I have spent the last few months or so looking at the wide variety of self-help and support organisations and groups that exist to help parents when experiencing family breakdown. For the last 7 years my work has been, and continues to be advising people on all aspects of family law, but mostly parents who are faced with issues relating to arrangements for their children, – that’s both mothers and fathers. My approach is simple; treat each person as an individual regardless of gender, regardless of whether they are the resident parent or not, and to tailor my advice according the emotional needs of the client – it’s both counselling and factual legal advice. I promote non-adversarial methods and encourage parents to use mediation services, use parenting agreements, and above all, keep everything focused on their children.
The main issue I found while looking at the various groups who support parents is that the vast majority of them are only offering support and help to one gender or the other – only Wikivorce really has an all-inclusive membership, and equal numbers of men and women members (and contributors) . While some groups do claim to open their doors to both mothers and fathers, it’s very clear that the main focus is on either mums or dads but not both.
The Fathers’ Rights lobby is NOT child-centric, it focuses on something that has never actually existed, and doesn’t exist for mothers either on the whole. For years, the disenfranchised fathers have been fed straw-man arguments; that mothers have rights and fathers don’t, that courts hate fathers, that mothers are wicked, evil people who will harm their children, and that ALL legal professionals are dirty money-grabbing self-interested crooks. The initial anger that fathers feel when they have been through the family justice system is harnessed and exploited – and the fathers wear that anger like a medal of honour, and are encouraged to do so. However, that anger is not healthy after a while; and when fathers are only (on the whole) conversing, discussing and socialising with other disenfranchised fathers, that anger breeds like bacteria. They live in a goldfish bowl world, where everything and everyone around them has been damaged by their own experiences in the Family Justice system, and they are prevented from moving beyond that goldfish bowl world. It is a very sorry and desperate state of affairs. I get my fair share of father’s rights flag-waving dads ranting at me down the phone. I explain that banging on about fathers’ rights is not child-focused and will only harm their own case. I have been called all sorts over the years, and have had a number of threats made; but mostly, I have helped Dads with their cases, and helped them to move forwards to a child-focused solution.
The self-help/support groups and organisations for mothers usually have a feminist structure to them, and help with the promotion of Domestic Violence programmes, that men are the enemy and are violent, nasty, abusive, manipulative and exploitative. One such website gives the very distinct impression that all women are victims of DV, that they will be free to live when they aren’t in a relationship and that fathers are not capable of looking after children. That isn’t empowering women, that is trapping them as victims.
Other than the issue of support, and the perpetuating of negative emotions and unhealthy, unbalanced perspectives, the other obstacle to progress is that certain issues are perceived as women-only or men-only issues, and that perception is encouraged by the single-gender organisations – i.e., Women’s Aid have become the “go-to” organisation for information and stats on DV – despite their stance that only women are victims and only men are perpetrators. Fathers4Justice are still the go-to group for quotes and information about fathers going through family breakup, despite the fact that their own stats are hopelessly out of date (since their researcher left in 2012, they have struggled to maintain any kind of credible statistics). While organisations like Women’s Aid have captured DV as being a women-only issue, the fathers’ rights’ groups (and there are many, fragmented groups) have captured shared parenting as a fathers-rights issue. That is part of the reason why there will not be a legal presumption of shared parenting for many years to come; because the politicians do not want the fathers rights groups to claim victory. Groups like F4J have done far more damage to the cause for shared parenting over the last 3 years than they would care to admit. Shared parenting is now a dead duck sinking slowly to the bottom of the murky pond. Change will never come about by Dads climbing on buildings or harassing professionals, change will only come about via a shift in societal attitudes – with more and more parents using parenting plans and avoiding courts, with more parents making their own arrangements for child maintenance and not using the CMS- in short, empowering parents to be parents, to give them the tools and support they need to be parents and jointly make the decisions about their children.
There are very few issues in family breakdown that are gender-specific; the only two I can think of are paternity fraud and parental responsibility for unmarried fathers. Everything else – be it false allegations, domestic abuse, parental alienation, homelessness, debt, being unable to access funds, depression and other mental health issues, the threat of the former spouse/partner absconding with the children, to name just a few – are all experienced by both men and women. Those issues don’t respect gender, social status or age, and no-one should pretend that these issues only affect one gender.
When mothers and fathers are divided into these two separate gender camps, they can end up with a rather warped view of their own situation; there is little to no balance offered, no differing perspective, no real understanding of why their former spouse or partner may be acting in a particular way. When an organisation has an all-inclusive membership, which is gender-neutral, and includes those affected by family break-up indirectly as well as directly, it enables contributors and members to give a wide range of views, thoughts, shared experiences and perspectives. Often it is it hearing differing or opposing perspectives and thoughts that can make a real difference to how an individual understands and deals with their own situation. Being part of a balanced and gender-neutral environment aids the understanding, and offers a holistic approach to emotional healing and recovery.
Lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found?
The same old fears.