On Sunday The Observer ran a couple of pieces on the subject of fatherhood. I’m not sure whether this was to mark some occasion linked to the subject of fatherhood (it always seems to be national-something-or-other-day) but whatever, the pieces did highlight a couple of myths around the subject, and brought to mind another.
The first piece told us that the right-wing think tank the Centre for Social Justice has warned that Britain is facing a “crisis of fatherlessness”, in which almost half of all children born today will not be living with both parents by the time they are fifteen. The CSJ’s Chief Executive Andy Cook summed up the argument as follows:
“Over the last 40 years, the meteoric rise in family breakdown has blighted the lives of the poorest children the most. The relationship children have with their father affects their self-esteem, how well they do at school, even whether they are able to form happy, long-lasting relationships as adults.”
The article goes on to tell us how Cook proposes to deal with this ‘crisis’ by encouraging “a societal shift in perspective from regarding fathers as a dispensable extra to recognising their value as a crucial pillar in a child’s life”. Whatever, there is of course a complete myth at the heart of this argument: that there was some ‘golden past’ before “the meteoric rise in family breakdown” in the last 40 years. Really? I was there then, and I don’t remember it.
For a start, the trap the CSJ is falling into is the same one that so many so-called believers in ‘family values’ have fallen into: that the increase in marriage breakdown over those forty years was solely down to the divorce reforms of the late 1960s, which made divorce easier and thereby destroyed families. Of course, a simple change in the law does not cause marriages to break down. Those marriages broke down of themselves. The only difference is that after the divorce reforms unhappy couples were able to dissolve their marriages, rather than being forced to stay shackled to one another.
But more than that I don’t really buy into the idea that more families break down now than before. Why should there be any significant difference in how well couples get along in one time compared to another? The only difference, apart from the law, is the cultural pressure to remain together, backed up (or caused) by the stigma attached to separation and, in particular, to single-parenthood. Again, that pressure merely forced people to stay together. It did not make the relationships better. I for one welcome the passing of the stigma of single-parenthood – surely, children are more likely to thrive if their parents are able to get on with their lives, rather than being trapped in unhappy relationships?
The myth, though, in this ‘golden past’ argument is that back in those rose-tinted days fathers played a greater role in their children’s upbringing. They did not. I grew up in a world where parenting was almost the exclusive preserve of mothers, and fathers only played a peripheral role. For example, despite having three children my father never changed a nappy in his life, and I doubt that many of his contemporaries did either. How times had changed by the time I became a father. OK, I realise that the example of nappy changing is a bit facetious, but you get the point: there was no golden age when fathers were central to their children’s upbringing, and for many children forty-odd years ago their fathers were hardly more than a stranger.
Moving on to the other piece, I can deal with the myth quite shortly. The piece is an editorial entitled ‘The Observer view on fatherhood’. It argues that the importance of fatherhood has been neglected by society and that this should change. One of the ways that fatherhood, or at least ‘parental responsibility’, has been neglected, it says, is that: “Non-resident fathers were not obliged to contribute financially until as late as 1991.” What? The year reference is to the Child Support Act 1991 (the child support scheme actually began in 1993), but the suggestion is that before that fathers did not have to pay maintenance for their children. This is completely wrong. Of course they did, just through the courts, rather than the Child Support Agency – I recall obtaining dozens of child maintenance orders myself, prior to the advent of the agency. Quite where this myth emanated from I don’t know, but a paper like The Observer really should know better.
And the final myth is one that all of this fatherhood talk brought to mind. It is this: that for separated fathers courts and lawyers are the enemy, preventing them from retaining a relationship with their children. I find this particularly ironic, given that every day courts and lawyers do entirely the opposite, working hard to ensure that father/child relationships are maintained. If a father is denied contact with his child by the mother, where does he go? To the court. And the court will do everything it can to ensure that contact does take place, unless it is one of those relatively rare cases when it is not in the interests of the child. As for the lawyers, those acting for the father will do all they can on his behalf, as I did many times myself, and even those lawyers acting for recalcitrant mothers recognise they have a duty to consider the child’s welfare at all times. In short, courts and lawyers are the friend of fatherhood, not the enemy.
And so am I. I welcome the fact that nowadays most fathers play a far greater role in the upbringing of their children than they did in times past. I also welcome that fathers are expected to maintain their children (not that anything has changed here) and I welcome the continuing efforts of courts and lawyers to ensure that children continue to enjoy relationships with their fathers.