Keeping Contact with Children: Assessing the Father/Child Post-separation Relationship from the Male Perspective

IV. FATHER/CHILD RELATIONSHIPS AFTER SEPARATION: FATHERS' AND MOTHERS' EXPECTATIONS

In this section, our objective is to compare the expectations of separated fathers and mothers concerning their children's care and their degree of satisfaction with arrangements in place at the time of the survey. Although the fathers and mothers contacted by the GSS did not provide information on the same children, we wished to explore the extent to which separated mothers and fathers express similar opinions with regard to custody arrangements, the amount of contact and children's financial support. Are mothers more or less satisfied than fathers with the degree of contact, for example, when fathers rarely or never see their children? Our aim, in other words, is to ascertain whether the level of satisfaction, for any given frequency of contact, varies according to the sex of the responding parent.

A. Data limitations

Before starting this analysis, it is important to come back to the difference between male and female separated parents in terms of reliability in reporting children, as this difference had an impact on the results. As we discussed during the presentation of the 1995 General Social Survey on the Family in section (II.A), separated fathers tend to under-declare the children from past relationships, particularly when they had little contact with them. There is clear evidence of the problem of under-declaration in Table 12. While similar numbers of children spending five months or more with their father were reported, irrespective of the sex of the responding parent (127 by fathers compared with 113 by mothers), almost twice as many children with little or no contact with the father were declared when mothers, rather than fathers, replied to the survey (231 versus 98).

A second element shows up as clearly in the findings presented in Table 12: providing full time care to children after separation is the affair of women rather than men, even with the bias in our sample that overestimates the time fathers spend with children. Thus, while fathers reported only one child out of six (67 in 418) living full time with them, this was the case for 85 percent of children declared by mothers (576 out of 676). This fact has important consequences for our analysis, as the complexity of the pathways followed in the GSS questionnaire meant that certain questions were not asked about children reported to be living full time with the respondent.

Table 12:
Numbers of children included in the analysis of certain variables concerning custody arrangements, by the sex of the respondent and the time spent with the father
  Time spent with the father
  Children reported by their father
  Less than
1 week
1 week to 2 months 2 to 5 months 5 months
and over
Total
Total number of children a 98 95 98 127 418
Exclusions
1- Children reported living full-time with the respondent -0 -3 -3 -61 -67
Number remaining 98 92 95 66 351
2- Children living 365 days with the other parent -81 -0 -0 -0 -81
Number remaining 17 92 95 66 337

Source: Statistics Canada, General Social Survey (GSS), Cycle 10: the Family, 1995.
a Weighted data, brought back to the original sample size.

  Time spent with the father
  Children reported by their mother
  Less than 1 week 1 week to 2 months 2 to 5 months 5 months and over Total
Total number of children a 231 194 138 113 676
Exclusions
1- Children reported living full-time with the respondent -219 -190 -131 -36 -576
Number remaining 12 4 8 77 100
2- Children living 365 days with the other parent -0 -0 -0 -14 -14
Number remaining 231 194 138 99 662

Source: Statistics Canada, General Social Survey (GSS), Cycle 10: the Family, 1995.
a Weighted data, brought back to the original sample size.

The only questions asked for every biological child reported by separated mothers and fathers were those regarding the respondents' level of satisfaction with the custody arrangements. For the other aspects of child care arrangements, information is only available for children who spent some part of the year with each of their separated parents. In many cases, there is very little interest in comparing statements made by fathers and mothers who do not have full-time custody of their children, given that the information is only available for the 15 percent of children reported by women to be living with them on a part-time basis.

For example, for children declared to be living full-time with the respondent, we have no information on the respondent's opinion concerning their contribution to the child's financial needs or their level of satisfaction with the amount of time spent with their child; this lack of information affects 67 children declared by fathers, and 576 children reported by mothers, to be living with the respondent full-time (see Table 12). Likewise, for children declared to be living on a full-time basis with the "other parent," no information is available on the respondents' opinion concerning the financial contribution of, and contact with, the other parent; this is the situation for 81 children declared by fathers, but only 14 by mothers.

An additional factor affects the comparison of male and female opinions regarding the fathers' financial contribution to their children's upkeep. As respondents, only fathers who reported making a contribution were asked to state whether or not they were satisfied with this contribution; mothers, on the other hand, expressed their satisfaction with the father's financial support whether or not the latter had provided any.

