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'With high rates of separation in the UK, there has been a lot of interest in the negative effects a split has on any children involved. Policy makers have been keen to encourage meaningful contact between non resident parents (mostly fathers) and their children. The effect of a separation on a mother’s parenting capacity has also become an area of concern.'The researchers made use of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), a UK-wide cohort study of around 19,000 children born to families resident in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002. Focusing on families where there had been a separation and where the mother remained the main carer, they looked at data from around 2,800 families who had experienced separation across the survey period.
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'Our research shows that the more closely involved a dad is in the upbringing of his young child, the more likely he is to have regular contact in the event of a separation and that the sorts of activities a dad is involved with in the early years matter. For policy, paternity leave policies may have payoffs in terms of subsequent contact, whilst support for a father to meet more regularly with his child and provide a bedroom for them could also be important.'There were no significant differences in a mother’s initial evaluation of her parenting abilities whether she went on to separate from her partner or not. Once mothers did separate, however, their evaluation of their abilities to be a good parent went down compared with their counterparts who remained in a relationship.
'It became apparent to us very quickly that it was not less confident parents who went on to separate. Instead, there was a clear link between separation and a knock to a mother’s confidence in her abilities as a parent.'Digging deeper, the researchers found that the impact of separation seemed to occur through mothers having higher risks of maternal depression following a split and their children experiencing slightly more behavioural problems.
'So for mothers, we learn that a separation tends to lead to them thinking of themselves as a poorer parent, although it is difficult to disentangle this from an increased risk of mental health problems and the challenges of a child’s behavioural difficulties. We can conclude that being a single mum is inherently tough and that those trying to support this group of women should recognise that a focus on mental health alone may not be enough to help them get back on their feet and provide a happy, healthy home for their child. Practical, as well as psychological, support around parenting is likely to be key.'The full report, Parenting and contact before and after separation, is available to download here.