Many people experience the difficulties of caring for their children on their own after divorce, separation or bereavement. Jeff Brazier who finds himself the full time carer for his sons, after the death of his ex Jade Goody, faces these difficulties after separating from her before she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Over the weeks that Brazier found himself in the spotlight with his sons, as their mother fought a very public battle to stay alive, his presence reminded us that the boys had another parent, someone who would be there for them when their mother had gone.
Already separated before the diagnosis, it appears that Goody and Brazier were able to agree without much difficulty that the children would continue to live with their father after her death. Despite some noises about the boys having time with their grandma and their mum’s new husband, the clear message that comes through is that their dad is the person who will be there for them as they grow up. Pictures of dad with the two boys, at the wedding, in the days before their mum’s death, show Brazier’s calm and reassuring approach to caring for his boys. Whatever the opinion of the media circus around Goody’s life and death, it is clear that this dad really cares about the best interests of his sons.
This month the government has launched its ‘Think Fathers‘ campaign, calling for Think Fathers Champions to ‘help to make our world a more dad friendly place,’ In our public services, where dads involvement with children is often a topic for concern, perhaps its time to think about why the world is so unfriendly to dads in the first place.
Later this year the Department for Children Schools and Families will hold a ‘Think Fathers’ summit to encourage public services, professionals and the voluntary sector to look distinctively at fathers – not just generically at parents. The upbeat marketing message around the launch of the Think Fathers campaign would suggest that a positive attitude towards father involvement with children is being encouraged. Lets hope so because its long overdue. There are still too many people working in our family services for whom discussions about dad means starting with the dangers and the difficulties of fathers relationships with their children instead of looking at the positives.
Father’s involvement has been shown in study after study, to improve the outcomes for children. For children affected by family separation, as Goody’s two sons are, the outcomes for children improve massively if they are able to continue a close relationship with their father. Interestingly, it is the quality of the relationship between mother and father after separation that is the deciding factor on whether children get to stay close to their dad.
So what does the government’s Think Fathers campaign need to do for separated dads, if it is to bring about the changes that it seeks and make the world a separated father friendly place? Well it could start by looking at the way in which being dad is still very much under the scrutiny of women in our society. Despite widespread involvement by dads in their children’s lives, their ability to provide care is still under question, still measured against the care given by mothers. Whilst many dads are as hands on as it’s possible to be, many are still afraid to ask when they need help for fear being judged inadequate.
The problem is that our society still views dads as the second best parent, useful to support mum, but no substitute for her. These attitudes go way back in time to the days when dads were seen as the link between the home and the outside world for children, whilst mum was the natural carer and nurturer. Although things are changing, many family services in the UK are delivered by people (mainly women) who still hold these beliefs, not because they are necessarily anti-father, but because they have never really had to question them. Ask your nearest social worker if they had to choose between mum and dad, which one would make the best carer for a 6 month old baby. The answer is almost always, unhesitatingly, mum. Ask why and the answer is usually down to biology.
But the ability to care for children is not biological. Research shows that all sorts of people are capable of providing the one to one care that young children need and they don’t necessarily have to be related to a child either. Dads are just as capable as mum of giving their children the close, nurturing, unconditional positive regard that they need, but too many people working in family services are aware of this in theory, whilst resisting it in practice.
It is when parents part that unfriendly attitudes to dads are most evident. When parents are caring for children together, dad is considered to be safe, the presence of mum reassures us because she will compensate for any inadequacies we perceive in dads ability to care. When families separate however it is an entirely different matter and it is often at this point that dads face the most hostile attitudes in our society.
Although separated mums and dads share similar experiences at the end of their relationship, they have very different access to support afterwards. Whilst separated mums are able to access a wealth of sympathy and understanding, from friends, family and services set up to support them, dads are left to pick up the pieces largely alone. Where dads are able to access support, the assumption that children are better off with their mum often comes into play. Even where dads are sharing care there is often a question mark over this with many people judging him to have forced the children into a situation that is not good for them. Trying to be a separated dad who is involved in his children’s lives through ongoing caring responsibilities can be a hazardous occupation.
The most invidious attitudes though are those that further the notion that what one separated father does is what every father is likely to do. Whenever a tragic story hits the headlines about a dad who has abducted his children or worse, another wave of anxiety about fathers involvement with children gets in the way of progress towards a more father friendly society. Commentators in the media don’t help either, Polly Toynbee obviously hit a nerve when she proclaimed that ‘there are some good fathers out there, just not enough to go around.’ But just because its currently acceptable to make public generalisations about dads, doesn’t make it right. Perhaps there are not enough dads who are good enough to meet the criteria of Polly and her followers, but dads who are attempting to cope after family separation have enough to deal with without having to face the outspoken assumptions that all separated dads are reckless, feckless or dangerous to children.
Developing support for dads is an urgent task in the mother dominated world of maternity services, schools and childcare. Developing support for separated dads is even more urgent because dads who are trying to stay involved with their children face a whole range of barriers to doing so, not least the opinion that their proper role after separation is to simply pay maintenance. But support for separated dads must be delivered by people who understand their experience and the pressures that they face. Support for separated dads means looking beyond the stereotypes, seeing the potential for children and recognising the opportunity that sharing care of children after separation brings for mothers. If we are going to make the world a more separated father friendly place, we must collectively excavate our deeply held beliefs about fathers and be prepared to change. Only when we are able to start from the place where dads are acknowledged as valuable, equally as valuable as mothers in children’s lives, will we be able to transform their experience and help them to engage fully with their children after family separation.
Jeff Brazier now finds himself fully engaged as a full time dad to his two boys, an unusual situation for separated dads, particularly those who have separated before the death of their children’s mother. In many cases, negative assumptions would have prevented a dad in these circumstances from being able to assume his role of main carer. Jade Goody was able to see through those negative assumptions though and recognise that her children’s father was neither a danger nor a substitute for her mothering, but the other person in her children’s lives who can provide continuity and certainty. The government’s Think Father’s campaign will do well if it can encourage people to follow her example.