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Old 06-15-2010, 08:41 PM
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From:

VellaM0@parl.gc.ca email


The following article appeared in today's National Post. Responses to the letter are greatly encouraged. You can submit letters online on the NP website here: Letters | Contact | National Post or send them to letters@nationalpost.com.

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Tasha Kheiriddin, National Post · Tuesday, Jun. 15, 2010

Tomorrow, June 16, is a day that has come far too quickly: my daughter Zara's first birthday. It is a time to pause and reflect on the joys and craziness of parenting, and on the realization that Zara will never again repeat her first steps and first words (no, not Mama or Dada, but "car". Oh well, at least the kid knows what she likes).

Her birthday also falls less than a week before Father's Day, and thus also brought to mind a piece of legislation before Parliament which would radically change child custody and access laws in Canada: Bill C-422.

This private member's bill, introduced by Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott, would amend the Divorce Act to mandate "equal shared parenting" when parents split up. Courts would start from the presumption that parents share time with the kids and decision making on a 50-50 basis, and put the legal onus on parents to show that such an arrangement would not be in the child's best interest.

Before I had a baby, I would probably have supported this legislation. Who would deny a child the right to the equal love and care of both parents? Why do mothers get custody so much more often than fathers?

Raising an infant as a single parent for the past year, however, has changed my opinion. Not because I think that children don't need fathers, but because I realize that they need each parent in different ways at different stages of development. And unfortunately, Bill C-422 presumes that equal parenting is best regardless of circumstance, including the age of the child.

Children are constantly changing, and what may work for a 12-year-old may hurt a two-year-old. Case in point: shared physical custody. A pre-teen can fully understand that when he stays with mom one week and dad the next, he will be seeing mom again soon. But an infant cannot grasp this fact. Even a toddler is unable to fully verbalize desires and feelings, while teenagers, if I recall the drama I put my own parents through, are only too able to express themselves.

When it comes to very young children, the presumption of the bill contradicts the first law of every parenting book on Earth: Disrupt a baby's routine as little as possible. Expert after expert advises parents to establish one sleep routine, nap routine and meal routine, and to ease young children slowly into transitions, such as moving house or mommy going back to work. They further warn that vacations -- or any time away overnight from home -- will prove disruptive. Indeed, what parents haven't returned from a trip with their tots only to find that they suddenly won't sleep through the night, or cling to your leg like Saran Wrap?

Add to that the advice of the medical community that breastfeeding is best for infants under one year. As a mother who nursed for that time, I can testify only too well that breastfeeding is about much more than food. It is about comfort-- when baby cannot sleep or is sick, teething or cranky. No offence, dads, but there are some things men just cannot do. Separating a breastfeeding infant from its mother is just plain cruel, never mind impossible if the child refuses to drink from a bottle.

Which brings us back to Bill C-422. Equal shared parenting would mean that very young children could be constantly shuttled back and forth between their parents' homes. Breast here, bottle there, stay-at-home parent here, daycare there. This type of endless transitioning will do them no favours -- in fact, it can do a lot of damage. Courts can already order these kinds of arrangements, even without shared parenting rules, and there is mounting evidence that the stress hurts a young child's ability to attach to either parent, and to other people in general.

Bill C-422 would make this type of arrangement even more common at a time when other jurisdictions are questioning this model. Case in point: The Australian government, which four years ago introduced mandatory equal parenting legislation, is currently under pressure to revise its laws in the wake of several damning reports. Researchers found that not only were some children at risk of being placed in violent situations, but even children who were physically safe felt depressed, stressed and confused, and suffered adjustment problems. They also found that some fathers' motivation in seeking shared custody was not to bond with their children, but to reduce the amount of child support they had to pay.

A consistent theme in child psychological literature is that children under the age of three need stability to grow up to be well-adjusted and confident adults. In Zara's case, she is fortunate to have a father who gets that, and puts her needs ahead of his "right" to take her overnight alone, even under current laws. Until she is ready for overnights, Zara visits with him regularly at her home in the GTA and at his home in Montreal, with both parents present. Now one year old, Zara recognizes her father, greets him with her sunny smile, calls him Dada and is happy in his presence and his arms -- all without suffering the anxiety of being torn from one parent to another at a young age.

Granted, this type of arrangement takes compromise by both mom and dad, and would not work for everyone, but isn't that the point? Imposing a universal shared parenting presumption, with equal time regardless of age or situation, is not in the best interests of children. Respecting their stages of development is, and so is allowing parents to come up with their own solutions.

I hope our lawmakers will allow other fractured families the same latitude, and defeat Bill C-422 or amend it to respect the needs of very young children, and other special circumstances. Until then, happy birthday Zara, and happy Father's Day, Ian. You both deserve the best celebrations a daughter and dad can have.

tkheiriddin@nationalpost.com

Read more: Sometimes unequal works
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