Fathers and parenting – before and after a split

When it comes to parenting, policy makers are keen to encourage more shared care and to reduce the one in five children who has no contact with their dad after a split. But to what extent does a father’s involvement with his son or daughter early on drive what happens later if he should separate from the child’s mother? A new study by Dr Tina Haux from the University of Kent and Professor Lucinda Platt from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) suggests there are strong links.

Photo credit: Dani Vazquez

Levels of separation and divorce have risen in recent decades, and almost half of children born today will experience parental separation before they reach adulthood. This has led to concern about how to help fathers to stay involved in their children’s lives. There is an assumption that children benefit from continuing to spend time with both parents – and as a result, Government policy tends to support collaborative parenting arrangements for the children of those who have separated.

At the same time there is increased interest from policy-makers and researchers in parenting styles and activities. Research to date has tended to look separately at ‘parenting’ while parents are together and ‘contact arrangements’ once they have spilt up. In contrast, the starting point of this research is that there are likely to be links between the parenting going on while parents are together and the contact arrangements once they have separated.

Our Nuffield Foundation funded study focused on behaviours and characteristics of fathers prior to separation, and it linked them to patterns of contact after separation. The decision to focus on fathers was driven by the emergence of the ‘new father’ who wants to be more involved and emotionally present than his own father.

It is certainly the case that fathers are spending more time with their children and sharing more of the parenting work. At the same time, after a split it is still overwhelmingly the case that children, especially young children, remain with their mother, while their father becomes a ‘non-resident’ parent.

Millennium Cohort Study

We used data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), which follows around 19,000 children born to families resident in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002. Parents living with the MCS children were interviewed when their child was aged around nine months, and four further surveys were completed when they were three, five, seven, and 11 years old.

They were asked about their parenting and activities with the child, as well as about their own characteristics. After a separation, the resident parent (typically the mother) was asked about the child’s contact with his or her non-resident parent (typically the father).

Focusing on families where there had been a separation and where the mother remained the main carer of the child, we looked at data from around 2,800 families who had experienced separation across the survey period.

We wanted to know to what extent a father’s parenting and what he thought about his parenting before he separated from his child’s mother impacted on contact after the split.

Post-separation contact

We looked at three measures of post-separation contact. Whether the child had any contact with his or her father; how frequent the contact was, and, if there was any contact, how often the child stayed overnight with his or her father.

We included overnight stays as this is quite a different experience for the parent and the child compared to an afternoon visit and requires much greater co-ordination and trust between the parents. It also requires the father having somewhere for the child to sleep.

We found that overall levels of contact were high. For example, around a quarter of fathers saw their children at least three times a week after separation. Almost half of those who were separated before their child was 11 and still had contact had them for frequent overnight stays. (Figure 1)

Over 80 per cent of fathers, who were still in contact with their child, had them stay overnight at least occasionally. The proportion of fathers with no overnight stays is higher when the children are younger but still fewer than 30 per cent of fathers never have their five-year-old for an overnight stay.

Figure 1. Frequency of overnight stays

Overnight stays

As time passed, fathers tended to lose contact with their children, and over the course of a decade the chances of this increased by 10 percentage points: of the fathers, who had separated from their partner before the child was aged 3, just over 15 per cent did not have any contact with the child at age three. However, this rose to 20 per cent by the time the child was aged five and to over 25 per cent of fathers by the time the child was eleven. (Figure 2)

Figure 2. Proportion of fathers separated by age 3 with no contact over time

over time

When we tested whether this pattern was still true controlling for father’s characteristics and their pre-separation parenting, we found that it was. But even though contact decreased for all fathers with time, we also found that fathers who were actively involved with their children prior to separation – doing night feeds, putting them to bed and reading with them, for example – tended to have more frequent contact after separation.

Whether the father looked after the child by themselves was also positively linked to more frequent post-separation contact. This may suggest that both the confidence and experience of dealing with the child as well as potentially the bond associated with regular independent care may increase the chances of post-separation contact. Interestingly, the assessment of fathers of their own parenting competence did not have a significant impact on the contact patterns after a separation.

Other factors which increased a father’s chances of staying in touch included having a degree and being in work. This suggests that families which were economically secure found it easier to stay in contact, and that a higher degree of education may have helped when negotiating access.

More advantaged fathers may also have had more options for entertaining their children and having somewhere for them to stay over. If the child had older siblings then it was more likely that contact would be maintained, perhaps because the father’s contact with older siblings eased his contact with younger ones.

While the sex of the child did not make a difference to whether the father stayed in contact with his child at all, fathers saw girls less often than boys, and girls stayed less often overnight with their fathers than boys.

Finally, we also found a ‘London effect’ – children living in London tended to have less frequent contact and to stay overnight less often with their fathers. This may be linked to costs of living and pressure on housing space in London.

In conclusion, we have demonstrated that looking at pre-separation parenting is important when trying to understand patterns of post-separation contact. This is important for both researchers and policy-makers. As a result, policymakers would do well to consider how to support fathers’ participation in child care in the family home, e.g. through extended paternal leave and increased financial compensation, in order to facilitate more collaborative parenting after separation.

Photo credit: Dani Vazquez

Further information

This blog is based on a Nuffield Foundation funded research project: Parenting and contact before and after separation. Two Working Papers based on the research are published in the LSE Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) series:

  1. Parenting and post-separation contact: what are the links?
  2. Mothers, parenting and the impact of separation


We would like to thank our co-author Rachel Rosenberg for her meticulous work in preparing the data.

The research project made use of surveys 1-5 of the Millennium Cohort Study and was accessed from the UK Data Archive. We are grateful to The Centre for Longitudinal Studies at UCL Institute of Education for the use of these data and to the UK Data Archive and UK Data Service for making the MCS data available. However, they bear no responsibility for the analysis or interpretation of these data.

The researchers are very grateful to the Nuffield Foundation for funding this study and their continued interest and support for research in this field.

The Nuffield Foundation is an endowed charitable trust that aims to improve social well-being in the widest sense. It funds research and innovation in education and social policy and also works to build capacity in education, science and social science research. The Nuffield Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.