Fathers’ Day is an opportunity to remember the challenges faced by dads as the shape of the modern family keeps shifting.
The British campaign group Fathers 4 Justice hit the headlines again this week after one of its members defaced a portrait of The Queen as it hung in Westminster Abbey.
According to media reports, the father suspected of spray painting the word “help” onto the artwork has been denied contact with his two daughters in the family courts.
I was saddened by the news for two reasons. Firstly, having been through the court process myself I know just how painful this can be for all involved. I now use my experience to support fathers who are caught in lengthy court battles and have met many good dads who are being denied a role in their children’s lives on the way.
I don’t know the personal case of the dad who felt driven to such high profile vandalism to further his case, but I do understand the desperation and helplessness that can lead to such seemingly senseless acts.
I see dads who carry on fighting to be part of their children’s lives for months and years after other less resilient fathers have given up and whatever the rights and wrongs of any individual case, it’s never a happy occasion to see another dad suffering in this way.
Secondly, it’s now 10 years since Fathers 4 Justice first hit the headlines in the UK with its controversial direct action stunts which are designed to drag the media spotlight onto the shortcomings of Britain’s family courts. And yet for all the column inches the campaign has inspired, it hasn’t prevented a new generation of separated fathers being shut out of their children’s lives.
I was personally involved in the early days of this campaign and met many fathers from different backgrounds who spoke with one voice about the unfairness and discrimination they had experienced.
Detractors still say there isn’t an issue. They claim that only dangerous dads are removed from their children’s lives and the courts should be doing more to protect women and children from such men.
And it’s certainly true that men and women are capable of horrific acts of cruelty when caught up in custody battles, but this is no reason to ignore the unique experience of separated dads.
It’s only by getting under the skin of the problem that we can hope to find solutions that work for everyone and most importantly help children have the best possible relationship with both parents.
The way that most advanced economies handle separation is still largely based on the “man hunt, woman cook” model of parenting. This means that if mum and dad are separated they are placed in two distinct boxes—‘carer’ and ‘provider’.
The ‘carer’ is given ‘ownership’ of the children and then the money—in terms of joint assets and ongoing maintenance payments—follows the children. The ‘provider’ is required to provide money to the carer on an ongoing basis while the ‘carer’ is required to give the ‘provider’ access to the children at agreed times.
This system was built as a response to the rigid binary roles that most men and women in modern economies adopted in the 1940s and 1950s, but has failed to adapt to the gender transition that has taken place in family life since then.
According to the recent Pew Report, mothers are now the primary breadwinners in 40% of American families, a headline figure that masks the complexity of the shift that’s taken pace.
What hasn’t happened is a mass role reversal with 40% of men now staying at home baking bread while their partners go out making bread. The shift is certainly substantial and it’s also a highly gendered one.
Two-thirds of those breadwinner moms are lone parents, usually on low incomes, but if we want to understand what happens when parents separate, then we have to first consider what’s happening when they’re together.
According to the American sociologist, Philip N Cohen, the proportion of married families where women are the main earner has risen from 4% to 23% in the past 50 years.
If mothers are the main financial provider in nearly one in four married families then why do family courts give mums the ‘carer’ role in around 90% of custody battles?
Well, the reality is that rather than reversing roles men and women have diversified their roles. Dads, for example, are doing more childcare than ever before while still earning 81% of the family income when they are the main breadwinner.
In families where mum earns most, dad is also a breadwinner bringing home 31% of the family income on average. Meanwhile, in the minority of homes where couples still have one parent staying at home full time, the breadwinner is still dad in around 96% of cases.
The big change that has happened is that men and women have diversified their roles with over half of married couples in the US now sharing the earning role at a ratio of somewhere between 50:50 and 70:30—with most sharing childcare at different levels in the process.
And yet the proportion of couples being awarded equal custody of their children is said to be around 5% or less—and that’s where the problems arise.
The way that the majority of mums and dads build their families together is no longer binary. Yes there are still breadwinner dads and stay-at-home mums. There are also some breadwinner moms and stay-at-home-dads. But mostly, couples with kids are sharing the responsibilities of earning and caring to a greater or lesser extent that evolves over time in response to the changing needs of the children (and the adults).
Which is why a binary family court system imposed by the state simply doesn’t work. Our modern family law systems are confusingly discriminatory. They’re confusing because the letter of the law is seemingly equal and gender neutral and yet the reality is they require men and women to be boxed into a defined role—‘carer’ and ‘provider’—when most modern families consist of two ‘carer-providers’.
Divorce and separation is rarely easy for anyone involved and bringing up children alone can be an enormous challenge. There is no question, however, that there are more separated mums in the ‘carer-provider’ role than there are separated dads.
Part of the reason for this is that it is easier to create a post-separation “carer-provider” role for yourself from the state-sanctioned role of “carer” than it is to do so when the state designates you as the “provider”.
Given the binary choice between ‘carer’ or ‘provider’ when they separate, the majority of mums opt for ‘carer’ and then find a way to define their role from there. Some dads will also play this game, climb into the ‘provider’ box offered to them and find a way to make it work.
But many dads get completely confused by this system, uncertain of what role they want to play, but clear it isn’t simply the role of ‘carer’ or ‘provider’. The human messiness of separation, combined with the harsh theatre of court, simply adds to the confusion.
Once they come to terms with what’s happening, most separated dads want to be carer-providers, but they generally don’t know how to make that work either emotionally or practically.
Even if they do, the court system doesn’t offer a box called ‘carer-provider’, it offers a binary choice and as mums generally opt for the ‘carer’ role, that leaves dad with one choice—‘provider’.
The court system is not the only cause of this problem. Mums and dads rarely behave at their best when they separate and that doesn’t help with the complex challenge of working out how to share parenting with someone you no longer want to live with.
We are also part of a culture that still places a huge expectation on men and women to conform to gender roles when it comes to parenting. The Pew poll found that half of Americans think that children do better when their mum stays at home full-time, but only 8% say children are better-off with a full-time stay-at-home dad.
There is a lot of cultural and legal pressure on a separated father to be the provider, but very little understanding or support for separated dads who want to be “carer-providers”. The discrimination experienced by women wanting to break out of the “full-time mum” mould is mirrored by discrimination against dads who want to be more than just a full-time breadwinner.
Some will see a disenfranchised dad daubing the word “help” on the portrait of the Queen as a clear demonstration that he isn’t a fit father and conclude it is no wonder he isn’t allowed to see his kids.
There were people who said similar things when the Suffragettes marched down Oxford Street in London smashing shop windows. The fact that they resorted to such acts, said their critics, was more proof that women weren’t fit to vote.
You may think that a dad vandalizing a painting or a Suffragette smashing a shop window is an unforgivable criminal act or you may think it is a justified action in the fight for sex equality.
Either way, history records that in the binary laws defining who can and can’t vote, men and women are now equal. Fathers’ rights campaigners want a similar black and white law that says all biological parents can be involved their children’s lives, with the exception of mums and dads who are a proven risk.
The lesson of the Suffragettes is that there is a massive gap between an equal right to vote and equal participation in politics. Similarly, there is a huge gap between an equal right to be an involved parent and being equally involved in your children’ lives.
As we celebrate Fathers’ Day and take time to consider our relationship with our own fathers, it’s also worth considering the many different challenges men face as parents and asking ourselves what actions we can take to help all children have the best possible relationship with their dads.
Happy Fathers’ Day!
Read more on Father’s Day.
—Photo credit: Flickr/fjfungo