Despite the above-mentioned limitations, it is possible to perform a number of interesting analyses using data from the 1995 GSS on the Family, as long as the sample is carefully selected and clearly delineated. First, we can compare the level of satisfaction with custody arrangements (where and with whom the child lives), as this question was asked for each child. Second, comparing the level of satisfaction expressed by mothers and fathers with the time fathers spent with their children presents no real problem. Fathers responded to this question for all children except those living full-time with them; likewise, mothers gave their opinion on the subject except for children they declared to be living full-time with their father. The two questions therefore cover comparable populations; the only limitation is that we have no information on the opinion of parents (mothers and fathers) when children live full time with their father. Finally, it is possible to compare the level of satisfaction of men and women with the financial contribution made by fathers, as long as the comparison is restricted to children for whom fathers make a contribution; children reported by mothers as receiving no financial support were thus excluded from this analysis.

B. Satisfaction with custody arrangements

Where and with whom the child lives

Custody arrangements did not appear to cause great problems for the vast majority of separated fathers and mothers contacted by the survey: fathers declared themselves satisfied with the place and with whom the children lived 78.6 percent of the time, and the proportion satisfied reached 94.0 percent for the mothers (see Table 13). Nonetheless, fathers were four times as likely as mothers to be dissatisfied with custody arrangements (18.4 percent versus 4.5 percent).

Among male respondents, the association between the frequency of contact with children and the level of satisfaction was marked: the more frequent the contact, the greater the satisfaction. Fathers declared themselves satisfied with the custody arrangements for almost nine out of ten (88.3 percent) children who had spent at least five months with them in the previous year, compared with only seven out of ten when they spent less than two months with their child; it is worth noting, however, that the fathers who rarely saw their children had no opinion on the subject more often than the others. A more detailed examination of the data (not presented here) showed that, at one extreme, fathers were satisfied in 95 percent of cases when children lived more than half the year with them and, at the other, expressed dissatisfaction over the arrangements of one in three children with whom they had had no contact at all during the year before the survey.

Table 13:
Distribution (%) of children aged 0-17 years according to the level of satisfaction of fathers and mothers with 1) the child's living arrangements and 2) the amount of father/child contact, by the time spent with the father

1) Living arrangements - Father b
  Time spent with the child
Level of satisfaction Less than a week 1 week to
2 months
2 to 5
months
5 months
and over
Total
- Satisfied 70.1 69.5 83.2 88.3 78.6
- Dissatisfied 20.7 27.7 15.7 11.7 18.4
- No opinion 9.2 2.8 1.1 - 3.0
Total 100 100 100 100 100
N c 95 95 98 127 415

χ 2 = 29.088, p = 0.001, missing cases: 3

1) Living arrangements - Mother b
  Time spent with the child
Level of satisfaction Less than a week 1 week to
2 months
2 to 5
months
5 months
and over
Total
- Satisfied 93.9 97.4 95.4 86.6 94.0
- Dissatisfied 3.7 1.9 4.4 10.6 4.5
- No opinion 2.4 0.7 0.2 2.8 1.5
Total 100 100 100 100 100
N c 228 194 138 113 673

χ 2 = 18.705, p = 0.005, missing cases: 3


2) The frequency of father/child contact d - Father
  Time spent with the child
Level of satisfaction Less than a week 1 week to
2 months
2 to 5
months
5 months
and over
Total
- Satisfied 39.0 62.3 76.9 81.6 63.6
- Dissatisfied 53.3 37.7 23.1 18.4 34.3
- No opinion 7.7 - - - 2.1
Total 100 100 100 100 100
N c 95 92 95 66 348

χ 2 = 53.043, p = 0.001, missing cases: 3


2) The frequency of father/child contact d- Mother
  Time spent with the child
Level of satisfaction Less than a week 1 week to
2 months
2 to 5
months
5 months
and over
Total
- Satisfied 47.8 63.5 81.9 87.3 65.6
- Dissatisfied 47.0 33.8 16.5 10.0 31.1
- No opinion 5.2 2.7 1.6 2.7 3.3
Total 100 100 100 100 100
N c 226 194 138 98 656

χ 2 = 69.921; p = 0.001, missing cases: 6

Source: Statistics Canada, General Social Survey (GSS), Cycle 10: the Family, 1995.

