The Children and Families Act came into being last month and for those who were looking it seems like the presumption question has been quietly dropped over the edge of the cliff, a bit like its champion Tim Loughton who was unceremoniously ejected from this position of Children’s Minister half way through the Coalition Governmnent’s term. Whatever the intent at the outset of this government, at the end of its term, the rather pathetic looking changes which have actuallybeen brought about will change little if anything at all. The presumption of shared parenting, the reform of child maintenance, the bringing together of a new, collaborative way of supporting families after separation, akin to Maria Miller, the Minister with original responsibility for child maintenance reform’s fall from grace, there’s something a bit shamefaced about what this government has actually done in terms of change. A tweak here, a tinker there and a whole load of investment in ensuring that the circle of sychophantic charities that sit around the westminster village are ‘on message’ from the outside, even if nothing at all has changed on the inside, is about the height of its achievement. At the heart of it all, the single parent lobby continues on its merry way, convincing one and all that dads are feckless, wreckless, mad, bad and dangerous to their children whilst the father’s lobby looks like a neutron bomb has been dropped on it from a great height. What we are left with, on the surface, is business as usual. And all this from a Coalition Government supposedly supporting family life.
Underneath the surface however are some interesting stirrings, something different from the binary divisions which have ruled this field since the early seventies when the sisters of mercy of feminist doctrine came storming in to rewrite legislation and reshape the battlefield of post separation family life. I have been watching this change with a growing interest, particularly as it rises up from the recent round of battle to change the legislative structure around separated families and particularly because it mirrors change which has happened in other jurisdictions, like Australia, where legislative reform was finally pushed through in recent memory and where shared parenting became established as a cultural expectation within legislative change.
There is no doubt in my mind that the move towards an expectation that mothers and fathers will share care of children after separation will come about in the UK. Shared parenting, unlike shared care or equal care, is a concept which is based not upon the division of time in equal or near equal measures, but upon the cultural acceptance that mothers AND fathers are important in children’s lives. Bringing about a change towards greater levels of shared parenting requires examination of structural barriers to sharing parenting, such as the continued slavish adherence to the single parent model of support to families, something which the Coalition Government proclaimed it was going to change but in fact didn’t dare go near in the end. The fact that the single parent model of support is so well established (brought into being fifty years ago or so) and the fact that its supporters are massively funded, well connected and able to raise phenomenal numbers of supporters seemingly at a moment’s notice, is probably something that terrified the life out of those civil servants charged with bringing about change. Certainly in the reform of the child maintenance system, something many of you will remember I was intimately involved with, the power of the single parent lobby to oppose anything and everything that they felt would be detrimental to their membership (read women), was demonstrated several times over. From texting, emailing and writing to every member of the House of Lords, to forming coalitions with charities which were ostensibly part of the reform but actually working against it, this lobby group was relentless in its determination to protect the single parent model which relies heavily upon the stereotype of bad dads and good mums for its justification (and which leads to the continuation of all state support, both financial and otherwise being framed around one parent (usually the mother) to the exclusion of the other parent (usually the father). And it doesn’t matter how much the DWP and its Child Maintenance Options service tweaks, twists and turns it language, its delivery or the framework within which that sits, the reality is that the Help and Support for Separated Families initiative, which came out of the supposed reforms, is quite simply exactly the same single parent model of support only dressed up to make the outside world believe that its about collaboration. Its not. Its absolutely not. Just as the charities which sit around the government supposedly reformed their services to support collaborative parenting at the same time as joining together to form a coalition which eventually watered down Clause 11 (the proposed change in the Children Act 1989 promised by the Coalition Government on coming into power), HSSF promises change and delivers exactly the same as has always been delivered – support to mothers to care and fathers to provide for their children. Something so far away from Sir David Henshaw’s 2006 proposals for reform that it is difficult to see how they have any connection to it at all. Elsewhere, despite all of the Coalition Government’s promises of change, the only difference now is that charities which previously overtly supported the single parent model now covertly support it, whilst at the same time as they have hoovered up the funding (in the case of child maintenance this is around twenty millions pounds) to present their wares via shiny new websites which promise much but deliver nothing different at all.
Take One Plus One’s new invention which is being promoted by CAFCASS, the online parenting plan. Designed for use before any court action is taken, it is supposedly aimed at parents to help them make their child arrangement orders, something which has replaced the old terms of residence and contact and something which all parents are now required to consider. A quick rinse through this CAFCASS endorsed entity tells us that post separation talking to each other might be difficult, but that we should put the needs of the children first and that if we find that hard we should use mediation. Staggeringly close to the HSSF endorsements to ‘talk about things and if its difficult use mediation and here is a calculator so that you can work out how much would be paid under a statutory maintenance arrangement’, this is a pointless, spineless, circular piece of nonsense which is devoid of imagination, steeped in the same old single parent stereotypes with a dash of this government’s remedy of choice, mediation thrown in for good measure. What a waste. What an absolute waste of time, money and effort. And I say that as someone who sat on both government working groups throughout the first years of this government, giving up swathes of my time and energy only to watch it all swirl away down the proverbial pan.
Enough however of the bemoaning of the Coalition’s failure to do what it said it would do and onto the world as I have come to know it in recent months. This world, infinitely more interesting than the stultifiying air of the corridors of power, has begun to look even more interesting in recent weeks and months as from the wreckage of the pro family, pro change lobby, the stirrings of a new movement have begun to emerge. This movement, which is coalescing as I write and which promises to bring together, together rather than smash apart the energy for change (a common phenomenon in the pro father’s movement) is made of disparate groups, all of which work in different fields around the family, but which all hold in common the belief that a move from the single parent model to a whole family model of support post separation is the way forward. This movement, even more excitingly from my perspective, contains women as well as men and is not framed around ‘rights’ but around the need for a cultural and legislative change towards inclusive support for the whole family. This is the kind of movement which finally brought about change in Australia, could this be the vehicle which allows change to be brought through to fruition in the UK?
