Official attitudes towards non-custodial fathers are several decades out of date, leaving them effectively cast out of society, writes Neil Lyndon
Fathers who aren’t living with their children just don’t count. That’s not a rhetorical exaggeration. It’s an official matter of fact.
On the website for Gingerbread – the single parents’ organisation – a page of statistics, based on government data, aims “to tackle the stigma around single parents by dispelling myths and labels.” The first fact itemised there is:
Just over a quarter (26 per cent) of households with dependent children are single parent families, and there are two million single parents in Britain today.
Gingerbread acknowledge, however, that the only parents they have included in that two million figure are “those with residential care” – which mostly means mothers. About 90% of the children of single parents live for the greater part of the time with their mothers.
Why doesn’t Gingerbread count the single parents with whom the children are not living? Since every child must have a mother and a father, it would seem to follow, obviously, that there are not two but four million “single parents in Britain today”.
Tackled with these questions, a Gingerbread spokesperson said she believed the organisation was following “the government definition” of a single parent. From which we gather that the Government itself appears to have determined that a non-residential father should not figure in the official reckoning.
Such unquestioned presumptions underlie the general attitude towards single-parent families that permeates our age – in which nearly half of all marriages fail and more than 50% of babies are born outside marriage: we act as if only one parent is entitled to be viewed as “the single parent”. No matter how loving and devoted he may be or want to be, a father who does not live with his children will almost certainly find it impossible to be recognised as an equal parent and may have to battle to get information from, for instance, schools or doctors’ practices.
A complex, thoughtful article by Ruth Graham in the Boston Globe recently dug deep questions into this ethos.
Showing that the present official set-up and our social attitudes date from 40 years ago – when most mothers stayed at home all the time and most men went out to work – Graham argues that “the system needs an update, not only to be fair to adults but to avoid hurting the children whose interests it is supposed to serve”. Fathers who aren’t living with their children are, she says, “overwhelmingly the target of the current system’s narrow focus on collection and enforcement”.
In America, she writes, almost a third of all children of single parents are in households below the poverty line and their fathers, too, are poor. They simply cannot afford the child support which is the only contribution to their children’s lives required of them by the system.
Those observations are reinforced by Kathryn Edin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who has spent years researching the ways poor American men deal with with being unmarried parents. “Child support,” she says, “is a remnant of the days when we used to think that dads didn’t matter. With our right hand we’ve pushed these men away; we’ve said, ‘You’re worthless.’ With our left hand we’re picking his pocket….That’s how it feels to him.”
The mould for our present attitudes and practices in this country was set in the early 1990s when, as Conservative Minister of State at the Home Office, John Patten, set up the Child Support Agency with the explicitly avowed intention of pursuing and punishing errant, absent “deadbeat dads” who didn’t pay up to support their kids.
I wrote in a national newspaper at that time suggesting that non-custodial fathers might be more likely to take an active interest in their children if they were allowed equal rights as parents in family law and if they were accorded recognition, respect and honour in our society at large.
The stoniness of the ground on which those counsels fell was laid bare in a meeting in the 1990s between representatives of Families Need Fathers and the then Labour Minister of State at the Home Office, Paul Boateng. Mr Boateng effectively threw the FNF people out of his office with the reproof (as it was reported to me): “I don’t want to hear a word about any disadvantages for fathers until every inequality for women has been eradicated.”
That aggressively self-righteous but one-eyed outlook was the view that everybody shared; but, from its lofty moral peak, it made us blind to the disadvantages our age inflicts on single mothers. In my 1992 book No More Sex War (now republished in full in a collection called Sexual Impolitics), I argued that the exclusion of fathers from equal rights of parenthood placed an intolerable burden on women who were expected both to work and to be the sole, full-time parent. Cosmopolitan may have applauded that condition for women as “having it all”. To me, it looked more like the most impoverished and painful of all possible set-ups for mother, father and children.
The Boston Globe now echoes that line, criticising “the formal system [which] assumes that the custodial parent is the only one with real authority.”
Kathryn Edin says, “If we give in to the notion that the mom ‘owns’ the child, if that’s the default position, then the mom is also responsible for the child. So then Moms just end up holding the bag for everything, and men are cast out of society. That is a very bad deal for women.”
Gingerbread, please note.