The portrait that emerged from the information provided by mothers is less transparent. On the one hand, mothers declared themselves to be more often satisfied with the existing situation than were fathers when children were with them most of the year (that is, when they spent less than five months with their father); on the other hand, with regard to the custody arrangements of children spending at least five months with their father, 10.6 percent were dissatisfied, three times more than when children spent almost no time with the father. An examination of detailed data (not presented) showed nonetheless that women were very satisfied when their children lived full-time with their father; far less happy with the situation are those whose children spent the majority (but not all) of the year with him. It may be that mothers find it easier to adapt to a situation clearly defined at the outset than to one open to continual renegotiation.

Figure 6: Proportion of fathers satisfied with children's living arrangements and time spent with them

Figure 6 : Proportion of fathers satisfied with children's living arrangements and time spent with them

[ Description ]

Overall, men declared themselves dissatisfied with custody for 74 children, and women, for 18 children (data not presented). In other words, as Figure 6 clearly illustrates, fathers expressed dissatisfaction more often than mothers did. A variety of reasons were offered for this lack of satisfaction. Men with low levels of contact wished to spend more time with their children, and those with more regular contact expressed the desire for legal custody. Replies to this question fell into the "other reason" category in about half the cases for male respondents, and in more than 60 percent of cases among female respondents; this category comprises a variety of responses linked to the child's life with the other parent, and amounts effectively to an inventory of "criticisms" of the way the other parent carries out his parental role (lifestyle, presence of a new partner, physical environment, lack of affection or discipline, etc.).

Frequency of father/child contact

Mothers and fathers expressed considerably lower levels of satisfaction when the question made specific reference to the number of contacts between fathers and children (see the second section of Table 13). For around one-third of children, both men (34.3 percent) and women (31.1 percent) asserted a level of dissatisfaction with the frequency of father/child contact. In both cases, the lack of satisfaction appeared most often when fathers spent little or no time with their children during the year preceding the survey: around half the fathers (53.3 percent) and mothers (47.0 percent) were dissatisfied with the frequency of contact. Satisfaction increased as the amount of father/child contact increased, for both male and female respondents. The sample bias played a part in the observed similarity between men and women; the pathways followed in the questionnaire meant that children living full-time with their father were excluded from the analysis, thus making more comparable the samples of children declared by fathers and mothers.

What reasons were offered to justify the lack of satisfaction? The great majority of men (85.6 percent) declared that they would have liked more frequent contact with their children; almost as many women complained that father/child contact was absent or too limited.

What stands out from the preceding analysis is the fact that fathers, while relatively satisfied with the place and person with whom the child lived, complain nonetheless of spending too little time with their children. It appears, in other words, that fathers do not so much want custody of their children as simply a more frequent access to them (see Figure 7); in such circumstances, they might be tempted to blame the mother for preventing them seeing their children. For their part, almost all mothers are satisfied with the custody arrangements, but they too would like fathers to have more frequent contact with their children; in this case, the father's lack of interest in his children might well become the focus for criticism.

Figure 7: Proportion of mothers and fathers dissatisfied with their children's living arrangements according to time spent with the father

Figure 7 : roportion of mothers and fathers dissatisfied with their children's living arrangements according to time spent with the father

[ Description ]

C. Financial contribution to children's upkeep

Over and above the absence of any information on the financial support offered by fathers for particular groups of children, the vagueness of the question itself makes it a difficult subject to analyze. The following question was put to the responding parents: "Do you provide financial support for your child?" A similar question was also asked on the support offered by the other parent. Certain respondents appear to have interpreted these questions as applying strictly to support payments, while others adopted a much wider interpretation. Consequently, it is unclear whether the financial support declared by fathers living several months a year with their children concerns support payments made to the mother or if it refers to the costs assumed by the father when the child is in his care. Interpreting the information becomes more difficult as the level of father/child contact increases. A certain number of fathers, for example, reported that they provided no financial support for a child who had spent at least five months with them during the year before the survey; these fathers probably interpreted the question as referring to child support payments. For those who declared that they had provided financial support, there is no way of knowing whether or not this included support payments to the child's mother.

It is important to recall at this point that the reliable declaration of children by fathers is closely linked to the provision of financial support; men are more likely to report the existence of children they see regularly and for whom they pay child support (see section II.A). This is evident from an analysis of Table 14. These results show a much higher proportion of separated fathers contacted by the 1995 GSS claiming to contribute to their children's maintenance than statistics on child support payments have led us to expect, and a proportion that is higher when the respondent is the father rather than the mother (77.9 percent against 51.6 percent). Regardless of the child sample bias, fathers are less inclined (61.0 percent) to provide financial support for their children's needs when they rarely or never see them than when they spend between a week and five months with them (more than 80 percent).

