For the first time in my life, my day job is a job I love. I work as Case Manager in a program for parents who are in the process of separating from their partner. In Australia, if a couple wants to go to court to sort out their differences, it is compulsory for them to do everything in their power to sort out their differences through mediation first. The courts won’t consider them until this has at least been tried.
The organization where I work offers such mediation for separating parents, but before they can have mediation, it is compulsory that parents attend our Parenting After Separation workshop, to assist them to develop the skills they need for a successful mediation - namely better communication skills with their ex-partner, and also learning how to maintain a child focused approach throughout the process.
There are several aspects to my role. Every 2-3 weeks, I run the four-hour post-separation parenting workshop. The couples don’t attend the workshops together, but they are booked in to attend separate workshops, so that they feel easier about participating. It wouldn’t be conducive to positive group interaction to have the warring partners together in the same workshop.
The group can be an emotional experience, as we watch some confronting videos during the session, which clearly depict the impact of unresolved conflict on children. This is the focus of the workshop. If parents must break up and the rupture of the family is inevitable, we try to give them the skills needed to become less focused on their partner issues and more focused on the needs of their children.
The second aspect to the role is ongoing case management. The organization is quite flexible as to how many appointments a client can have after attending the group, but we insist on at least one. This is the appointment where I work intensively with the client to prepare them for their mediation, ensuring that they haven’t overlooked anything that they might want included in a parenting plan.
I certainly enjoy running the workshop, knowing that I might be helping to make a break-up a little less traumatic for children, but it is these case management interviews I really enjoy. The first appointment is where I get the chance to find out if the parents have taken the information and skills on board. Some parents have clearly made a shift, but others come to the appointment with no agenda other than to attack and blame the other partner, not even able to see how their children are being impacted by their behaviour.
Although I case-manage the parents individually, I still work with both members of the couple, and this is what makes the work so interesting - I get to hear both sides of the story. It is amazing how very different each version is. They might match up a little in places, but in others, it’s as if they are talking about a completely different experience.
Although it’s not my role to work out who is telling the truth, and who is lying, my mind automatically tries to solve it like a crime. I wonder who is telling the truth. Who is lying? How can I tell? He says she did this, but she says he did that. She says he was physically abusive. He says she was verbally abusive. I find I tend to believe one over another, and it is interesting that it is usually the partner whose version I hear first, but in several instances I have been swayed when I heard the second partner’s version.
Of course, the skill of the role is in not allowing any bias to be obvious. My role description is not to work out who is lying and who isn’t, but to provide an equal support service to each partner without judgment, preparing each for their mediation, referring them on to other services if needed, and to assess whether or not they are being child focused as they move on or just continuing with partner bashing. I know that I have succeeded when I develop a rapport with both partners, and both continue to seek me out for ongoing support.
I know that often I am hearing truths, half-truths, embellishments, exaggeration, and outright lies, however most of the time I know I am hearing two genuine people who are telling extremely different stories, but both stories are part of a bigger truth, yet still not the whole truth. I hear awful things, selfish and tragic stories, but also many wonderfully selfless and inspirational stories from parents willing to go the extra distance to spare their children unnecessary hurt - parents such as the mother in the time of King Solomon, who would sooner give up her child than have him or her torn down the middle.
The anger, rage, bitterness I see, are symptoms of a deeper pain, but the hurting parents usually have the skills to go to someone and ask for help. But what of the children - the children who are torn between both parents because they love both and want to be with both? I have not heard of any instances yet where children have turned up at our front counter, or rung in seeking help to escape the constant conflict. They don’t have the skills to seek help or the maturity to express what’s going on for them. They suffer alone and in silence. If my job can help parents to forget themselves and remember their children, then I think I’m doing something extremely worthwhile.