Wednesday, 26 June 2013

When you’re a boy: disposable masculinity in the post separation family

Karen Woodall describes the cold hard reality of UK social policy which discriminates against fathers after family separation, and how it's almost impossible to do anything in the field of the family and social policy without reference to feminism. Ed

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This week I have been encountering once again the way in which men and boys are faced with the most impossible odds when they come to face the life trauma that is family separation.

I have also, once again, been spending my time digging around in the policy and practice surrounding our separated families and considering the ways in which, simply by virtue of being a man and a father, is to face serious and objective discrimination.

As part of this project I have been conversing with leading thinkers in the field of helping men and boys. In doing so I have been startled by the way in which the narrative about fatherhood after separation, has been shaped by the overpowering but erroneous reality that is portrayed by our discriminatory social policy.

Let me get this straight right from the start. There is an objective, gender biased approach to social policy surrounding the family in the UK. Fathers are, without doubt, being routinely and actively discriminated against when they face family separation. This is not about mad men making themselves out to be hard done by, or bad men manipulating reality to get revenge on women. This is cold hard reality. Social policy in the UK discriminates against fathers after family separation, whilst at the same time, making out that it doesn’t and, worse, using smoke and mirrors to point the blame at fathers for their own suffering. That’s a triple dose of delusion for separated dads to cope with, the horror of facing family separation, the lack of access to services to support them through family separation and the blame for having caused it in the first place.

An example of how separated fathers are discriminated against can be found in the scrutiny of the Children and Families Bill which is passing through Parliament right now. This bill contains the proposal to change the Children Act 1989, to incorporate a directive that children should have a relationship with both parents after separation. Not because, in the words of Edward Timpson, Minister for Children, the ‘government intended to change anything’, but because the government wanted to ‘make fathers feel that something had changed.’

The cleverly used words, repeated throughout the scrutiny of the Bill, offer an insight into the reality facing fathers. It is not that anyone is going to admit that there is discrimination written into our social policy, the often used tactic instead, is to blame fathers themselves for feeling discriminated against. To shore up this illusion, academics like Liz Trinder Joan Hunt, are used to deploy the smoke and mirrors effect. I notice that Liz has been actively submitting written evidence and Joan Hunt in fact has rushed out a piece of research to demonstrate the fact that there is absolutely no bias against fathers in the family courts, its all down to fathers’ perception of bias (again).

I am not one to be satisfied with surface thinking and I have, in recent days, been digging down into the history of our social policy around the family, to understand at a micro level how this was designed to deliver the kind of outcomes we see today.

One of the biggest issues that we face as a society is, in my view, the generational problem of fragile families and the way in which fathers are seen as disposable. As a result of my conversations this week, I was really surprised by the way that the narrative about fatherhood is not only shaped by the historical impact of our social policy, but by the men and fathers who seem to accept the implications of that history. I wanted to understand further, not only what that social policy has done to fatherhood, but what it has done to fathers perceptions of themselves as people with an essential and important role to play in the family. Because if conversations with leaders in the men and boys movement, appear to replicate the assumptions in gender biased and discriminatory social policy, what hope is there for change? Put another way, when the dominant discourse about men as fathers in 2013, is shaped by the social policy that was written by feminists in 1974, what hope do we ever have of creating a society in which fatherhood is celebrated and supported for all of the wonderful things that it brings to our children’s lives, in a way that no longer references the definition of acceptable fatherhood espoused by those women?

Lets unpick this a little bit.

There is an advert currently showing which has appealed to many fathers. This ad shows two boys having fun, the reveal being that one of the boys is actually the other’s father. The message that accompanies this advert is ‘its good to be a dad, its better to be a friend.

Whilst I absolutely ‘get’ why so many fathers are delighted to see this ad (makes a real change from mums and shopping), the message that it is perpetuating comes straight out of the feminist approach to reforming masculinity.

There was a time when fathers represented the outside world to children, they brought authority and, in healthy relationships, provided structure and security as well as continuity and consistency. In short fathers were respected and respectable, they were valued for the role that they played in their children’s lives.

During the seventies however, when, as Julie Bindel and other feminists of note have said, the family was ‘discovered to be a place of oppression, violence and abuse,’ with men and fathers being held primarily responsible for this. In the subsequent feminist analysis, that our society is governed by a ‘patriarchal system’, fathers and the family became a target for radical reform.

This notion, that our society is still inherently oppressive towards women, has been used to justify four decades of social policy around the family which is, today, objectively discriminatory against men, particularly in their role as fathers. This institutionalised acceptance of the notion that ‘patriarchy’ is somehow a compelling and universal truth, has ensured that not only were our narratives about men shaped by the feminists in the last century, they continue to be so. So much so that even those men who are engaged in trying to find equality in family life, are bewitched by it. Fatherhood is, it seems to me, all about being best mates with your children these days, its all about nurture, its all about being as close to mothering as it is possible to be. Forget the hormones, forget the neuroscience, forget the difference that masculinity brings to family life. To be an acceptable dad now, is to be your child’s friend. Not only entrenching the idea that men are boys who never quite grow up properly, but removing also the potential for anything about what makes a man different to a woman or a father different to a mother, to be celebrated.

This eradication of masculinity in all its difference, in both its positive and negative forms is, I would argue, no accident. Starting in 1973, with the change in the divorce laws, and moved on throughout the seventies by a raft of social policy reform enacted in the shadow of the newly defined ‘patriarchy’ this is a conscious and determined strategy which was encapsulated by Harriet Harman in a report for IPPR called ‘The Family Way’ in the nineties.