Recently I have been conversing with other women who, like me, have recognised that feminism did them no favours. These women, who I consider to be some of the most cognitively ‘sorted’ people, are like me, in their late forties and early fifties. We lived through those times when women took hold of the social policy field around the family and we experienced what it did to us. Far from liberating us, nonsensically, it tied us to the kitchen sink and made our primary identity that of caring for children, something far far removed from what the second wave feminist movement told us was our destiny. Looking back, it is so easy to see how those academics who wrote social policy in the seventies, thought they were doing us a favour. Give women total control over their children after separation and they will leave their marriages in droves, was the thinking. And that is what happened. After that however, the cul de sac of the social policy outcomes which were devised for us by those women, meant that far from sharing care of children, we were lumbered with the sole responsibility and, perversely, told that that was liberation. The liberal feminist dominance of the social policy field around family separation never really got to grips with the mess it made of women’s lives in that way and so, in my view, it was easier to expand the myth that all men are dangerous after separation (and create the kinds of domestic violence policies and practice which more or less ensured that all men were dangerous whatever they did) than to tackle the fact that women had been shoved back into the kitchen by the second wave feminist academics and their determination to put all the power over children into the hands of women after the previous centuries of it being held in its entirety by men.
Those second wave feminist academics however are getting old now and will soon be shuffling off into their twighlight years. Whilst they have managed to influence (brainwash) and educate (distort) the minds of more generations of women coming after them, they haven’t quite got the control over all of us that they would like. And this, for me, is the exciting part because those of us who escaped, with minds of our own intact, have retained not only the belief in equality that the original women’s liberation movement in the seventies held, but we have brought with us the skills, the knowledge and the drive to work collectively for change in our field. And now is the time that we an begin to put this into action, together, with men, to shape and build a new way of being in the world so that families can get the help that they need to pull through the difficult times to a better place.
The powerful part of this stirring is the understanding and belief that if change is to come we must all, collectively, become the change we want to see in the world. From fascinating discussions about different ways of building consensus, to how to develop new community models of support, this is the world that I came from many years ago, updated for the twenty first century and this time working together with men not separately from them. This energy, this focus, this belief in our absolute equality and this deep respect and value for each and the relationship between us, for me comes from the work that I did some years ago on gender equality and my understanding that fathers, in the social policy crucibles of the seventies, were quite simply rendered obsolete in an effort to put control over family life into the hands of women. When that realisation dawned, that we had, collectively bought into the mirage that the single parent model of supporting families was necessary because ALL fathers abandon their children and ALL mothers are abandoned and must therefore be supported by the state, I began a journey which I have chronicled in this blog, which ended in my removing my feminist goggles and finally finding the understanding that what we have done to fathers, in shoving them out of their children’s lives via legislation and then blaming them for not being there, was quite simply wrong. From there my compassion grew and my belief in equality, which for so long had really meant women’s rights above all else, all fell into place. Suddenly I knew why so many men fought for their children after separation, suddenly I could see that the desperate longing of father’s was not because they were somehow obsessed or unnatural men, I realised that so many dads, pushed out of their children’s lives, by legislation, by service delivery, by family court practitioners and by cultural apathy, quite simply carried on fighting because they LOVE their children. And that a father’s love for a child, just like a mother’s love, is primal and it is enduring. From there, with the jigsaw pieces finally back in the right place, the lesson that emerged, for me, was unarguable and could not be ever be dismissed. Children need their mother and their father after family separation and routinely breaking the attachment bonds between children and their beloved dads, was and is, cruelty without measure.
Cruelty which prompts fathers to do the most amazing things and endure the most intolerable pain for unimaginable lengths of time. Cruelty which is imposed by the courts, by the crashing into the post separation landscape of what is supposed to be help but which turns out to be thinly disguised single parent models of support which divide parents into good/bad, paying/receiving, deserving/underdserving, dangerous/safe, stereotypes without any regard whatsoever for the significance of these people as mum and dad in their children’s lives. Cruelty which chews up the very soul of fatherhood and spits it out at the other end in the form of court orders which impose no ‘contact’ direct or otherwise and which condemn a father with deepest love for his child, to while away his hours waiting for the time when that love can be given and received again without the interference of the state, the courts, or other people. For some its a long long wait. For others its a wait which never ends. For children its the routine stripping of their attachment bonds and the blind eye turned by too many professionals and others to the impact of that.
On Monday at 10am, some fathers who have suffered such cruelty, will set off from the Royal Courts of Justice to walk to Canterbury Cathedral. These men are, in my view, heralding a new beginning as well as showing us the enduring strength of a father’s love and the lengths to which men will go to cope with their loss and wait until their loved children can return to them. These modern day Pilgrim Fathers exemplify everything that for me is possible and necessary in this new phase of UK family separation politics, a new phase in which responsibility for creating the change we want to see lies not in lobbying remote government Ministers or negotiating with disinterested civil servants but in our own hands, the hands of men and women who have been affected by family separation and the hands of men and women who work on the front line of family change. As these Pilgrims progress on their peaceful protest to register both their existence and their survival of the worst of what family law has done to them, let us, who understand the changes that families need, walk with them, towards dignity, equality and the relationship between us and build the change that we want to see in the world. Its time to take change into our own hands, for families now and in the future.