Mummies and Daddies

By Legal Eagle

I was interested to read today that a woman has failed in her legal bid to stop her former partner from encouraging their six-year-old daughter to call his new partner “Mummy D”. Unfortunately the judgment doesn’t seem to be available online yet.

[The mother] said encouraging the term of endearment was ”an incendiary action” by her former partner and his new partner, even though it was followed by the initial of the stepmother’s first name and they had agreed not to encourage the simple use of ”mum” or ”mummy”.

But Justice Christine Dawe refused to grant the order, saying it was impractical to require the father to stop encouraging the stepmother and the child to use the term ”Mummy D”, and could have led to further litigation.

”Weighing all of the factors up, and particularly that the child has in the past used the expression ‘Mummy [D]’, and on the basis that I am not satisfied from any of the material before the court that the use of the expression ‘Mummy [D]’ by the stepmother would undermine the mother’s relationship with the child, I am not satisfied that it is in the best interests of the child [to grant the order],” the judge said.

”I also accept that, at her age, she will develop and in future will be likely to, or may well possibly, adapt to calling each of her step-parents by their first names rather than using expressions of either ‘Mummy’ or ‘Daddy’.”

Patrick Parkinson, a family law professor from the University of Sydney made the following comment about the decision:

”There are limits to what any court can do. You can’t regulate every aspect of family life through court orders,” he said. ”We’ve got to grow up and stop thinking every breakdown can be resolved by the court.”

The case had probably cost the parties a lot of money, time and anxiety, but there was not much that could be done to stop such changes occurring after divorce except to respect the other people involved and recognise their role in a child’s life, he said.

Parkinson is right on the money – there are limits to what the law can achieve. I wish people thought about that more often. I mean, how could such an order be practically enforced? What happens if the child calls her stepmother ‘Mummy D’ of her own volition, despite the court order? How can this kind of thing possibly be good for the child?

I’ve never had a relationship breakdown, but if I did, I would do my best to make things as amicable as possible for the sake of the children. Of course it takes both parties to achieve this, and I know it isn’t always possible. I know a woman whose ex-partner screamed at her and physically threatened her at handovers of their child, and then, when the child recoiled from the father, he accused his ex-wife of “turning” the child against him. (Could he not see that he was turning his own child against him by his behaviour? Apparently not. Of course, this lack of insight was part of the reason the marriage failed in the first place.)

In any case, people just have to accept that their former partner may well find a new partner and that this new partner will have a role in their child’s life. It takes a little compromise on everyone’s part, and the parent who won’t compromise may find that the very thing they fear occurs and they end up alienating their child because of their attitude.


  1. Posted March 8, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    It’s hard for me to write about this, even nearly 25 years on, but yes, yes, yes. The sudden death of my ex-husband 18 months ago made it clear how conflicted my now adult children are regarding his behaviour. Failing to force the family court round to what he thought should happen between us, he became a serial (pest) litigant in New Zealand – including trying to take a case against two government departments for the granting of a single mother’s allowance to me – against their own regulations, according to him. He even sued his own brother over the estate of their father who died in the 1960s. He somehow believed that in the courts lay The Answer to everything – even though his successes were small.

  2. Oliver Townshend
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    My wife says that the words “This is a matter of principle” are always the worst to hear. I wonder what a Lawyer’s duty is in these circumstances when the cost is high and the legal remedies non-existent?

  3. Nick Ferrett
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Oliver, the problem is that in family law it would have been impossible for a lawyer to say that there is no legal remedy for a case like this. Now that there is a decision it might be easier to give advice in that regard.

    However, on your wider question, where it is plain that there is no legal remedy for a client’s complaint, the lawyer’s duty is clear: he/she must not assist the client to pursue litigation on the point.

  4. Posted March 8, 2010 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    There is a large part of me that links this desire to have the courts run every aspect of our family lives to the atrophy of civil society more generally, which I’ve discussed elsewhere. I’m of the view that much of the vitriol around family law would be abated if people were forced to turn their minds to issues like custody and property at marriage, or early on in a defacto relationship (in the first year, say), via contract. Then the courts would only have to step in if the contract were breached, or if the law had been broken.

    Sunstein and Thaler outline how this would work in practice in Nudge (2008). I haven’t seen a better solution anywhere as yet.

  5. Oliver Townshend
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    Its sad that lawyers have to wait before there is a precedent to say “No we won’t win that one”. As a lot will have exceptions, I can see a lot of cases still coming through here.

    And it reminds me of when my Stepmother wanted me to call her Mum. Nope. Wouldn’t do it. No court order could have made me do it. My mum wanted to be called “Mother” not Mum, and I wouldn’t do that either.

  6. Posted March 9, 2010 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    It seems like an OTT action but I think parenting emotions are so muddled, and even the issues themselves are so muddled, that it’s difficult to simply say ‘that was a silly action’.

    “this lack of insight “… massive problem across family law, I think.

    I think from the Court’s perspective the decision sounds sensible- that would be a step too far for an order. That being said, however, doesn’t negate the real possibility that the move WAS done to stir up the mum, or that there are other factors of unpleasantry between the parties.

  7. Posted March 13, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Oh for Pete’s Sake! Say the court did declare ‘Ye Shall Have the Children Call You X’ How the Hell could they enforce it?

    he became a serial (pest) litigant

    Yeah I’ve seen that. Guy I knew, divorced from his wealthy wife. She used the legal system to make his life misery. It was very bitter and very sad and so was she. He had it coming. Selfish prick.

    I’d feel sorry for the kids but they were without doubt the creepiest little monsters I’d ever encountered. Funny that.

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