Official attitudes towards non-custodial fathers are several decades out of   date, leaving them effectively cast out of society, writes Neil Lyndon 

‘No matter how devoted he may be, a father who does not live with his children will
almost certainly find it impossible to be recognised as an equal parent’ Photo: Alamy

8:03AM GMT 12 Dec 2014

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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.