Having picked up my bloggers pen again it seems I cannot put it down. Maybe its the fact that writing about it helps me to sleep at night or perhaps it is that when I am writing, I am not arguing and falling out with people (there’s been a lot of that in my working life recently). Whichever it is, here I am again, pondering on the political, musing on the miserable and generally trying to understand what barriers we face to building a better, more collaborative world for our children to grow up in.
This week I have been assisted in my thinking by the arrival of a DWP commissioned report called Collaborative Parenting; Barriers Faced by Separated Fathers. Commissioned by the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, this report seeks to inform the co-ordination of new services for separated and separating parents. On receiving the report my hopes rose as I felt that here might be the research that gives fathers a voice, particularly those fathers whose voices have most often been heard coming from inside a batman suit or spiderman costume. Confusingly however, the research was undertaken ‘in particular with disadvantaged and Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) fathers, the reason given being that these dads are less likely to access services. I started to feel a bit anxious at this point, when the title of a report is Barriers faced by separated fathers, one is lead to believe that finally, the barriers to fatherhood are being recognised. To find that this is qualified by an examination of a specific group because they are ‘less likely to access services‘ leads one to fear what is coming next. I was right to brace myself.
The aim of the study was to
‘study how separated and separating fathers could be positively influenced to work together with the other parent in the best interest of their child and to access support services where possible.’
which says it all really. Rather than examining the external barriers to collaboration, the legislation, the enactment of the legislation, the cultural and environmental impacts and the behaviour of the mother of the children a father is to be ‘positively influenced into collaborating with’, this report instead tells us that it is the father and his inherent self that is to be examined. For it is he, and his failure to access services which causes the barrier to collaboration.
I was so disappointed in this report, which came so near and yet remains so far away from the reality of what happens when parents separate.
Yes fathers are less likely to access services, some with good reason – (who wants to telephone a helpline only to be told ‘we can’t help you, you are not the primary parent?’ Source – Mystery Shopping for CSF in 2010),
or be told, ‘why do you want to share care, is it because you are trying to avoid your child maintenance payments’. source – Mystery shopping for CSF in 2011.
Both organisations that were telephoned in our annual mystery shopping tests, turned away fathers who were sharing care of their children, whilst the second one compounded the issue by asking questions which left our shopper feeling judged and discriminated against.
The report doesn’t tell us anything new. Frontline services are all configured around and driven towards mothers and are delivered in ways that make it easy for mothers to access them. Services do no acknowledge masculinity, men feel uncomfortable asking for help, feelings of low mood, unhappiness, all of which are compounded by the feeling that the only role a father has after separation is to pay for his children.
The study concludes that
‘separated fathers in challenging circumstances feel there are a number of barriers to them being able to effectively engage in a relationship with their child and their child’s mother.’
I would reframe that and say that separated fathers find themselves in challenging circumstances simply because they are separated fathers. These challenging circumstances are less to do with their being able to effectively engage in a relationship with their child and more to do with the fact that at each and every step of the post separation journey, fathers are asked to jump barriers to that effective engagement. This is not just a problem for disadvantaged dads and BME fathers, this is a problem for every separated father who would like to remain more than just a cash point to his kids.
Having had a thorough dose of conflict recently, I have begun to learn that battering the door to perception down, is less to do with how much effort one puts into to forcing people to listen to one’s opinion and more to do with showing people how one’s opinion is translated into reality.
For that reason I have been trying to find ways of showing people how things can be done differently and how those external barriers to fatherhood can be overcome simply by developing a different way of working with families.
At the Centre for Separated Families, we have been working with separated parents and their children for over a decade. In that time we have developed and delivered a wide range of services that support parents to work together. We chose this way of working when we realised that the law of this land around family separation, is designed to make sure that mothers care for children and fathers provide for them. We analysed layer upon layer of legislation and the way it is enacted, studying historical design of Family Allowance (Child Benefit) and the way in which this acts as a gateway to ensure that mothers care and fathers provide for children. In that decade or more of study, I have grown tired of saying that unless we change that central tenet, nothing else will change and so we took up our tools and built our own support services for mums and dads, in ways that meet their real needs and not the needs that other people tell them that they have.