This report, in which Harman and her co-authors said “it cannot be assumed that men are bound to be an asset to family life or that the presence of fathers in families is necessarily a means to social cohesion”, built upon the earlier implementation of the Children Act 1989 which was introduced in 1991 with the remit to (amongst other things)

• reinforce the autonomy of families through definition of parental responsibility;

but which also contained the following;

The rule of law that a father is the natural guardian of his legitimate child is abolished”. – Children Act 1989, Part 2 (4).

Is it becoming clear yet that what happens to fathers after family separation in the UK at least, is the result of gendered policies which were put in place to address social changes occurring some forty years ago?

Or that gendered narratives of what it means to be a ‘good’ man and by association a ‘good’ father are managed not by men and fathers themselves, but by the parameters set by a feminist engineered policy framework that was developed in the seventies?

As it is 2013 now, and men are very difference creatures to what they were purported to be back then, lets, for once, step out of that historical feminist framework and look at the world of separated families through another lens.

Let’s look at the world without our assumptions, which are shaped by the messages in our social policy and practice and our beliefs about ourselves. Let us, in looking through this lens, for once not assume that the family has separated because the father in the family was violent or abusive. Let us not assume that he was having an affair or that he did not do enough, spend enough, care enough. Let us look at this family without our feminist spectacles, which are coloured by behaviours seen in men and women in 1973, and see two people in 2013, whose relationship has ended and consider what each of them might need to help them through what is such a difficult emotional time.

Let us, as we look through this lens, value, equally, the different things that mothers and fathers bring to their children’s lives. Let us consider the ways in which children benefit from relationships with each of their precious parents after separation. And now let us consider the different ways in which our mother and our father are treated in our society which is not infused with some mysterious ‘patriarchy’ but which is, instead, just a society in which men and women experience different things at different times and different influences shape their different lives.

What would we do differently if we considered each parent to be inherently valuable to their children’s well being? What would we deliver differently to support each of these people to give their children the things that are so valuable? How would we speak about these two people? How would we arbitrate between them if they could not agree on how to give their children their equal but different valuable input?

Well I would argue that in this world, through this lens, our social policy would not divide separated parents into carer and provider through a ‘gateway’ entitlement called Child Benefit which is paid primarily to mothers because of the belief that mothers always spend their money on the family, whilst fathers spend it in the pub. Instead we would support mothers and fathers to make a parenting agreement in which each would assume a portion of the care for their children and then, we would assess their financial capacity to deliver that care. A baseline assumption, about how much it costs to raise a child would be used to define how much state support, each parent would receive. An exchange of funds may become necessary under this approach to ensure that children are not dramatically better off in one household than the other.

Through this lens we would see that children are safe and secure with mothers and fathers and that there is nothing biologically determinant about care that makes mothers better at it than fathers and we would apply, across all of our determinations about post separation parenting, a safeguarding procedure that is based upon the reality of risk to children and not an assumption. In carrying this out we would use the statistical evidence that shows that mothers and fathers can be a risk and we would ensure that we understand, in each individual case, what that risk is.

Through this lens, the post separated family looks like a mother caring for her children for part of the time and a father caring for them for the rest of the time. Through this lens we would value equally the different things that children receive in this arrangement. We would also, however, recognise that children living only with one parent miss out on the experience of two parents in relationship with each other. We would, therefore, ensure that relationship support, both pre and post separation, was made available throughout the land, in ways that were easily accessible to men and women.

And finally, the world through this lens is governed, is by a children act in which the natural guardians of a child are, equally, its mother and its father.

How different does that world seem to the one that separated fathers must currently negotiate? Now, tell me again that there is no bias against fatherhood, its just that fathers think there is. Feminism. It is impossible to do anything inside or outside of the field of the family and social policy, without reference to it. Until it is recognised, named and acknowledged, as the driver of the outcomes that we have seen in the family for the past forty years, we will not be able to move on.

Every time I write about feminism on this blog there is a really big reaction. From the anti-feminists to the pro-feminists, the idea of a world without feminism is a huge talking point. I wrote recently of my recovery from feminism and my understand that this ‘ism’ had shaped my life negatively, not positively. As I continue to explore the world outside of the dominant feminist discourse, I am finding out just how powerful this ‘ism’ actually is. From the creation of a non-existent ‘patriarchy’, to the inculcation of the belief that everything personal has to be political, this belief system has shaped our social policy, our practice around the family, our support to mothers and even the very ability of fathers to conceptualize their role as men. So powerful is this driver of behavior and thought, that I have, in recent months, been accused of being unprofessional for even daring to write about it.

And yet daring to think about it as well as write about it has brought me closer than I have ever come to being able to help the families that I work with. The power of liberation from the strait jacket of the thinking that shaped our social policy in the 1970′s has done nothing but expedite my ability to understand the reality facing families and to actively work to assist them.

I was recently very privileged to meet Erin Pizzey and spend time talking with her about the work that she did in the early seventies at the outset of the liberation movement. Her views, which I realise I have increasingly come to embrace, are that second wave feminism hijacked the social policy agenda in the nineteen seventies and prevented assistance being given to both men and women during times of difficulties. And that social policy, which was designed by feminist academics and set within a framework of patriarchy, has dominated our consciousness ever since.

Fathering in the post separation family? I look back at Harman’s words and I understand that it is no accident that men struggle. I come forward to the present day and think about fathers as their childrens best friends and I see fatherhood set within the parameters of what is acceptable to women. And a narrative about masculinity which has been shaped by forty years of feminist social policy.

And all of it disposable in a world shaped by women,

When you’re a boy.

This article was first published on Karen Woodall's personal blog. Used with permission.

Written by
Karen Woodall

Karen Woodall is a family counsellor working with high conflict families and supporting both parents through and beyond separation. She writes regularly on the discrimination facing separated fathers and the need to reform legislation as well as services to meet the needs of mothers AND fathers in ways that help them to maintain strong relationships.

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