This blog post first appeared in Malta Today
Whenever a special time of year is about to approach, whether it’s Christmas, Easter, school holidays, a birthday or any other family occasion, children who are caught up in the middle of custodial arrangements as a result of a marital breakup, often have to endure very complicated living arrangements.
If we want to be brutally honest, the brunt of the fallout when a couple’s marriage or relationship is over, is not suffered by the husband and wife, but by their kids, who are just innocent bystanders. One minute they have one straightforward household to go home to (albeit probably consumed by arguments and fighting) and the next, their lives are suddenly turned upside down as they scurry back and forth between two homes, with all the upheaval that brings, so that each parent can get their allotted time with their offspring.
Of course, when there is goodwill and co-operation on both sides, and the wellbeing of the child always comes first, this does not have to be a traumatic ordeal. But I can count on one hand those who have handled joint custody (let alone when the mother gets primary custody and the father gets visitation rights) in a relatively smooth way. Once in a blue moon, I even hear of those who include everyone in the blended family, down to the exes and former in-laws, so that a child’s birthday (for example) is one where all branches of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ family come together in the interest of the child, who just wants to see everyone together and happy. It is rare, granted, but it does happen, and when it does, it is a wonderful thing.
But in the majority of cases the scenario is the opposite of wonderful. The splintering of the nuclear family due to marriages breaking down has created a new reality which has completely changed the face of “family occasions”. In some cases, what should be happy times are being stripped of all meaning altogether. Instead of something to look forward to, they are events which fill children (and parents) with dread. Will everyone co-operate? Will the other parent deliver the child on time, as agreed? Will one parent change their mind at the last minute and refuse to grant permission for the child to attend a friend’s party just because it is their weekend not yours? Even little things like signing children up for sports and other extra-curricular activities become fraught with tension when it ceases to be about what the child wants, but a never-ending Machiavellian game of “how can I pay you back for the last time when you were five minutes late?”
In the more contentious cases, children are even dropped off and collected at police stations and police marshalls come knocking on doors when a child is not delivered to the other parent as per the Court decree.
I am not about to get into whether men or women are the main culprits here, because for every father who is difficult, there is a mother who is just as much of a nightmare. It all boils down to personality and maturity rather than gender, and there, yo-yoing back and forth, is the hapless child, being pulled in opposite directions and being prevented from having a real childhood, because Mummy and Daddy are too busy scoring points against one another.
Deciding these custodial arrangements is probably one of the heaviest responsibilities a judge has to carry; I do not envy anyone who works in the Family Court. Within a few sittings, a Judge has to assess this broken marriage and decide what is best for the child, handing down a judgement which will affect the lives of the people in front of him forever. I am told that allowing the child to testify is always at the discretion of the Court and, of course, I can understand why it is preferable for children to be kept out of the courtroom. It is also true that there have been cases where children are ‘poisoned’ against the mother or the father as the case may be, so their testimony of why they do not want to visit one of the parents may be skewed. Warring couples who continue to bicker long after their relationship is over, often resort to using the children as the latest tool to hurt the other spouse. They are not averse to bribing and promising the earth to their children purely out of spite so that the kids will “love them more” than the either parent.
We hear stories like this all around us all the time; we know that they happen, and despite proclamations that the Maltese absolutely adore their children and would do anything for them, once a marriage is broken and fractured, all this ‘love you to the moon and back’ goes out the window. Egos, wounded pride, and the hurt that comes with betrayal and rejection start to take centre stage, and no one seems to listen to the child any more and what he wants. The very least the estranged couple can do is stop thinking up one hundred million ways to get revenge on their spouse through their child, set aside their hatred and bitterness, and allow the child to have as happy a childhood as possible.
And if that means swallowing your pride when it comes to your ex-husband or ex-wife, for the sake of the child, then so be it.