The relationship between the frequency of father/child contact and the financial support provided by the father is even more clear when looked at from the mothers' perspective. According to mothers, three times as many children who spent more than a week in the previous year with their fathers benefited from their financial support than did those who had virtually lost contact with their fathers (more than 60 percent as against 21.8 percent). Also, according to mothers, almost a quarter of children spending at least five months with their father during the previous year had received no financial assistance; this information is probably given by women putting a strict "child support" interpretation on the question.

Table 14:
Distribution (%) of children aged 0-17 years dccording to 1) whether or not they receive financial assistance from their father and 2) the level of satisfdction with this support, by the sex of the respondent and the time spent with the fathera

1) Father made a financial contribution b: Father
  Time spent with the child
Less than 1 week 1 week
to 2 months
2 to 5
months
5 months
and over
Total
- Yes 61.0 83.5 91.2 75.8 77.9
- No 39.0 16.5 8.8 24.2 22.1
Total 100 100 100 100 100

χ 2 = 27.748, p = 0.001, missing cases: 1

1) Father made a financial contribution b: Mother
  Time spent with the child
Less than 1 week 1 week
to 2 months
2 to 5
months
5 months
and over
Total
- Yes 21.8 65.8 62.4 76.8 51.6
- No 78.2 34.2 37.6 23.2 48.4
Total 100 100 100 100 100

χ 2 = 127.391, p = 0.001, missing cases: 8


2) Level of satisfdction with father's financial contribution c: Father
  Time spent with the child
Less than 1 week 1 week
to 2 months
2 to 5
months
5 months
and over
Total
- Satisfied 68.6 76.4 73.9 89.8 76.5
- Dissatisfied 23.8 23.6 24.7 10.2 21.5
- No opinion 7.6 --- 1.4 --- 2.0
Total 100 100 100 100 100

χ 2 = 16.701, p = 0.010, missing cases: 4

2) Level of satisfdction with father's financial contribution c:Mother
  Time spent with the child
Less than 1 week 1 week
to 2 months
2 to 5
months
5 months
and over
Total
- Satisfied 63.3 50.9 76.8 88.5 67.8
- Dissatisfied 36.3 45.6 23.2 10.6 30.6
- No opinion 0.4 3.5 --- 0.9 1.6
Total 100 100 100 100 100

χ 2 = 37.212, p = 0.001, missing cases: 4

Source: Statistics Canada, General Social Survey (GSS), Cycle 10: the Family, 1995.

Only fathers claiming to have made a contribution to their child's financial support were questioned on their satisfaction with the amount they paid. In 77 cases where fathers admitted making no payment for their child, therefore, we have no information on how fathers felt about the situation; to this number are added a further 67 children for whom the question was not even asked, as they were reported to be living full-time with their father. Among the 269 children who had received some financial support, three-quarters of the fathers declared being satisfied with their contribution; the level of satisfaction was particularly high for those with the closest contact with their children.

In approximately 20 percent of the total number of cases, fathers were dissatisfied with the amount of financial support they paid. Most often, they complained of paying too much (45.1 percent), though fathers with little or no contact with their children rarely expressed this particular source of dissatisfaction (data not presented). For one-third of children, fathers considered their contribution to be inadequate; for another quarter (22.5 percent), the "other reasons" offered for the lack of satisfaction were generally linked either to the feeling that the money did not directly benefit the child, or to their own inability to pay more.

To make the mother and father reports comparable, the analysis included only the opinions of mothers who in fact received financial support from the father; children for whom the mother reported that the father had not contributed were eliminated. Although women declared themselves dissatisfied with the economic support provided by fathers more often than men (30.6 percent versus 21.5 percent), seven out of ten were nonetheless satisfied when the father made a contribution. The mothers, like the fathers, expressed lower levels of dissatisfaction when the child spent five months or more with his/her father. Finally, the main source of dissatisfaction expressed by mothers concerned the amount of support offered, which was generally judged to be insufficient (data not presented); in a quarter of cases, women declared that the father had not paid the amount required by the court.

