constructively; and their need for security to be understood (and thus changes post-separation to be minimised).

Creative solutions
There are a number of creative solutions that you can bring to the table. For example, you could agree with your children’s mother that you will spend Saturday and Sunday in the “family home” when she can go out or spend time elsewhere. This can be at least for an initial transition period as you work to establish your new home and a good routine for the children.

In some modern thinking about parental separation, some people propose that the original “family home” should be seen as the children’s home rather than belonging to the parents, and that the parents can take alternate times being responsible for the children in this house.

This can break a common post-separation scenario where you might have a residential parent who is burdened by the challenges of parenting largely alone and a non-residential parent who is struggling to stay involved.

Finally, do seek support in trying to resolve matters. There are many good organisations that support families post- separation such as One Family ( www.onefamily.ie) or Relationships Ireland ( www.relationshipsireland.com). The ParentsPlus Charity which I am involved with has developed a Parenting when Separated course that is being rolled out nationally that people can attend for low cost or free of charge. See www.parentsplus.ie/separation for more details.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, November 2012.  John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.