Our services across the country are delivered in partnership with other organisations who also understand the need to bypass the gendered legislation that says mothers should care and fathers should provide. This has enabled us to begin a wide scale process of demonstrating change. In 2011, Maria Miller, the then Minister responsible for reform of the Child Maintenance System, visited our Isle of Wight Project and we were able to show her, how it is possible, by working together with other people who understand the needs of separated families, to bring about a different outcome, for parents and their children.
The point of this tale is that when you understand the barriers to mothers and fathers collaborating, it is but a short step away from helping them to do so. As the government moves to developing co-ordinated services to help parents to collaborate, the biggest lesson to learn is that the families we work with are no different in their needs, aspirations, hopes and dreams to every other family in the land. Parents on the whole, want to work together for the sake of their children, they just find it hard to achieve that when the barriers in the outside world are set so high. They also find it hard when they are continuously being confronted with the division into a caring parent and a providing parent. I have said before, mothers and fathers do not wake up on the morning of their separation tattooed with Parent With Care and Non Resident Parent across their foreheads. We put those labels on them, we put the barriers to their collaboration in their way and we design the legislation that raises those barriers ever higher. If we want parents to collaborate, we would do well to take responsibility for that before we start locating the problem in the parents themselves.
Working with separating parents in ways that promote and support collaboration between them is not difficult. It can be tiring and frustrating at times but it is not difficult. Acknowledging to a father that he faces the barriers of financial disadvantage, housing problems, cultural expectation that he will provide rather than care for his children and helping him to work out what, within that set of disadvantages he can and cannot change is a far cry from telling dads that all they need to do is seek help and their collaborative potential will be improved. Dads are often angry when they reach services and often justifiably so. Telling a dad who has jumped over barriers so high he is exhausted, that he needs to be ‘positively influenced’ to collaborate will simply compound his anger and his frustration not help it.
The barriers to collaboration lie outside of fatherhood and outside of motherhood too because many mothers also find it deeply frustrating to have to contend with the label primary carer. Within the separation journey are so many pot holes and so many barriers that I sometimes wonder how anyone, anywhere at anytime ever manages to achieve a working collaborative arrangement after separation. But they do.
Mothers and fathers of all socio-economic groups achieve collaborative and private arrangements after separation, some of whom continue into grandparenthood in their collaborative and interdependent post separation relationships. It is not the case either that only middle class parents collaborate, we have worked across all groups of families and seen collaborative agreements at work. The features of these are interesting and the work of the Centre for Separated Families is framed upon them. Where collaboration works, parents have dealt with the ending of their adult relationship, have overcome the grief and loss and sadness and have continued to see the value of their children having two parents. In these families words like ‘access/contact/parent with care/non resident parent/all the other labels we like to stick on separated parents’ do not exist. To the very last one, in these families the names are mum and dad and the children grow up knowing that they are loved by each.
To get to this place, many families go through rocky times, made rockier by the legislation and services that raise barriers higher and higher until exhaustion sets in. Those barriers were built by someone and are kept in place by others, they lie outside of parents and, whilst they influence parental behaviour, it is not parents themselves who need to change, it is the architecture around them that must do so.
I have always said it, if we removed the rights based attitudes that fan the flames of entitlement and conflict tomorrow and replaced them with something that offered genuine care and understanding for the hell that is family separation, we would do a whole lot more families a very big favour.
There is a definite shift in policy towards supporting and promoting collaboration between parents after separation and after more than a decade I am relieved that this particular tide is turning and positive change may be possible (calibrating that hope against the kind of reports that I have been reading these past two weeks). Whilst I ricochet between hope and despair as I negotiate this turning tide, I am heartened in my efforts by the work of some very special people in this country, all of whom are determinedly building the future that they want to see in the world. Behind the scenes of the anger and frustration, I can see that there are people at work who like me, have realised that the way to a different world is showing not telling and, whilst I cannot promise to stop telling (as if), I shall be concentrating much harder upon showing in the months to come.