Other research (Seltzer, 1994) indicates that the payment of child support by fathers depends more on their satisfaction with custody arrangements than on the type of arrangement itself. Data from the 1995 GSS does not reveal a priori any such association: whether one considers the place and person with whom the child lives, or the amount of father/child contact, the proportion of fathers who reported offering financial support for the child's needs did not vary according to the degree of satisfaction expressed (data not presented). One cannot conclude, however, that no association between these variables exists, as these findings could as easily be explained by either the bias in the child sample or the lack of precision in the question on financial support.

D. The role of the legal system in child custody arrangements

An error in the pathway followed by the GSS questionnaire meant that the two questions on the court's role in determining custody arrangements were not asked for children who lived full-time with the other parent during the previous year. This information is missing, therefore, for the 81 children declared by fathers to have spent the last twelve months with their mother, a figure equal to almost 20 percent of the sample of children reported by fathers, and affecting principally those with little contact with their father. Fortunately, this problem affects children reported by mothers to a much lesser degree; mothers only reported that 14 children had spent the entire year with their father, equal to less than 2 percent of the sample declared by mothers. Only the information provided by women, therefore, is sufficiently exhaustive to evaluate the court's role in custody decisions for children of separated parents as a whole. However, for the sub-sample of children who spent more than a week per year with their father, the information provided by male and female respondents is comparable (see Table 15).

Table 15:
Distribution (%) of children aged 0-17 years according to 1) whether or not custody had been settled through the legal system and 2) how far the respondents had kept to the court's recommendation, by the sex of the respondent and the time spent with the fathera

1) Custody settled through the legal system b - Father
Time spent with the father
Less
than
1 week
1 week
to
2 months
2 to 5
months
5 months
and over
Total
- Yes - 60.8 56.6 58.0 -
- No - 39.2 43.4 42.0 -
Total - 100 100 100 -

χ2 not calculated c

1) Custody settled through the legal system b - Mother
Time spent with the father
Less
than
1 week
1 week
to
2 months
2 to 5
months
5 months
and over
Total
- Yes 58.6 55.2 54.7 42.7 54.4
- No 41.2 44.8 45.3 57.3 45.6
Total 100 100 100 100 100

χ 2 = 7.170, p = 0.067, missing cases: 4

2) Relative to the court's recommendation, fathers saw their children d - Father
Time spent with the father
Less
than
1 week
1 week
to
2 months
2 to 5
months
5 months
and over
Total
- As recommended - 41.2 48.0 65.0 -
- Less time - 45.7 7.1 4.5 -
- More time - 13.1 44.9 30.5 -
Total - 100 100 100 -

χ 2 not calculated c

2) Relative to the court's recommendation, fathers saw their children d - Mother e
Time spent with the father
Less
than
1 week
1 week
to
2 months
2 to 5
months
5 months
and over
Total
- As recommended 38.6 56.0 67.0 53.8 51.5
- Less time 60.1 40.0 33.0 22.0 43.9
- More time 1.3 4.0 - 24.2 4.6
Total 100 100 100 100 100

χ 2 = 62.355, p = 0.001, missing cases: 17

Source: Statistics Canada, General Social Survey (GSS), Cycle 10: the Family, 1995.

In slightly more than half the cases, the court had decided the child's custody. The existence of such a decision appears to have no significant impact on the time spent with the father.

For children whose custody had been decided in court, respondents were asked whether the time they spent with their child corresponded to the time recommended by the court. To compare responses made by male and female respondents, we inverted the women's replies to this question. In other words, when a women reported spending more time than suggested by the court, we inferred that this was because the father spent less time with his child; inversely, we concluded that a father had more contact than recommended by the court when the mother stated that she spent less time with the child.

How far do parents follow the court's decision regarding frequency of visits? In approximately half the cases where parents declared court involvement. For the other half, the majority of fathers declared more frequent contact than recommend by the court, though it must be remembered that many fathers with low levels of contact have been excluded from the analysis. Mothers provide an image diametrically opposed to the one given by fathers: according to them, less than 5 percent of children with a court order saw their father more often than the court ruled. The disparity between these two sets of responses is closely linked to the fact that fathers with little contact are excluded from the analysis, but it also reflects, no doubt, the different perceptions that fathers and mothers have of the time they spend with their children (Lin et al., 1998). For even when we focus on children who spent at least two months with their father, the discrepancy in the statements made by men and women persists, with a consistently higher proportion of mothers stating that fathers spent less than the recommended time with their children. These differences between the sexes underline how important it will be to study the perceptions of both fathers and mothers if we are ultimately to find ways of maintaining or even increasing the contact between fathers and their children.

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